In Ethiopia, mass detention signals shrinking press freedom | Features News
On April 26, an official from Ethiopia’s attorney general’s office spoke to state media to lament what he called a lack of police action in cracking down on disinformation and hate speech.
A number of journalists in the country saw it as a bad omen.
“When I heard the call, I knew a crackdown on the press was imminent,” an Addis Ababa-based journalist told Al Jazeera on condition of anonymity for fear of being targeted. . “I had already heard rumors that the government wanted to curb the press, especially the producers of digital content. The only question now was how many of us were going to be imprisoned.
This prediction turned out to be correct.
On April 29, the state-run Ethiopian Media Authority announced that it had filed criminal charges against at least 25 media outlets.
Then, later that month, Ethiopian police swooped down on local newsrooms, arresting 19 people, including journalists, magazine editors and talk show hosts.
“We reaffirm that the Ethiopian media law clearly prohibits pre-trial detention for any alleged offense committed through the media,” said Daniel Bekele, head of the Ethiopian Human Rights Commission, a state institution. “All detained media personnel must be released.”
Additionally, The Economist correspondent Tom Gardner was expelled from the country on May 13.
At least a dozen of these arrests are linked to critical coverage of the outbreak of fighting between the Ethiopian army and militias in the Amhara region. In addition, security forces in the region have arrested more than 4,000 anti-government protesters and opposition politicians who criticize plans to demobilize ethnic Amhara militias.
These arrests brought the total number of media workers arrested in Ethiopia this year to 22. Authorities have accused the detainees of aggravating the bloodshed at a time when the country is torn apart by conflict.
“The right to freedom of expression does not permit the tarnishing of the honor of individuals, communities, the government or the country,” said Gizachew Muluneh, spokesman for the Amhara regional government, in a statement on Facebook. . “Calling for ethnic and religious clashes and promoting extremist agendas are unforgivable crimes and cannot be considered free speech.”
However, press freedom advocates reject the authorities’ comments, saying the detentions are part of an ongoing trend.
“CPJ has documented a drastic decline in press freedom in Ethiopia over the past three years,” said Angela Quintal, head of the Africa program at the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ). “This decline accelerated during the ongoing civil war. Many journalists have been arrested and detained without trial or for prolonged periods before being charged.
The pressure has pushed Ethiopian journalists to consider quitting their jobs or fleeing to neighboring countries. Some have toned down their reporting and choose to write unsigned stories.
A look back at freedom of the press
This is far from what was anticipated only a few years ago.
In 2009, the country passed an infamous and vaguely worded anti-terrorism proclamation that was used to sentence prominent journalists to long prison terms for terrorism.
Ethiopian journalist Akemel Negash remembers those times. In 2012, his coverage of Muslim protests put him in the crosshairs of the state and forced him to flee the country. Currently editor of local news site Amba Digital, he said the outbreak of war in late 2020 had brought back memories of the country’s recent past.
“[When war broke out] the government made it clear to reporters by saying ‘you are with us or against us’ like George W Bush did during his invasion of Afghanistan,” Akemel told Al Jazeera. “The message was either you report what the state wants you to report or you become an enemy of the state. We found it extremely dangerous to carry out our work with such hostility.
But in 2018, new Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed ordered the release of tens of thousands of political detainees, including journalists, promising to allow them to operate freely.
The wave of optimism prompted exiled journalists to return and settle in Ethiopia. The whirlwind of reforms saw the creation of a slew of new local newspapers, television and digital media outlets in 2018.
Ethiopia also ended the year without any journalists in its prisons, a first since 2004.
By 2020, however, Ethiopia had begun to reverse those gains. Critical radio and television networks were shut down and several journalists were imprisoned.
In November of the same year, civil war broke out in the Tigray region. With the large-scale mobilization of the military, tolerance for dissenting voices in the press community had all but evaporated.
Police arrested half a dozen journalists during the first week of the conflict.
“It’s amazing that just three years ago, on World Press Freedom Day in Addis Ababa, Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed boasted to the world that there was no only one Ethiopian journalist behind bars,” Quintal added. “And here we are in May 2022, Ethiopia is back to mass arrests and arbitrary detentions of journalists.”
Government propaganda outlets began openly labeling foreign correspondents as mercenaries and local journalists as traitors, reminiscent of the pre-2018 era.
To prevent the flow of information from the conflict zone to the global public, Ethiopia cut communications with the Tigray region and banned journalists and aid workers from traveling there.
In January 2021, amid the media blackout, Tigray-based journalist Dawit Kebede Araya was shot dead by Ethiopian troops, becoming the first death of the local press community since 1998.
Despite the blackout, journalists managed to unearth the horrors of war, including government atrocities against civilians.
Abiy and his forces have come under increased scrutiny and backlash. In response, the Prime Minister send a call in February 2021 to Ethiopians to urge them to prevent “the tarnishing of the reputation of our country”.
The prime minister blamed some citizens whom he accused of sympathizing with the rebels, working with enemy states to spread misinformation and plotting the country’s downfall.
Akemel Negash said Abiy was referring to journalists in the country.
“The prime minister’s appeal was, in my view, an ultimatum to journalists who were unwilling to help the government shape its narrative,” Akemel said. “As a result, journalists started fleeing the country or avoiding reporting on the war.”
In April 2021, Abiy reshuffled the state leadership Ethiopian Media Authority which regulates media activity in the country. Among those named was a new deputy director by the name of Yonatan Tesfaye, a politician renowned for having social media to call for the arrest of journalists whom he called “traitors”.
The following month, New York Times journalist Simon Marks was expelled from the country after covering gun rape during Ethiopia’s civil war. His expulsion preceded a wave of arrests, including those of a dozen journalists from the editorial staff of Awlo Media, based in Addis Ababa, on June 19, 2021.
Critical coverage of any kind was swiftly sanctioned. Licenses were revoked, newsrooms ransacked by police, equipment was confiscated and journalists were taken to jail.
By the end of 2021, Ethiopia had detained at least 46 members of its own local press, including Oromia News Network presenters Bikila Amenu and Dessu Dulla, accused of plotting against the state. If found guilty of the crime, they could face a death sentence, according to Ethiopia’s penal code.
Before declaring all-out war, the Nobel Peace Prize-winning prime minister oversaw Ethiopia’s exit from the bottom quarter of the Journalists Without Borders (RSF) World Press Freedom Index, ranking 99th in the world in 2020.
Ethiopia is currently ranked 114th.
“For the press, the current situation is as bad, if not worse, than what was seen in the years before Abiy’s reign,” said Tazebew Assefa, a member of the board of directors of the hall. editorial staff of Ashara Media.
On May 19, police raided Ashara’s main office in the Amhara regional capital, Bahir Dar, and arrested five of the network’s employees.
“The government wanted to shut us down for over a year because of our coverage of corruption and other issues that state media typically ignores,” Tazebew said. “They are now actively muzzling the private press, but that is not a solution. In fact, it can serve to push disenfranchised people into other forms of struggle, including armed struggle.