Tigray war exposes limits of Abiy’s press freedom promises
In September 2019, Simon Marks moved to Ethiopia, attracted by the rapid changes that followed his change of leadership and his declaration of peace with neighboring Eritrea after a war and decades of tension.
Since then, he has reported on the widespread optimism after Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed came to power and won the Nobel Peace Prize, as well as the human cost of the war in Tigray.
But on May 20, Ethiopia expelled Marks from the country. The freelancer, who reports for The New York Times and Voice of America, among others, are the latest victims of what many journalists and rights groups see as limited tolerance for critical reporting on the Tigray conflict.
Since November, the Ethiopian government has been fighting the Tigray People’s Liberation Front, or TPLF, a regional political party that led the ruling coalition for nearly 30 years. The war has displaced tens of thousands of people and left millions in need of humanitarian aid, according to the United Nations.
Journalists and human rights groups have alleged serious abuses: massacres, gang rapes, violence. Accounts of the victims mainly blame Ethiopian federal soldiers, Amhara regional militias and Eritrean forces fighting in the region. The UN human rights chief said “serious violations of international law” may have been committed by Ethiopia, Eritrea and the TPLF.
From the start of the Tigray conflict, the Ethiopian government sought to limit information. Media access has been restricted and journalists covering the conflict have been arrested. At least seven of them have been arrested since November and local media say they have been threatened, beaten or interrogated for their reporting. The region was also hit by an internet and communications outage.
At this “huge moment” in Ethiopia’s history, Marks said, “the country benefits from having as many professional journalists as possible.”
“So I felt sad that it had come to this and everything I did was so politicized,” he added. “And that the government has finally made a decision that I believe is simply not in its long-term interest.”
Ethiopian Broadcast Authority Deputy Director General Yonatan Tesfaye Regassa did not respond to VOA’s request for comment.
The Ethiopian prime minister’s office did not immediately respond to VOA’s email requesting comment. In a response sent after publication, Billene Seyoum, spokesperson for the office, did not directly respond to questions about Marks’ case or to claims by reporters that they had to leave due to intimidation and could not. report freely. Billene said media arrests, license revocations and recordings were outside the purview of the Prime Minister’s office and referred VOA to the media regulator.
During a June 3 briefing, Billene said “allegations of stifled media spaces are unfounded.”
Marks said he began to feel pressure from the government as he reported on the 2020 protests following the murder of Hachalu Hundessa, a popular singer from Ethiopia’s Oromo region. More than 100 people have been killed in the protests, which have led to mass arrests.
The journalist was subsequently prevented from traveling to the Tigray region to cover the September regional elections which the central government had declared illegal. Ethiopia has postponed national and regional elections due to the pandemic.
When war broke out, Marks traveled to the regional capital, Mekelle, to speak with affected civilians, including witnesses to the November Mai-Kadra massacre, which the UN says could be seen as a war crime.
A Reuters investigation published on Monday said the incident involved two attacks: one against Tigrayans and the other against Amharas. It killed at least 767 people.
Through interviews with witnesses, Marks was able to dispute the government’s claim that only Amharas were killed. Marks believes these reports, along with his coverage of other violence and abuse, have put him at odds with authorities.
In March, his media accreditation was revoked and the media regulator accused Marks of “fake news”, according to reports at the time.
Marks said the government’s view seems to be that if a journalist is writing sympathetic stories about the victims of wartime violence, then he or she must be biased towards one side of the conflict.
“It is normal to sympathize with mothers and babies without food, or with a mother who is unable to breastfeed because she has no nutrition. Or just people whose family members were massacred by soldiers,” he said. “The unfortunate aspect is that the reporting by my people and others has become highly politicized in reporting atrocities or human rights abuses.”
When he was eventually kicked out, no specific reason was given, Marks said. He had just received a call to attend an immigration meeting which he “hadn’t had a good feeling about”.
At this meeting, an immigration officer told the reporter that he had to leave that day. “It was done. There was no room for negotiation,” Marks said. He was transported to Brussels.
Ethiopia’s ambassador to the United States did not respond to VOA’s request for comment sent via the messaging app.
Early in his term, Prime Minister Abiy was praised for improving media conditions, releasing several journalists and promising to change a controversial anti-terrorism law that had been used to jail critics.
Until then, the country had a poor press freedom record, with a high number of people detained and a repressive media environment.
But rights groups have pointed out that when Abiy faces protests or unrest, he reverts to the same past patterns of arrests and censorship.
In 2020, the government passed a new version of anti-terrorism legislation, despite criticism from human rights and freedom of expression advocates.
Muthoki Mumo, the sub-Saharan Africa representative of the New York-based Committee to Protect Journalists, said earlier optimism had been tempered by a return to old ways.
“What we’ve seen,” Mumo said, “is a steady erosion of some of the (progress) made in early 2018.”
“The legislative commitments, the commitments to make legislative reforms were still there,” she said. “But suddenly we started to see a regression to the old styles, the old media processing tools, media censorship essentially.”
Government pressure caused some local journalists to publish articles without signatures or even to flee. One of them is freelance journalist Lucy Kassa.
In February, armed men, who refused to identify themselves, entered Lucy’s home, confiscated her computer and accused her of having links with the TPLF.
Lucy had just submitted a story for the Los Angeles Times which included testimonies from rape survivors who said their attackers were Eritrean soldiers.
At that time, the Ethiopian government denied the presence of Eritrean soldiers.
Fearing for her safety, Lucy left the country, but even now she feels unsafe.
“Even those of us fleeing the country still operate in fear because government supporters have become as dangerous as the government itself,” she said. Lucy has asked that her current location not be identified as she fears retaliation.
The journalist said she and others were being harassed online and threatened on social media by people accusing them of being TPLF sympathizers, anti-government, fake news and propaganda.
All local journalists are working in an uncertain environment, but Tigrayan media are under increased scrutiny, Lucy said.
“Whether you like it or not, you will be defined by your ethnic background. For Tigrayans, for those who come from Tigrayan ethnicity, the pressure is much worse,” she said.
Lucy said the men who entered her home tried to link her ethnicity to her reporting, saying that because she is Tigrayan she supports the TPLF.
Marks also said reporting deemed sympathetic to Tigrayans could lead to accusations of bias.
“All of a sudden that makes you a TPLF sympathizer, which couldn’t be further from the truth,” he said.
The freelancer added that local journalists risked harsher consequences, including imprisonment.
The erosion of media rights has ‘accelerated’ in the past six months, with arrests of journalists or media workers who help foreign media ‘and intimidation by this regulator’, Mumo said. , from CPJ.
“It sends a very serious and consistent message of ‘be careful what you report,'” Mumo said.
Marks’ expulsion had an impact on foreign and local journalists, she said, adding that it sent a message: if it can happen to a foreign correspondent, “what could happen to me? ?
It also makes independent journalism more difficult.
It’s much harder to report on a country when you’re not there to see people’s faces, to interview them, to speak with sources in a safe way, especially in the context of internet shutdowns “, she told VOA.
Marks says the experiences of local reporters make his expulsion relative.
“A lot of others are taking much bigger risks than me, especially local journalists,” he told VOA. “Many have called me since I was expelled to tell me that they were worried that they could no longer really do their job.”
The impact, Marks said, will be a lack of information for those who need it.
“The fallout from something like this, which will end up hurting, is the public’s right to know and hold their leaders accountable,” he said.
Editor’s Note: Paragraph 10 of this article has been updated to include a response from the Prime Minister’s Office received after publication; Paragraph 18 of this article has been updated to correct that the quote was a paraphrase of the Simon Marks interview.