The outbreak of fighting in the Ethiopian region of Tigray 100 days ago prompted journalists to cover the conflict against a government that wants to maintain total control over the stories.
The government’s lockdown in the northern region and the outage of communications on the internet, cell phones and landlines have made access and assessment extremely difficult for aid agencies dealing with the unfolding humanitarian crisis. It has also made it nearly impossible for media seeking access to investigate artillery attacks on populated areas, targeted attacks and massacres of civilians, extrajudicial killings, widespread looting and rape, including of alleged Eritrean soldiers.
At the same time, journalists in the country were arrested, threatened and harassed – and even attacked.
“This is the worst time in my more than ten years as a journalist,” said an Addis Ababa-based freelance journalist from Ethiopia who, like any journalist contacted about this article, insisted on anonymity for fear of professional and physical reprisals.
The journalist noted that prior to Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed’s attack on the November 4 offensive to remove the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF) following attacks on federal army bases, the government had implemented new laws against hate speech and false news against critical journalists . “The risk was mostly limited to detention and verbal harassment. Now, you have the added risk of losing your life or ransacking your home and malicious social media trolling. “
The journalist said he had to give up several writing projects, including one over the plight of a small ethnic group implicated in the secret Tigray conflict over fears of “simple old brawl and intimidation of journalists”.
The list of attacks and intimidation against journalists in Ethiopia is growing. After the Addis Standard, one of Ethiopia’s most influential independent publications, issued a statement in early November urging the government to open channels of communication, Medihane Ekubamichael, a senior editor, was called to his home for “attempts to violate the constitution dismantle “arrested. and “outrage against the constitution”. He was soon released – but then arrested again and held for about a month. Due to his absence, which was responsible for much of the daily work of the newspaper, she had to reduce her journalistic performance.
On January 19, Dawit Kebede Araya, a reporter for Tigray TV, was found dead with gunshot wounds to the head in his car near Mekelle, the regional capital of Tigray. The Committee for the Protection of Journalists (CPJ) has called for an independent investigation into whether his murder was motivated by his work.
On February 8, Ethiopian freelance journalist Lucy Kassa, who has reported on Tigray for several foreign media outlets including the Los Angeles Times and Al Jazeera, said that armed intruders had broken into her home in Addis Ababa. She said men knocked her on the ground, ransacked her home and took away a laptop and other items related to her reporting, accusing her of “spreading lies” and “supporting the Tigray junta”.
Three leading US Democratic senators recently wrote to Abiy expressing concerns about the erosion of press freedom and the government’s “draconian tactics” while demanding the release of jailed journalists.
Now right-wing groups have said that the ongoing conflict over freedom of the press is pushing back the gains of the country’s suffering media and signals a backlash towards authoritarian intolerance.
“The detention of journalists, many of whom have been detained for weeks without charge, is an indicator of the deterioration in press freedom in Ethiopia and a sign that despite positive reforms in 2018 when Abiy became Prime Minister, the government is receding.” said Muthoki Mumo, CPJ representative for sub-Saharan Africa.
“Ethiopian journalists should feel free to publish critical reports and comments. This cannot be done in an environment where the police can arrest and detain them for weeks without charge, apparently armed the judicial system in order to intimidate the media.”
The Press Secretary for the Ethiopian Prime Minister’s Office did not respond to several requests for comment.
Challenges of the media landscape
When Abiy received the Nobel Peace Prize in 2019, the committee praised his “media censorship attitude” to his accomplishments during his first 100 days in power. Positive changes in the media landscape of Ethiopia, including the end of the block of more than 260 websites by Ethiopia and the lifting of a ban on media forced to work in exile, resulted in Ethiopia in the World created by Reporters Without Borders (RSF) Press Freedom Index of 150 rose from 180 countries in 2018 to 99th in 2020. The CPJ’s annual 2018 prison census report of journalists detained for work around the world did not include Ethiopians – a first since 14 years.
As Abiy’s term in office progressed, criticism of his lack of transparency – the Prime Minister announced the Tigray offensive, practically a declaration of war, on Facebook – and of the repetition of what always happened in Ethiopia when a new government promised reforms increased arrives and freedom of speech: First, new media thrive when restrictions are lifted, but within a few years the situation reverts to the old practices of previous Ethiopian governments.
The CPJ’s 2020 Prison Census, published in December 2020, included seven Ethiopian journalists, the third most common among sub-Saharan countries after Eritrea and Cameroon (six Ethiopian journalists have been published since the report was published).
Observers acknowledge that the government is grappling with an institutionally weak media landscape, where freedom of expression is being abused by some media to encourage tension and partisanship, even ethnic violence.
“There are legitimate concerns from state and non-state actors about misinformation, disinformation and incitement, especially in times of political tension,” said Muthoki. “However, these concerns should not be used as an excuse to harass the media for critical reporting. criminalize dissenting views; or as a justification for throwing journalists behind bars. “
It has long been known that Ethiopian journalists have a harder time than foreign journalists from Ethiopia, who can more easily seek support from international agencies or embassies. Ethiopian journalists from Tigray are facing even greater difficulties because of the impact of the conflict. According to reports, ethnic Tigrayan journalists have been collectively suspended by state media while several anchors on Ethiopian state television have been suspended from work for protesting the wording of news about the Tigray war, according to an industry source.
Commenting on an RSF statement about the attack on Kassa, who is a Tigrayan, the State of Emergency Fact Check of the State of Ethiopia said that “all persons must be free from any form of harm,” but added that the press guard added she mistakenly labeled foreign organizations as a worker because she did not have the necessary press credentials.
It is a shame that instead of identifying and holding these attackers accountable, the authorities tried to discredit Lucy Kassa by saying she was not a legally registered journalist, making the #FreePress in #Ethiopia increasingly hostile. pic.twitter.com/VnrDC7Xzjb
– CPJ Africa (@CPJAfrica) February 11, 2021
CPJ condemned the government unit’s testimony as “shameful”. “Instead of identifying and holding these attackers accountable, the authorities have instead tried to discredit Lucy Kassa by saying she was not a legally registered journalist and the growing hostility towards her [press], “it said.
But foreign journalists also seem to be turning. Although journalists were denied access in Tigray, journalists have stated that members of the foreign media are also portrayed by the Ethiopian state as “traitors” and enemies of Ethiopia, “paid by Western governments to destabilize Ethiopia.” Foreign reporters also report difficulties with the renewal of work visas, while some of them faced deportation threats. If you just quote the TPLF, the region’s former ruling party that clashed with Abiy, you will get into trouble, journalists have said.
“The level of intolerance towards Tigray is as extreme as anything I’ve seen,” said a long-term commentator on Ethiopia, who recently visited the country after working there for nearly a decade, and who described Abiy as “classic dictatorial tendencies” .
There have also been suggestions from journalists that the government employ a coordinated strategy to suppress and undermine journalists through social media, state media and the Ethiopian diaspora. Al Jazeera was unable to independently verify these claims.
But just as the government is accused of firing tons of propaganda and making use of fake news claims, so have their opponents. The anti-government strategy appears to be aimed at increasing activity on social media, especially on Twitter. Supporters are encouraged to create new accounts, share hashtags, reply to content, and tweet on influential accounts. The government has countered this by positioning itself in the role of fact-checker and provider of reliable information and usurping the work that the media should do.
The result is an extremely confusing information environment, compounded by a general distrust of the information that comes out of the conflict. All of this must be done by journalists and trying to make sense of it while being hindered by the government.
“The government needs to understand that the media is an important component in building a strong democratic society that can inform the public and act as a platform for dialogue,” said Tewodrose Tirfe, chairman of the Amhara Association of America, one in the US Resident advocacy group for the Amhara, Ethiopia’s second largest ethnic group.
“The government must view the Ethiopian media as a partner and must not restrict journalists’ access to conflict areas and government officials.”