Amid armed clashes in Ethiopia that are almost impossible for the media to cover, Reporters Without Borders (RSF) calls on the country's authorities to immediately release all detained journalists, one of whom has just caught Covid-19 in prison.
Held since 10 November, Medihane Ekubamichael - the editor of the Addis Standard, one of Ethiopia's most important English-language newspapers - has just tested positive to the coronavirus. His lawyer, Woubshet Kassew, told RSF that Medihane's main symptom so far was problems with his sense of smell. He was trying to arrange his release on bail, he added.
A court in Addis Ababa, the capital, yesterday approved the provisional release of Medihane and three journalists with the Ethiopian Press Agency (EPA) - Haftu Gebreegziabher, Tsegaye Hadush and Abreha Hagos - who were also arrested on 10 November.
But the court's decision does not guarantee their immediate release. The police has appealed against this decision and a new hearing is going to take place this morning in Addis Abeba. The four journalists must each first pay bail that is equivalent to 217 euros. Addis Standard editor-in-chief Tsedale Lema told RSF she would be in suspense until Medihane was finally released because, "it's become a pattern that police are constantly undermining the judiciary as of late."
Fighting in recent weeks between federal forces and regional forces controlled by the northern Tigray region's ruling party has caused thousands of deaths and displaced tens of thousands of civilians. The federal authorities have not issued any official figures, and the prime minister says the military operations are now over. But Tigray is completely cut off from the rest of the country and it is virtually impossible for journalists to access the region and provide independent coverage of what is happening there.
"One year after receiving the Nobel peace prize, Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed heads a country that prevents journalists from working, detains some journalists and exposes them to the Covid-19 epidemic," said Arnaud Froger, the head of RSF's Africa desk.
"The current context does not justify censorship or reprisals against journalists. Abiy was given the prize as a reward for measures taken to end such a repressive and destructive scenario. Disillusionment is now on a par with the hopes originally raised. We ask the authorities to free the imprisoned journalists and allow the media to work."
Abiy's installation as prime minister in 2018 brought major improvements in press freedom. Many imprisoned journalists were released and more than 250 previously banned media outlets were allowed to operate.
Unfortunately, no significant improvements to the draconian media laws were made and, in recent months, RSF has received reports of several violations of the freedom to inform that have fuelled concern about a regression that would endanger the remarkable progress of the past two years.
Since 2018, Ethiopia has risen 51 places in RSF's World Press Freedom Index, going from 150th out of 180 countries to 99th.