In Ethiopia, mass detentions signal declining press freedom


On April 26, an official from the Ethiopian Attorney General’s office took to state media to complain about what he called a lack of police action in curbing disinformation and hate speech.

A number of journalists in the country saw that as a bad omen.

“When I heard the call, I knew a crackdown on the press was imminent,” an Addis Ababa journalist told Al Jazeera on condition of anonymity for fear of being targeted. “I had heard rumors that the government was keen to keep the press in check, especially digital content producers. The only question now was how many of us would be jailed.”

That prediction has turned out to be correct.

On April 29, the state-run Ethiopian Media Authority announced that it had initiated criminal proceedings against at least 25 media outlets.

Then, over the course of this month, Ethiopian police raided local newsrooms and arrested 19 people, including journalists, magazine editors and talk show hosts.

“We reiterate that Ethiopia’s media law clearly prohibits pre-trial detention for any alleged crime committed through the media,” said Daniel Bekele, head of the Ethiopian Human Rights Commission, a public institution. “All detained media personnel must be released.”

In addition, The Economist correspondent Tom Gardner was expelled from the country on May 13.

At least a dozen of the arrests are related to critical reporting of the outbreak of fighting between the Ethiopian army and militias in the Amhara region. In addition, security forces in the region have detained more than 4,000 anti-government protesters and opposition politicians who are critical of plans to demobilize ethnic Amhara militias.

The arrests have pushed the total number of media workers arrested across Ethiopia to 22 this year. Authorities have accused the detainees of exacerbating the bloodshed at a time when the country is torn by strife.

“The right to free speech does not allow anyone to harm the honor of individuals, communities, the government or the country,” said Gizachew Muluneh, spokesman for the regional government of Amhara, in a statement on Facebook. “Calling for ethnic and religious clashes and pushing for extremist agendas are unforgivable crimes and cannot be considered freedom of expression.”

Press freedom advocates, however, have rejected the authorities’ comments, saying the detentions are part of a consistent 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 has accelerated during the ongoing civil war. Numerous journalists have been arrested and detained without trial or for extended periods of prior indictment.”

The pressure has made Ethiopian journalists consider quitting their jobs or fleeing to neighboring countries. Some have toned down their reporting and choose to write stories without bylines.

Reflecting on press freedom

It’s a far cry from what was expected just a few years ago.

In 2009, the country passed an infamous and vaguely worded anti-terrorism proclamation used to sentence prominent journalists to long prison terms for terrorism.

Ethiopian journalist Akemel Negash remembers that time. In 2012, his coverage of Muslim protests put him in the crosshairs of the state and forced him to flee the country. He is currently editor-in-chief of local news site Amba Digital and said the outbreak of war in late 2020 brought back memories of the country’s recent past.

†[When war broke out] the administration made things clear to journalists by saying ‘you are for us or against us,’ as 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, newly appointed Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed ordered the release of tens of thousands of political prisoners, including journalists, with a promise to allow them to operate freely.

The wave of optimism caused journalists to return in exile and settle in Ethiopia. The whirlwind of reforms saw the creation of a large number of new local newspapers, television and digital news channels in 2018.

Ethiopia also ended the year without journalists in prison, a first since 2004.

By 2020, however, Ethiopia began to backtrack on those gains. Critical radio and television networks were shut down and several journalists were imprisoned.

In November of that year, civil war broke out in the Tigray region of the country. With the massive 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 is unbelievable that just three years ago, during World Press Freedom Day in Addis Ababa, Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed boasted to the world that not a single Ethiopian journalist was behind bars,” Quintal added. “And here we are in May 2022, Ethiopia is back to mass arrests and arbitrary detentions of journalists.”

The government’s propaganda channels began openly citing 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 to the Tigray region and banned journalists and aid workers from traveling there.

In January 2021, amid the media blackout, Tigray-based reporter Dawit Kebede Araya was shot dead by Ethiopian troops, marking the local press’s first death since 1998.

Despite the blackout, journalists have managed to expose the horrors of the war, including the government’s atrocities against civilians.

Abiy and his troops came in for more control and resistance. In response, the Prime Minister said made a call in February 2021 to Ethiopians urging them to prevent the “tarnishing of our country’s reputation”.

The prime minister accused some citizens of sympathizing with the rebels, collaborating with hostile states to spread misinformation and plot the country’s demise.

Akemel Negash said Abiy was referring to the country’s journalists.

“The prime minister’s appeal, in my view, was an ultimatum to journalists who were unwilling to help the government shape its story,” Akemel explained. “As a result, journalists began to flee the country or avoid reporting on the war.”

In April 2021, Abiy revised the leadership of the state Ethiopian Media Authority which regulates media activity in the country. Among the appointees was a new deputy director named Yonatan Tesfaye, a politician known for his social media to call for the arrest of journalists he called “traitors.”

The following month, New York Times reporter Simon Marks was expelled from the country after his coverage of gun violence in Ethiopia’s civil war. His expulsion preceded a wave of arrests, including that of a dozen journalists from Awlo Media’s newsroom in Addis Ababa on June 19, 2021.

Critical reporting of any kind was immediately punished. Permits were revoked, newsrooms searched by police, equipment confiscated and journalists were dragged to jail.

By the end of 2021, Ethiopia had detained at least 46 members of its own local press, including Bikila Amenu and Dessu Dulla, newscasters for the Oromia News Network, who are accused of conspiring against the state. If convicted of the crime, they could face the death penalty under the Ethiopian Penal Code.

Before declaring all-out war, the Nobel Peace Prize-winning prime minister oversaw Ethiopia’s rise from the bottom quarter of the Journalists Without Borders’ (RSF) global press freedom index, which ranked 99th globally in 2020.

Ethiopia is currently ranked 114th.

“For the press, the current situation is just as bad, if not worse, than what was seen in the years leading up to Abiy’s reign,” said Tazebew Assefa, board member of Ashara Media’s newsroom.

On May 19, police raided Ashara’s headquarters in the regional capital of Amhara, Bahir Dar, and arrested five network employees.

“The government has wanted to shut us down for over a year because of our coverage of corruption and other matters that the state media usually ignores,” Tazebew said. “They are now actively muzzling the private press, but that is not a solution. In fact, it may serve to force disenfranchised people into other forms of struggle, including armed struggle.”

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