CAPE TOWN – Ethiopia is being urged to uphold its international commitments to the freedoms of expression and the press by releasing journalists it has imprisoned.
Two lawmakers in the U.S. Congress — Reps. 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 held for four months without charges.
Kiyaro's continued detention is due to be reviewed in court Tuesday, when the state must formally charge him or release him, according to the judge in the case.
Ethiopia, which has adopted the U.N.'s Universal Declaration of Human Rights and as a member of the African Union, should be obliged to release Kiyaro and other journalists, according to Schiff and Scanlon.
Kiyaro, 30, a video journalist accredited to The Associated Press, was detained Nov. 28 in Ethiopia’s capital, Addis Ababa, under the country’s war-related state of emergency powers. The state of emergency was lifted in February as the government cited changing conditions in the deadly conflict between Ethiopian forces and those of the northern Tigray region. The Ethiopian government last week declared a “humanitarian truce” in the war-ravaged Tigray region.
Ethiopian state media, citing federal police, have said Kiyaro is accused of “serving the purposes” of what they called 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 has told state media the journalists violated the state of emergency law and Ethiopia’s anti-terrorism law, and the violations could lead to sentences of seven to 15 years behind bars.
However, the U.N. Human Rights Committee, when interpreting the International Covenant of Civil and Political Rights, which Ethiopia has ratified, specifically stated that journalists should not be imprisoned for interviewing a member of a group classified as terrorist.
“The media plays a crucial role in informing the public about acts of terrorism and its capacity to operate should not be unduly restricted,” says the committee’s decision further explaining the reach of the covenant's relevant section in paragraph 46 on press freedom.
“Journalists should not be penalized for carrying out their legitimate activities,” it states.
The African Union and its African Commission on Human and Peoples Rights have similar provisions that compel member states to uphold freedom of the press.
To encourage judicial rulings that uphold these commitments to the freedoms of expression and 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, chief of UNESCO’s freedom of expression and safety of journalists section.
Ethiopia should honor its international commitments by releasing Kiyaro, Schiff said.
"Kiyaro has been unjustly detained in Ethiopia. ... It’s clear his only offense is his work as an independent journalist covering the conflict in Tigray – and exposing the unvarnished truth to the Ethiopian people," said the California Democrat, who is 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 come under assault,” he said. "Because an attack on the free press anywhere is an attack on democracy everywhere. Ethiopia must free Amir Aman Kiyaro.”
Scanlon also called for Kiyaro to be freed.
“A free press is essential in any civil society ... As conflicts unfold in many corners of the globe, it is as important as ever for journalistic freedom to be protected worldwide,” the Pennsylvania Democrat said in a statement.
“I am concerned that Amir Aman Kiyaro continues to be detained in Ethiopia without charges,” she said. “This ongoing, unjust detention appears to violate international standards on freedom of expression, which the Ethiopian government has agreed to as a signatory on multiple international treaties. I’ll continue to monitor this important case with congressional colleagues, and hope the courts move quickly to release Amir.”
More than a dozen Ethiopian journalists and the Committee to Protect Journalists have called for the immediate release of the journalist, 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 Executive Editor Julie Pace said earlier this month. “It is clear he is being targeted for his independent journalism.”
The imprisonment of Kiyaro and other Ethiopian journalists has highlighted a change in the Ethiopian government's actions toward the press. Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed took office in 2018 with sweeping political reforms that included the release of several journalists from incarceration and for a brief period, no journalist in Ethiopia was in prison. But media advocacy groups that once praised those reforms have since criticized the dramatic backsliding that followed, notably since Ethiopia’s war began in November 2020.