A VOA correspondent and his translator are safe at home with their families Saturday after being detained overnight by Ethiopian police on a charge of "illegal reporting."
Veteran correspondent Peter Heinlein and translator Simegineh Yekoye were arrested Friday as they were leaving a mosque on the outskirts of Addis Ababa. Heinlein told VOA editors Saturday he was questioned at length about the purposes of his reporting.
"We were interrogated by a police officer who told us that we had engaged in illegal reporting. They say that this is a problem area that we had gone into, and that reporters had no business going in there," said Heinlein. "We had a lengthy interrogation and gave a long statement in which he grilled us quite extensively about reporting, and about why, how we had gone to this mosque and what our motives were."
Heinlein said he and Simegineh were released and all charges were dropped after an official from the U.S. Embassy's consular section appeared at the prison Saturday morning. He said computer and recording equipment that were confiscated upon his arrest were returned and that he and Simegineh are in good health.
Voice of America issued a statement from its headquarters in Washington saying it is relieved by Heinlein's release.
It said Heinlein is "a professional and highly respected journalist whose only aim is to provide accurate and balanced coverage of events in Ethiopia. We are concerned about a pattern of harassment of journalists like Mr. Heinlein, and urge the government to allow them to perform their duties without fear of interference.”
Tom Rhodes, East Africa spokesman for the Committee to Protect Journalists, told VOA Saturday that his organization is frustrated at what seems to be a shrinking tolerance of foreign journalists by the Ethiopian government.
"You know, at CPJ we’re incredibly relieved that they have released Peter Heinlein today and that it hasn’t become a long, trumped-up process," Rhodes said. "But we’re also very upset that he was arrested in the first place, because it appears to be that, at least in the earlier reporting we’ve done, that they simply couldn’t find a genuine reason for his arrest."
Heinlein said the arrest appeared to be connected to his reporting on a dispute between Ethiopia's Muslim minority and the government over the leadership of the nation's Muslim community.
He said he and Simegineh appeared to have inadvertently crossed police lines aimed at keeping reporters away from a meeting after Friday prayers at the mosque where the dispute was being discussed.
He said police stopped his car as he and the translator were leaving the mosque, and later took the two of them to a local police station. From there, they were transferred to the city's main police station for questioning.
He said Simegineh had been permitted to return home overnight because there was not a suitable place to keep her in the prison and ordered to return Saturday morning.
Heinlein, an east Africa correspondent based in Addis Ababa, has worked for VOA since 1988.