The outbreak of fighting in Ethiopia’s Tigray region 100 days ago has pitted journalists eager to report on the conflict with a government seeking to maintain full control over speech.
The lockdown imposed by the government of the northern region and the communication breakdown affecting the Internet, mobile phones and landlines made access and assessment for aid agencies. ongoing humanitarian crisis extremely difficult. It also made it nearly impossible for the media seeking to enter an investigation artillery attacks on populated areas, deliberate targeting and massacres of civilians, extrajudicial executions, widespread looting and grated, including by suspected Eritrean soldiers.
“This is the worst period of my 10+ years in journalism,” said an Addis Ababa-based Ethiopian freelance journalist who, like all journalists contacted for this story, insisted on anonymity for fear of reprisal , both professional and physical.
The reporter noted that even before Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed ordered the November 4 offensive to suppress the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF) after attacks on federal army bases, the government was using already new anti-hate speech and fake news legislation against critical journalists. “The risk was mainly limited to imprisonment and verbal harassment. Now you run the added risk of losing your life or having your home ransacked, as well as vicious social media trolling. “
The journalist said they had had to abandon several writing projects, including one on the plight of a small ethnic group caught up in the secret Tigray conflict, over fears of “flagrant brutality and intimidation of journalists ”.
“ Signs of regression ”
The list of attacks and intimidation against journalists in Ethiopia is growing. After Addis Standard, one of Ethiopia’s most influential independent publications, issued a statement in early November urging the government to open channels of communication, editor-in-chief Medihane Ekubamichael was arrested at his home for “Attempts to dismantle the Constitution by violence”. and “contempt of the Constitution”. He was quickly released – but arrested again and detained for about a month. Responsible for much of the daily operations of the newspaper, his absence forced him to reduce his journalistic production.
On January 19, Dawit Kebede Araya, a Tigray TV reporter, was found dead with a gunshot wound to the head in his car near Mekelle, the regional capital of Tigray. The Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) requested an independent investigation to find out if his murder was motivated by his work.
On February 8, Ethiopian freelance journalist Lucy Kassa, who spoke about Tigray for several foreign media, including the Los Angeles Times and Al Jazeera, said armed intruders broke into her home in Addis Ababa. She mentionned men threw her to the ground, raided her apartment and took a laptop and other items related to her reporting, accusing her of “spreading lies” and supporting “the tiger junta”.
Three prominent US Democratic senators recently wrote to Abiy expressing concerns over the erosion of press freedom and the government’s “draconian tactics”, while calling for the release of the detained journalists.
Now, rights groups have said the continuing conflict over press freedom reverses the gains made by the country’s long-suffering media, signaling a return to authoritarian intolerance.
“The imprisonment of journalists, many of whom have been detained for weeks without formal charge, is an indicator of the deterioration of press freedom in Ethiopia and a sign that the government is regressing despite the positive reforms made in 2018 when Abiy was became Prime Minister ”. said Muthoki Mumo, CPJ’s representative for sub-Saharan Africa.
“Ethiopian journalists should feel free to publish critical reports and comments, and this cannot happen in an environment where the police can arrest and detain them for weeks without charge, blatantly using the justice system. to intimidate the media. ”
The press secretary in the Ethiopian Prime Minister’s Office did not respond to several requests for comment.
Challenges of the media landscape
When Abiy was awarded The 2019 Nobel Peace Prize winner, the committee hailed his “removal of media censorship” among his accomplishments during his first 100 days in office. Positive changes in Ethiopia’s media landscape, including the country ending its blockade of more than 260 websites and lifting the ban on media forced to work in exile, have seen Ethiopia rise in the compiled World Press Freedom Index by Reporters Without Borders (RSF) from 150 out of 180 countries in 2018 ranked 99th in 2020. CPJ’s 2018 annual prison census report on journalists jailed for their work around the world did not include any Ethiopians – a first in 14 years.
But as Abiy’s tenure progressed, criticism of his lack of transparency – the prime minister announced the Tigray offensive, made it a declaration of war, on Facebook – and for repeating what has always happened in Ethiopia when a new administration arrives promising reforms and freedom of speech: initially new media flourished as restrictions were lifted, but within a few years the situation reverted to old ways previous Ethiopian governments.
CPJ’s 2020 prison census released in December 2020 included seven Ethiopian journalists, the third largest among countries in sub-Saharan Africa, after Eritrea and Cameroon (six Ethiopian journalists have been released since the report’s publication).
Observers recognize that the government faces a media landscape that is institutionally weak, in which freedom of expression is abused by some media to foment tensions and supporters, even ethnic violence.
“There are legitimate concerns on the part of state and non-state actors about disinformation, disinformation and incitement, especially in times of political tension,” Muthoki said. “However, these concerns should not be used as a pretext to harass the media for critical reporting; criminalize dissenting opinions; or as a justification for throwing journalists behind bars. “
It has long been known that Ethiopian journalists have more difficulties than foreign journalists based in Ethiopia, who can more easily seek support from international agencies or embassies. Ethiopian journalists from Tigray face even more difficulties following the fallout from the conflict. Ethnic Tigrayan journalists were reportedly collectively suspended from state media, while several state-owned Ethiopian television presenters were suspended from their jobs for opposing the wording of the Tigray War news, according to a source in the Tigrayan war. sector.
Comment on an RSF declaration Regarding the attack on Kassa, who is Tigrayan, the Ethiopian government said that “all individuals should be free from any form of harm”, but added that the press watchdog was wrong to describe her as working for foreign organizations because she did not have the necessary press clearance.
It is shameful that instead of identifying these attackers and holding them to account, authorities have instead sought to discredit Lucy Kassa by saying that she was not a legally registered journalist, exposing the growing hostility to the #Free press in #Ethiopia. pic.twitter.com/VnrDC7Xzjb
– CPJ Africa (@CPJAfrica) February 11, 2021
CPJ condemned the government unity statement as “shameful.” “Instead of identifying these attackers and holding them to account, authorities instead sought to discredit Lucy Kassa by saying that she was not a legally registered journalist, exposing the growing hostility to the [press], “It said.
But the screw also seems to be turning to foreign journalists. Even though they are denied access to Tigray, journalists said members of the foreign media are also described by the Ethiopian state as “traitors” and enemies of Ethiopia, “paid for by Western governments. to destabilize Ethiopia ”. Foreign journalists also report difficulties in renewing work visas, while some have been threatened with deportation. Just quoting the TPLF, the region’s former ruling party that confronted Abiy, will get you in trouble, reporters said.
“The level of intolerance around Tigray is as extreme as anything I’ve seen,” said a longtime commentator on Ethiopia who recently visited the country after working there for nearly a decade. decade, and who described Abiy as displaying “classic dictatorial tendencies.”
Journalists also suggested that the government use a coordinated strategy to oppress and undermine journalists through social media, state media and the Ethiopian diaspora. Al Jazeera could not independently verify these claims.
But just as the government is accused of firing propaganda oars and taking advantage of false information claims, its opponents have also. The anti-government strategy appears to be focused on increasing activity on social media – especially Twitter – with supporters being encouraged to create new accounts, post hashtags, reply to content and tweet on influential accounts. The government retaliated by positioning itself as a fact-checker and provider of reliable information, usurping the job the media should be doing.
The result is an extremely confusing news environment, compounded by a general sense of suspicion about news coming out of conflict – all that journalists face and try to understand, while still being embarrassed by the government.
“The government needs to understand that the media is an important part of building a strong democratic society that can inform the public and serve as a platform for dialogue,” said Tewodrose Tirfe, president of the Amhara Association of America, an advocacy group based in the USA. for the Amhara, Ethiopia’s second largest ethnic group.
“The government must view the Ethiopian media as a partner and not limit journalists’ access to conflict areas and government officials.”