Endeshaw Tasew, Commissioner of Federal Police Commission, told Addis Standard that the police has "no comments for the time being" about the circumstances surrounding the arrest of Yayesew Shimelis, journalist and producer of Tigray TV Ethio-Forum YouTube segment.
Yayesew was detained on March 27, a day after he posted on his personal Facebook page information that in anticipation of the danger COVID-19 poses in Ethiopia, the government has ordered the readying of 200, 000 burial places.
Yayesew's Facebook page was suspended shortly after he posted the message to his hundreds of thousands of followers. He also received a wide range of public criticism, including a call for the government to take actions against him from fellow journalist Elias Meseret. "Personally, I am unhappy when the right for freedom of speech and freedom of the press are infringed even to a smaller extent. However, the government should not, under any circumstance, be silent about those who are spreading fake news about this virus [COVID-19]," journalist Elias said. Many other individuals have also took to online platforms to denounce and criticize journalist Yayesew for his post.
On the same day March 26, Yayesew issued an apology on his twitter page and said his Facebook page was suspended. "My Facebook page is closed; I didn't know what I said could be alarming at this scale. I apologize for everything," he said. But the next day he was detained.
Despite repeated attempts from Addis Standard both the police and the office of the federal attorney general declined to comment on the circumstances surrounding Yayesew's arrest. Zinabu Tunu, spokesperson of the Federal Attorney General's office, said he has no knowledge about the arrest. Jeylan Abdi, Federal Police Communication Bureau head, simply said "you can conduct your own search about his whereabouts," before hanging his phone. Regardless, Commissioner Endeshaw said the police would give a press statement "sometime in the coming few days," but so far there is no statement issued and followup calls to his office remained unanswered.
In a statement issued on April 01, Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) said "authorities in Ethiopia should immediately and unconditionally release journalist Yayesew Shimelis and cease detaining journalists without charge." "Imprisoning a journalist at this time, when the public needs information rather than censorship, is likely to discourage critical reporting and dissenting opinions," said CPJ's sub-Saharan Africa representative, Muthoki Mumo.
Yayesew's detention was confirmed by Addis Maleda newspaper, which cited an unnamed source from the Federal Attorney General's office. The source also said he would appear before court within 48 hours, according to the law.
The partial closure of Federal courts was extended for 23 additional working days as of April 01. "Courts will continue handling urgent cases including cases that affect life, liberty & public safety," Chief Justice Meaza Ashenafi said. But it is not clear if the prosecutors could bring charges against Yayesew before the 23 extension is completed.
In a statement issued on March 28, The Federal Attorney General's office warned against spread of fake news regarding COVID-19 and cited Article 485 of the Criminal Code as a legal instance to penalize individuals who cause alarm among the public by spreading misinformation.
Article 485 of the criminal Code says: "Whoever spreads alarm among the public: a) by threat of danger to the community, or to the life, health or property of individuals, especially that of invasion, assassination, fire, devastation or pillage; or b) by deliberately spreading false rumors concerning such happenings or general disturbances, or imminent catastrophe or calamity; is punishable with simple imprisonment not exceeding three years, or fine."
However, although many people said this was concerning Yayesew, he is not yet charged with any crime as of the writing of this news and was only brought to a court on March 28, where the police were granted to remand him for six more days, according to CPJ. AS