Reporters Without Borders voiced "great concern" today that, although general elections are due in exactly two months (on 15 May), two journalists with the Oromo-language service of the state-owned Ethiopian Television (ETV), Shiferraw Insermu and Dhabassa Wakjira, continue to be subjected to prolonged detention on suspicion of links with an Oromo separatist group.
"As Ethiopians get ready to vote, two journalists continue to languish in a prison where cases of torture and mistreatment are regularly reported by international organizations," Reporters Without Borders said.
"Ethiopia is violating the African Charter on Human and Peoples’ Rights just a few kilometres away from the Addis Ababa headquarters of the African Union," the press freedom organization continued. "Whatever the charges against them, these two journalists have rights, and these have been clearly flouted by authorities who have defied the decisions of the federal high court. Insermu and Wakjira should have been released immediately under Ethiopian law.
Reporters Without Borders added: "The circumstances in which they were thrown in prison leads us to suspect that there is absolutely no basis for the charge of terrorism that has been brought against them."
Insermu and Wakjira were initially arrested at home in Addis Ababa on 22 April 2004. The federal high court ordered their release on bail on 9 August but only Insermu was freed. He was re-arrested eight days later and released again on the federal high court’s orders in mid-October. As ETV refused to rehire him, he was seeking work as a journalist elsewhere when he was arrested for the third time on 11 January.
Wakjira has meanwhile been held without interruption for nearly a year as the prison authorities ignored the various court orders to free him. According to the information obtained in Addis Ababa by Reporters Without Borders, both journalists were taken before a court on 2 March but the hearing was postponed. They are both currently held in the main Addis Ababa prison, known as Kerchiele.
According to our information, they are charged under articles 32, 252 and 522 of the criminal code with passing government information to the leadership of the Oromo Liberation Front (OLF), planning attacks, criminal association of a terrorist nature and raising funds with a view to carrying out acts of terrorism. Insermu, in particular, is accused of sending government information to the OLF’s radio station Sagalee Bilisummaa Oromoo (the Voice of Oromo Liberation - SBO) "by e-mail or other means."
A former colleague now living in exile said Insermu and Wakjira were detained along with other Oromo employees of ETV who have since been released. Their arrests followed the broadcasting of a report about the use of violence by police to disperse an Oromo student demonstration on the Addis Ababa university campus on 4 January. The police arrested many demonstrators, especially members of the Macha Tulema social aid group who were protesting against the government’s decision to move Oromo regional bodies from Addis Ababa (called Finfinne by the Oromos) to Adama (also known as Nazret), 100 km east of the capital.
Founded in 1974, the OLF is an armed movement that is opposed to Amhara and Tigrean dominance in Ethiopia and proposes that the Oromos of southern Ethiopia should form a separate country together with the Oromos of northern Kenya. The OLF is back by Eritrea, the former Ethiopian province where a guerrilla coalition waged an independence war against Addis Ababa from 1962 to 1991. Following Eritrean independence in 1993, the two countries fought a deadly territorial war from 1998 to 2000.
Oromo community organizations and Oromo state employees are often the targets of government repression on the accusation of being OLF spies. The human rights report issued on 28 February by the US State Department, which has in the past tended to favour Ethiopia, was very critical of human rights violations "especially against persons suspected of being OLF members."
The difficulties encountered by Reporters Without Borders in obtaining information in Ethiopia about these two journalists indicate how sensitive the issue had become. After cross-checking, the organization has established that at least 12 Oromo journalists have fled to neighbouring countries since the start of 2004 to escape the repression in Ethiopia.
Garuma Bekele, the managing editor of the weekly Urji, Tesfaye Deressa, its editor, and Solomon Nemera, one of its reporters, spent nearly four years in prison, from 1997 to 2001, for allegedly "participating in terrorist activities" and "publishing inaccurate news." They had simply raised questions about an official statement that three men killed by the security forces were OLF members.