On April 26th, an official from the Ethiopian attorney general’s office took to state media to lament what he called a lack of police action in clamping down on 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-based journalist told Al Jazeera on the condition of anonymity for fear of being targeted. “I had already heard rumours that the government was keen on reining in the press, especially producers of digital content. The only question now was how many of us would be jailed.”
That prediction has proven to be accurate.
By April 29th, the state-run Ethiopian Media Authority announced that it had filed criminal cases against at least 25 media outlets.
Then, during the course of this month, Ethiopian police pounced on local newsrooms, detaining 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 offence committed through media,” said Daniel Bekele, head of the Ethiopian Human Rights Commission, a public institution. “All detained media personnel should be released.”
In addition, The Economist correspondent Tom Gardner was expelled from the country on May 13th.
At least a dozen of the arrests are linked to critical coverage of the breakout 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 demonstrators and opposition politicians critical of plans to demobilise ethnic Amhara militias.
The arrests raised the total number of media employees arrested across Ethiopia this year to 22. The authorities have accused the detainees of worsening the bloodshed at a time when the country is torn apart by strife.
“The right to free speech doesn’t permit one to tarnish the honour 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 pushing extremist agendas are unforgivable crimes and cannot be considered free speech.”
However, press freedom advocates dismiss the comments from the authorities, saying the detentions are part of a consistent trend.
“CPJ has documented a drastic decline in press freedom in Ethiopia over the last three years,” said Angela Quintal, head of the Committee to Protect Journalists’ (CPJ) Africa programme. “This decline has accelerated during the ongoing civil war. Numerous journalists have been arrested and detained without trial or for prolonged pre-charge periods.”
The pressure has made Ethiopian journalists contemplate quitting their jobs or fleeing to neighbouring countries. Some have toned down their reporting and are electing to write stories without bylines.
Backtracking on press freedom
It is a far cry from what had been anticipated only a few years ago.
Ethiopian journalist Akemel Negash remembers that era. In 2012, his coverage of Muslim protests brought him into the crosshairs of the state and forced him to flee the country. Currently editor-in-chief of the local Amba Digital news site, he said the breakout of war in late 2020 brought back memories of the country’s recent past.
“[When war broke out] the government made things clear for journalists by saying ‘you are either with 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 a state enemy. 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 detainees, including journalists, promising to allow them to operate freely.
The wave of optimism caused exiled reporters to return and set up shop in Ethiopia. The whirlwind of reforms saw the establishment of a host of new local newspapers, television and digital news outlets in 2018.
Ethiopia also ended the year with no journalists in its jails, a first since 2004.
By 2020, however, Ethiopia had begun to backtrack on those gains. Critical radio and television networks were shut down and several journalists were incarcerated.
In November that year, civil war broke out in the country’s Tigray region. With the full-scale mobilisation of the army, 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 beggars belief that a mere three years ago during World Press Freedom Day in Addis Ababa, Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed boasted to the world that there was not a single 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 referring to 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 global audiences, Ethiopia severed communications to the Tigray region and barred journalists and aid workers from travelling there.
Despite the blackout, journalists managed to unearth the horrors of the war, including government atrocities against civilians.
Abiy and his forces came in for increased scrutiny and backlash. In response, the prime minister issued a call in February 2021 to Ethiopians urging them to prevent the “tarnishing of our country’s reputation”.
The prime minister blamed some citizens whom he accused of sympathising with the rebels, of working with enemy states to spread misinformation and plot the downfall of the country.
Akemel Negash said Abiy was referring to the country’s journalists.
“The prime minister’s call was, in my opinion, an ultimatum to journalists who were unwilling to help the government shape its narrative,” Akemel explained. “As a result, journalists began to flee the country or avoid reporting on the war.”
In April 2021, Abiy overhauled the leadership of the state Ethiopian Media Authority which regulates media activity in the country. Among the appointees was a new deputy director called Yonatan Tesfaye, a politician renowned for taking to social media to call for the arrests of journalists he labelled “traitors.”
The following month, New York Times reporter Simon Marks was expelled from the country, after his coverage of weaponised rape in Ethiopia’s civil war. His expulsion preceded a wave of arrests, including those of a dozen journalists of the Addis Ababa-based Awlo Media newsroom on June 19th 2021.
Critical coverage of any sort was promptly penalised. Licences were revoked, newsrooms ransacked by police, equipment was confiscated, and journalists were hauled off to prison.
By the end of 2021, Ethiopia had detained at least 46 members of its own local press, including the likes of Bikila Amenu and Dessu Dulla, newscasters for the Oromia News Network who stand accused of conspiring against the state. If convicted of the crime, they could end up with death sentences, according to Ethiopia’s penal code.
Prior to declaring all-out war, the Nobel Peace Prize-winning prime minister oversaw Ethiopia’s climbing out of the bottom quarter of the Journalists Without Borders’ (RSF) global press freedom index, ranking 99th globally in 2020.
Ethiopia is currently placed at 114th.
“For the press, the current situation is as bad, if not worse than what was seen during the years that preceded Abiy’s rule,” said Tazebew Assefa, board member at the Ashara Media newsroom.
On May 19th, police raided Ashara’s main office in the Amhara regional capital of Bahir Dar and detained five of the network’s employees.
“The government had wanted to shut us down for over a year due to our coverage of corruption and other issues that state media typically ignores,” Tazebew said. “They are now actively muzzling the private press, but that isn’t a solution. In fact, it may serve to push disenfranchised people to other forms of struggle, including armed struggle.”