NAIROBI (Reuters) -A Reuters cameraman, Kumerra Gemechu, was arrested in the Ethiopian capital Addis Ababa on Thursday and will be kept in custody for at least two weeks, his family said. He has not been charged.
No reason was provided to the family for Thursday’s arrest, and police did not respond to Reuters requests for comment.
Kumerra, 38, has worked for Reuters as a freelance cameraman for a decade.
At a brief court hearing on Friday, where no lawyer was present, a judge ordered Kumerra’s detention for a further 14 days to give police time to investigate, the family said.
In a statement on Monday, Reuters news agency strongly condemned Kumerra’s detention. The arrest followed the beating of a Reuters photographer, Tiksa Negeri, by two Ethiopian federal police officers on Dec. 16.
“Kumerra is part of a Reuters team that reports from Ethiopia in a fair, independent and unbiased way. Kumerra’s work demonstrates his professionalism and impartiality, and we are aware of no basis for his detention,” Editor-in-Chief Stephen J. Adler said in the statement.
“Journalists must be allowed to report the news in the public interest without fear of harassment or harm, wherever they are. We will not rest until Kumerra is freed,” Adler said.
Around 10 armed federal police officers arrived at Kumerra’s home in Addis Ababa on Thursday evening and took him away in handcuffs in front of his wife and three children, his wife Hawi Desalegn said. She added that his eldest daughter, who is 10, clung to him screaming as he was led away.
Police also confiscated Kumerra’s phone, a computer, flash drives and papers, according to the family.
Kumerra’s arrest follows government pressure on journalists for some international news outlets which have been covering the conflict in Ethiopia’s northern Tigray region, where government forces have been battling the former ruling party, the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF).
Kumerra covered the Tigray conflict, but Reuters was unable to determine whether his arrest was connected to his work. Government officials did not respond to questions from Reuters about whether his coverage was at issue.
Ethiopia’s media authority, the Ethiopian Broadcasting Authority, accused Reuters and other international media outlets in a Nov. 23 statement on its Facebook page of “false” and “unbalanced” coverage of the fighting in Tigray.
“We stand by our reporting on the conflict in the Tigray region and will continue to report on Ethiopia with integrity, independence, and freedom from bias, as we do all around the world,” Reuters said in a separate statement.
The New York-based Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) said Kumerra’s detention was “the latest example of how press freedom is fast eroding under Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed after a short-lived hope of reform.”
When CPJ carried out its annual census of jailed journalists on Dec. 1, there were at least seven journalists in custody in Ethiopia for their work, CPJ said in a statement on Monday.
Five of those arrests took place after the Tigray fighting broke out on Nov. 4, according to CPJ.
In a tweet linked to the Reuters report on Kumerra’s arrest, Tibor Nagy, the top U.S. diplomat for Africa, said he was “extremely concerned by continuing reports of intimidation of journalists in Ethiopia.”
“Freedom of the press is fundamental to any democratic society,” said Nagy, the U.S. Assistant Secretary of State for African Affairs. “U.S. resolve to see media freedom respected remains unshaken.”
Thousands of people are believed to have been killed and around 950,000 displaced in the month-long conflict. The government says it is now in control of the restive region, but it tightly controls access, and some areas still do not have cell phone coverage.
Ethiopia’s government, which the TPLF dominated for nearly three decades, frequently jailed critics, including politicians and journalists.
When Abiy came to power in 2018 after protests against the government, he speeded up democratic reforms and oversaw the release of tens of thousands of political prisoners.
However, local and international rights groups have expressed concern about the arrests of thousands of other people following outbreaks of deadly violence around the country.
The government has said those arrested were suspected of fomenting the bloodshed.
“One of the government’s primary roles and responsibilities is ensuring security and stability and that the rule of law prevails,” Billene Seyoum, a spokeswoman for the prime minister, told Reuters in August after more than 9,000 people were arrested following deadly clashes in the capital and surrounding Oromiya region.
Reporting by the Nairobi newsroom; additional reporting by David Brunnstrom in Washington; Editing by Alexandra Zavis and Nick Tattersall
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