Ethiopian freelance journalist Elias Gebru worked as an editor for many newspapers and magazines. He also advocated for free speech on social media. He continued standing in the frontline of reporting – even when journalism became the riskiest of all careers. Now, he is locked behind bars.
Elias was arrested on November 17, 2016, along with journalist Anania Sorri and politician Daniel Shibeshi. Their arrest came six weeks after the start of the State of Emergency. The State of Emergency was declared by the Ethiopian government following protests that had been ongoing for months in the regional states of Oromia and Amhara. Social media activists suspect that the three were arrested for posting photos where they made the resistance sign in protest of the government, on Facebook. Crossing one’s arms, as if they are shackled, is a sign that has been used to peacefully protest against injustice since August 2012, when Ethiopian Muslim protesters criticized the government’s alleged interference in religious affairs. The directive of the State of Emergency prohibits “showing a sign that incites violence” – but it is not stated which specific sign is prohibited, and making the resistance sign is a peaceful way of protesting.
Elias Gebru worked as a columnist for prominent newspapers such as Awramba Times and Fitih. In addition, he served as Editor-in-Chief of Enqu and the Addis Gets magazine. I worked as a member of Elias’s editorial team at Enqu and contributed to the Addis Gets magazine. Elias is very polite and hard working. I have admired his commitment, even though working in the free press is not rewarding by any means. Rather, the life as a journalist is very challenging and risky due to the crackdown on free press. I followed his posts on Facebook where he continuously updated his followers with local news. Now, all newspapers and magazines he worked for are defunct due to the challenging situation of the press, and Elias is locked behind bars with all but uncertainty about his fate. This is however not Elias’s first time to be arrested. In 2014, he faced charges of “inciting violence” after publishing a story in Enqu. He was bailed out for 50,000 ETB to defend himself from home. Unfortunately, before he finished presenting his defense witnesses, he was rearrested in November 2016.
Journalist Elias Gebru is experiencing health problems in prison, and his sinus is affected. The detention center is filthy and the air is difficult to breath, and he fears losing his smelling senses for good. He requested to see a doctor but the detention center officers are not helping him. It has been two weeks since he was separated from his friends Anania and Daniel. He is now in Qirqos, a police detention center located in front of “qirqos yegebeya maekel” (a shopping mall). Compared to where he was held for the first three months, it is easier for visitors to visit him in this detention center. The conditions are however bad. Elias is kept in a cell together with 14 other inmates. All inmates in his cell are detainees of the State of Emergency. Elias told me that most of them were detained for having videos and pictures of protesters in their cell phones. He has however still not been taken to court, even though it has passed more than one hundred days since his detention. Elias Gebru yearns for timely justice and medical attention before it is too late.