In Abiy’s Ethiopia, press freedom flourished and then fear returned
- Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed initially lifted press restrictions and freed journalists
- New arrests, especially during the fighting in Tigray
- ‘Dangerous rollback’ of crackdown, rights groups say
- Government says environment for journalists ‘favourable’
NAIROBI, May 28 (Reuters) – When Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed took power in 2018 and freed dozens of jailed media members as part of a series of political reforms, journalist Dessu Dulla rushed home from the Netherlands.
The 45-year-old, now deputy editor of a local online media outlet, said he fled repression in 2004. He first relished new freedoms under Abiy, who won global acclaim, including the 2019 Nobel Peace Prize winner who highlighted his work on “ending media censorship.”
Three years later, Dessu and four other Ethiopian journalists interviewed by Reuters said they feared a knock on the door. At least 21 journalists and media workers have been detained since early 2020, according to some international media monitors.
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Dessu was arrested last year while covering the arrest of a political activist in his troubled home region of Oromiya. He and two colleagues were never charged but were detained for three months.
“I thought it would be a different time and that democracy and freedom of expression could be restored, but in reality things are deteriorating, so many journalists have fled the country and some are in prison,” he said. told Reuters by telephone from Addis Ababa.
“Unfortunately, Ethiopia has joined the list of the worst jailers of journalists in sub-Saharan Africa,” said Muthoki Mumo, the sub-Saharan Africa representative of the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ).
Billene Seyoum, the prime minister’s spokesman, said conditions for journalists had improved.
“The media and journalism environment since Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed took office is quite favorable,” she said, noting that 44 new broadcasters had obtained licenses and a new media law was adopted this year.
As in all countries, journalists must obey the law, Mr. Billene said, adding that “there is no perfect environment; however, one cannot say that a fledgling democracy like the Ethiopia is regressing”.
Asked about individual cases, including Dessu’s, she referred questions to the attorney general, the federal police and the Ethiopian Media Authority (EMA), which accredits journalists.
The attorney general’s spokesman and federal police did not respond to requests for comment. The EMA said that “freedom of expression and protection of the press are sacred values enshrined in the Ethiopian constitution”.
EMA director Mohammed Edris provided Reuters with an English translation of the new media law, approved by parliament in February and enacted in April.
The law states that the regulator, the EMA, must be independent and details the grounds on which the authority will revoke broadcasting service licenses. It also indicates that journalists will not be forced to reveal a source who provided information in confidence.
At least six journalists were arrested in November when fighting broke out between Abiy’s troops and rebel leaders in northern Tigray, said international press freedom groups CPJ and Reporters Without Borders. borders (RSF).
Among them were Medihane Ekubamichael of Addis Standard, an independent English-language news site, and three journalists from the state-owned Ethiopian News Agency. One of the four declined to comment and the other three did not respond to requests for comment.
Police accused Medihane in court of attempting to “dismantle the constitution through violence”, its website reported. He was released without charge more than a month later.
The other three were accused of conspiring with groups fighting the government and dismantling the constitution; they were held between five and eight weeks before being released.
In December, Reuters cameraman Kumerra Gemechu was detained for 12 days without explanation. He was released without charge. Read more
None of the journalists arrested since last year have been charged. All but one were released after days or months in prison. Read more
IRISH JOURNALIST EXPELLED
In early March, the EMA revoked the credentials of an Irish citizen who had reported rape and human rights abuses in Tigray for The New York Times. Read more
The newspaper announced the removal of Simon Marks’ powers in May and urged the government to rethink what it called an “authoritarian approach”. A week later the government expelled Marks, who also worked for other publications, saying he had published “unbalanced reports”.
Marks told Reuters he was given no credible reason for his credentials being revoked and no explanation for his prompt expulsion.
“It is alarming that the Ethiopian government has treated the journalist, Simon Marks, like a criminal, expelling him from the country without even letting him return home to change his clothes or his passport,” said Michael Slackman, deputy editor. from International to the Times.
“With the credibility of an upcoming national election at stake, we call on Ethiopian leaders to reverse their efforts to muzzle an independent press.”
Two journalists have been shot this year.
An unidentified gunman shot dead Ethiopian journalist Dawit Kebede Araya, who worked for Tigray State Television, in the regional capital of Mekelle in January. Read more
This month, journalist Sisay Fida of the Oromia Broadcasting Network from the Oromiya region was shot dead in the Kellem Wollega area of the state, the area security chief told Reuters.
The new director general of the Tigray regional government and the chief spokesman of the Oromiya regional government did not respond to phone calls and text messages seeking comment.
For months after the outbreak of the conflict, the government restricted access to the Tigray region, but this began to ease in March.
The government says the only crackdown has been against criminals threatening peace and unity, and it accuses some journalists of colluding with the insurgents, without providing details.
“We expect professional reporting that meets journalistic ethical standards,” the EMA said, noting that 129 foreign correspondents had been authorized and 82 foreign journalists had access to Tigray.
WIND OF CHANGE?
After coming to power, Abiy initially freed dozens of journalists from jail, lifted bans on more than 250 outlets and repealed some widely criticized media laws, according to the International Press Institute, a global news network. editors, media managers and journalists.
But the old laws have not been replaced by a clear regulatory framework for media practice, leading to a legal vacuum around issues such as how new media companies are allowed to operate, revealed a 2020 study commissioned by the Fojo Media Institute at Sweden’s Linnaeus University and International Media Support, a non-profit Danish media advocacy group.
The groups, which both helped draft Ethiopia’s new media law, added that the new law was a promising step as it was largely based on the continent’s “strongest” legislation, such as that of Kenya and South Africa.
However, before separate legislation against hate speech and disinformation was passed in early 2020, the UN special rapporteur on freedom of expression warned that the hate speech law could escalate tensions. ethnic groups and possibly fuel further violence.
The rapporteur said the law could be used to silence government critics and could lead to arbitrary arrests because it gives officials at the federal and state levels broad discretion in determining who to prosecute.
Most parliamentarians, however, supported the legislation.
“Ethiopia has become a victim of misinformation,” said Abebe Godebo, who voted for the law, when it passed. “The country is a land of diversity, and this bill will help balance those diversities.”
THE MEDIA REFLECTS NATIONAL DIVISIONS
Ethiopia was one of the most repressive states in the world for the media before Abiy’s election in 2018, according to some media observers.
Governments led by Abiy’s predecessors, Hailemariam Desalegn and Meles Zenawi, detained tens of thousands of people – including journalists and bloggers – often under anti-terrorism laws.
At least 60 journalists fled abroad between 2010 and 2018, New York-based Human Rights Watch said.
The head of Ethiopia’s state-appointed human rights commission, Daniel Bekele, himself a former political prisoner, has come to the defense of journalists, but also says the media reflects – and sometimes aggravates – divisions.
“It is not uncommon for the media to be ideologically biased, but in our difficult context, we need more responsible media for accurate facts, fair analysis (and to) promote social justice and peaceful coexistence” , he told Reuters.
Dessu’s Oromia News Network (ONN) broadcasts through 10 reporters, all but one Oromo.
He frequently posts on social media in his native Afaan Oromo, and his posts sometimes appear to support the Oromo Liberation Front (OLF), an opposition party that spent years in exile but was allowed to return after the entry into office of Abiy.
Separatists are leading an armed insurgency in Oromiya.
In March last year, Dessu, another journalist and their driver were arrested after reporting on the detention of an Oromo political activist, Dessu said.
Oromiya Police Commissioner Ararsa Merdassa did not respond to a request for comment on Dessu’s case.
Dessu and his two colleagues have been held for nearly three months without charge despite court orders to release them, said Dessu and New York-based CPJ, which reviewed the detentions. Reuters has not reviewed these orders.
Now he avoids working outside his studio in Addis Ababa for fear of being arrested again, and he said some journalists he knows are self-censoring or asking for exile again.
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Reporting by Maggie Fick; Editing by Andrew Cawthorne and Mike Collett-White
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