Ethiopia’s civil war shatters once-high hopes for press freedom
In a Facebook post at the end of October, Awlo Media Center, an Ethiopian online media critical of Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed’s administration, announced that government “pressure and obstruction” had forced it to to close and fire all its employees.
The shutdown came after a number of journalists and media workers from the Awlo Media Center were arrested in late June and held incommunicado for weeks at a military camp in eastern Ethiopia, according to the report. media and CPJ documentation. After their release, Awlo said, the outlet’s operations were effectively brought to a standstill when security personnel refused to comply with court orders to reopen the company’s offices in the capital Addis Ababa or return the equipment. confiscated.
Awlo Media Center’s silence reflects how hostile the media environment has become as Ethiopia deepens into civil war. The year-long conflict between the federal government and forces led by the Popular Front for the Liberation of Tigray (TPLF) – a political group that dominated a repressive Ethiopian government for nearly three decades – has left thousands dead and more than two million displaced people. Some parts of the country are facing famine.
Since the start of the war, CPJ has documented multiple press freedom violations, including the arrests of numerous journalists. At least nine of them were still in custody as of December 1, 2021, according to CPJ’s annual prison census, and CPJ is investigating reports that others are still being held following a wave of arrests. in November.
CPJ has also confirmed the murder of a journalist in the course of its work, the first such documented case since 1998, and continues to investigate the motive for the murder of a second journalist. Other setbacks for the media include the expulsion of at least one foreign journalist for covering the war; the one week suspension of Addis Standard, an independent news site; attacks and intimidation against members of the press; and an internet disruption in much of northern Ethiopia.
“I remain desperate about the media in Ethiopia. I know it’s dark, but it’s my feeling, ”said one of 10 reporters who spoke to CPJ in November. Like almost everyone else interviewed, this reporter requested anonymity, terrified of reprisals for sharing opinions with an international organization.
CPJ research shows that most journalists arrested since the start of the war have faced vague accusations of supporting the TPLF that never turned into formal charges. Many of these journalists were Tigrayans. Police have also developed a tendency to pretend they need time to detain journalists in apparently undefined investigations; and defied or delayed compliance with court orders to release journalists on bail, according to this research. For example, Kibrom Worku, a radio journalist, and Tesfa-Alem Tekle, correspondent for the Kenya-based Nation Media Group, remained in detention in early December a few weeks after being released on bail.
“I’m not even asking not to be arrested now. But what I’m asking for is to be arrested by a government that will allow me to defend myself, not throw myself into a camp and forget about myself, ”another reporter said in an interview with CPJ.
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On November 2, the federal government declared a state of emergency and passed sweeping law authorizing warrantless searches; potentially indefinite detentions; and suspends the regularity of the procedure. The law also gave regulators the power to suspend or ban media “suspected of providing direct or indirect, moral or material support to terrorist organizations.”
“What counts as indirect moral support, nobody knows. Is it a prayer or a wish? Or an article? One editor noted via the messaging app. The editor said they began to avoid critical coverage of the war after the state of emergency.
In a statement in mid-November, the Ethiopian Human Rights Commission, a local watchdog, estimated that thousands of people, mostly Tigrayans, had been arrested since the declaration of statehood. ’emergency. Journalists and the media have been the target of arrests and restrictions during Ethiopia’s pre-Abiy states of emergency, as documented by CPJ. The political changes in early 2018, when Abiy became Prime Minister, and the release of journalists previously detained for years had raised hopes for a new media era in what was once one of the world’s most censored to the world.
Today Ethiopia has once again become one of the worst jailers of journalists in sub-Saharan Africa.
Authorities tightened their legal restrictions in a November 25 statement, banning “unofficial broadcasting[ion] information on military maneuvers, updates and results of the war front via any medium ”and warns against“ using freedom of information as a pretext ”“ to support the terrorist group directly or indirectly ”. In an emailed statement, Kennedy Wandera, president of the Foreign Press Association Africa, a regional press rights organization, told CPJ the latest order was “a bad sign of things to come for the media. from the country “.
“The country’s journalists had to change the way they report, write and edit throughout the war. This [ban on unofficial information] is just a continuation of the year-long assault on the media; media that had already been decimated, ”said Zecharias Zelalem, a freelance journalist based in Canada, who spoke to CPJ through a messaging app.
At a press conference on November 30, Billene Seyoum, spokesman for the prime minister, said reports that the media had been “suppressed” by the state of emergency was “deliberate disinformation”. CPJ did not receive responses to emails from November 30 requesting comment on arrests of journalists, closure of the Awlo media center and emergency regulations from Billene State or the Minister of Justice Gedion Timothewos Hassebon. In a telephone conversation on December 8, Federal Police spokesman Jeylan Abdi said there were no journalists detained in Ethiopia for their professional work but rather for “breaking the law in force in the country ”. He did not address specific cases or respond to an email requesting comment on the closure of the Awlo media center.
As the closure of Awlo shows, this assault on the press has had a crippling effect. Four Ethiopian journalists arrested in the past year told CPJ they quit the profession or were no longer able to work because they went into hiding.
“Even though I am released,” said one reporter, “I am not free. “