CAPE TOWN, South Africa (AP) — Ethiopia is being urged to uphold its international commitments to freedom of speech and the press by releasing imprisoned journalists.
Two US congressional lawmakers – Representatives Adam Schiff of California and Mary Gay Scanlon of Pennsylvania – have joined press freedom advocates in calling for the immediate release of journalist Amir Aman Kiyaro, who has been detained for four months without charge.
Kiyaro’s continued detention is set to be reviewed by the court on Tuesday, when the state will have to formally charge him or release him, according to the judge handling the case.
Ethiopia, which has adopted the UN’s Universal Declaration of Human Rights and as a member of the African Union, should be forced to release Kiyaro and other journalists, according to Schiff and Scanlon.
Kiyaro, 30, an Associated Press-accredited video journalist, was arrested Nov. 28 in the Ethiopian capital, Addis Ababa, under a war-related state of emergency. The state of emergency was lifted in February as the government cited changing conditions in the deadly conflict between Ethiopian forces and those in the northern Tigray region. The Ethiopian government last week declared a “humanitarian truce” in the war-torn Tigray region.
Ethiopian state media, citing federal police, said Kiyaro is accused of “serving the purposes” of what they call a terrorist group by interviewing its officials. Local journalist Thomas Engida was arrested at the same time and faces similar charges.
Federal Police Inspector Tesfaye Olani told state media that the journalists had violated Ethiopia’s state of emergency law and anti-terrorism law, and that such violations could result in penalties of seven to 15 years behind bars.
However, the United Nations Human Rights Committee, when interpreting the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, which Ethiopia has ratified, has expressly stated that journalists should not be imprisoned for interviewing. a member of a group classified as a terrorist.
“The media play a crucial role in informing the public about acts of terrorism and their ability to operate should not be unduly restricted,” the committee’s decision states further explaining the scope of the relevant section of the covenant in paragraph 46 on freedom of press.
“Journalists should not be penalized for carrying out their legitimate activities,” he said.
The African Union and its African Commission on Human and Peoples’ Rights have similar provisions that oblige member states to respect freedom of the press.
To encourage judicial decisions that uphold these commitments to freedom of expression and of the press, UNESCO has an initiative to educate judges on these issues and legal precedents. More than 23,000 judges from 150 countries, including Ethiopia, have participated in the training program, according to Guilherme Canela, head of UNESCO’s section on freedom of expression and safety of journalists.
Ethiopia should honor its international commitments by releasing Kiyaro, Schiff said.
“Kiyaro was unjustly detained in Ethiopia. … Clearly his only offense is his work as a freelance journalist covering the conflict in Tigray – and exposing the unvarnished truth to the Ethiopian people,” said the California Democrat, chairman of the House Committee on Intelligence.
“Journalists like Amir risk their lives and livelihoods to bring us the news, and we cannot sit idly by as their freedoms are threatened,” he said. “Because an attack on the free press anywhere is an attack on democracy everywhere. Ethiopia must release Amir Aman Kiyaro.
Scanlon also called for Kiyaro’s release.
“A free press is essential in any civil society…As conflicts unfold in many corners of the globe, it is more important than ever that the freedom of journalists be protected around the world,” said the Democrat of Pennsylvania in a statement.
“I am concerned that Amir Aman Kiyaro continues to be detained in Ethiopia without charge,” she said. “This continued and unjust detention appears to violate international standards on freedom of expression, which the Ethiopian government has accepted as a signatory to several international treaties. I will continue to follow this important case with my congressional colleagues and hope that the courts will act quickly to release Amir.
More than a dozen Ethiopian journalists and the Committee to Protect Journalists have called for the journalist’s immediate release, and his supporters have launched a social media campaign: #FreeAmirAmanKiyaro.
“We urge the Ethiopian government to release Amir immediately and end his unjust detention,” AP editor Julie Pace said earlier this month. “It is clear that he is being targeted for his independent journalism.”
The imprisonment of Kiyaro and other Ethiopian journalists highlighted a change in the Ethiopian government’s actions towards the press. Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed took office in 2018 with sweeping political reforms which included the release of several jailed journalists and for a brief period no journalist in Ethiopia was in jail. But media advocacy groups that once hailed those reforms have since criticized the dramatic setback that has followed, especially since the start of the war in Ethiopia in November 2020.