Ethiopia’s Tigray conflict and the battle to control information

Warnings about deterioration of press freedom as independent journalists endure harassment, denied access to embattled northern region.

Newspapers and magazines reporting on Ethiopia's Tigray conflict seen at a news stand in Addis Ababa on November 7, 2020 [File: Samuel Habtab/AP Photo]

The eruption of fighting in Ethiopia’s Tigray region 100 days ago has pitted journalists wanting to report on the conflict against a government seeking to maintain total narrative control.

The government-imposed lockdown of the northern region and communications blackout affecting the internet, mobile phones and landlines has made access and assessment for aid agencies dealing with the unfolding humanitarian crisis extremely difficult. It has also made it next to impossible for media seeking entry to investigate artillery attacks on populated areas, deliberate targeting and massacres of civilians, extrajudicial killings, widespread looting and rape, including by suspected Eritrean soldiers.

At the same time, journalists in the country have been detained, faced threats and harassment – and even attacks.

“This is the worst period in my 10-plus years of journalism,” said one Addis Ababa-based Ethiopian freelance journalist, who, like every journalist contacted for this article, insisted on anonymity due to fear of reprisals, both professional and physical.

The journalist noted that even before Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed ordered the November 4 offensive to remove the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF) after attacks of federal army bases, the government was already using new anti-hate speech and fake news legislation against critical journalists. “The risk was mainly restricted to imprisonment and verbal harassment. Now, you have the extra risk of losing your life or having your house ransacked as well as vicious social media trolling.”

The journalist said they have had to abandon several writing projects, including one on the plight of a small ethnic group caught up in the secretive Tigray conflict, due to fears about “plain old thuggery and intimidation of journalists”.

‘Regressing signs’

The list of attacks on and intimidation of journalists in Ethiopia is growing. After the Addis Standard, one of Ethiopia’s most influential independent publications, issued a statement in early November urging the government to open channels of communication, Medihane Ekubamichael, a senior editor, was arrested at his home for “attempts to dismantle the Constitution through violence” and “outrage against the Constitution”. He was soon released – but then arrested again and held for about a month. Responsible for much of the paper’s day-to-day operations, his absence meant it had to reduce its journalistic output.

On January 19, Dawit Kebede Araya, a reporter with broadcaster Tigray TV, was found dead with gunshot wounds to his head in his car near Mekelle, Tigray’s regional capital. The Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) has urged an independent investigation into whether his killing was motivated by his work.

On February 8, Ethiopian freelance journalist Lucy Kassa, who has reported about Tigray for several foreign media including the Los Angeles Times and Al Jazeera, said armed intruders broke into her Addis Ababa home. She said men knocked her to the ground, raided her apartment and took a laptop and other items related to her reporting, accusing her of “spreading lies” and supporting “the Tigray junta”.

Three leading Democratic US senators recently wrote to Abiy expressing concerns about the erosion of press freedoms and the government’s “draconian tactics”, while calling for the release of detained journalists.

Now, rights groups said the continuing clash about freedom of the press is rolling back gains made by the country’s long-suffering media, signalling a swing back towards authoritarian intolerance.

“The imprisonment of journalists, many of whom were held for weeks without formal charges, are an indicator of the deterioration of press freedom in Ethiopia and a sign that the government is regressing despite the positive reforms made in 2018 when Abiy became prime minister,” said Muthoki Mumo, CPJ’s representative for sub-Saharan Africa.

“Ethiopian journalists should feel free to publish critical reports and commentary, and this cannot happen in an environment where police can arrest and hold them for weeks without charge, blatantly weaponising the judicial system to intimidate the media.”

The press secretary for the Office of the Prime Minister of Ethiopia did not respond to several requests for comment.

Media landscape challenges

When Abiy was awarded the 2019 Nobel Peace Prize, the committee praised his “discontinuing media censorship” among his achievements during his first 100 days in power. Positive changes to Ethiopia’s media landscape, including the country ending its block of more than 260 websites and lifting a ban on media outlets forced to work in exile, saw Ethiopia rise in the World Press Freedom Index compiled by Reporters Without Borders (RSF) from 150 out of 180 countries in 2018 to the 99th rank in 2020. The CPJ’s 2018 annual Prison Census report on journalists imprisoned for their work around the world included no Ethiopians – a first in 14 years.

But as Abiy’s tenure has progressed, so has criticism of his lack of transparency – the prime minister announced the Tigray offensive, in effect a declaration of war, on Facebook – and for repeating what has always happened in Ethiopia when a fresh administration arrives promising reform and freedom of speech: initially new media flourish as restrictions are lifted, but within a few years, the situation returns to the old ways of previous Ethiopian governments.

The CPJ’s 2020 Prison Census published in December 2020 included seven Ethiopian journalists, the third-most among sub-Saharan African countries, after Eritrea and Cameroon (six Ethiopian journalists have been released since the report was published).

Monitors do acknowledge that the government has to deal with a media landscape that is institutionally weak, in which freedom of expression is abused by some media to foment tension and partisanship, even ethnic violence.

“There are legitimate concerns from state and non-state actors about misinformation, disinformation and incitement, particularly during times of political tension,” Muthoki said. “However, these concerns should not be used as pretext to harass the media for critical reporting; to criminalise dissenting views; or as justification to throw journalists behind bars.”

It has long been understood that Ethiopian journalists have it tougher than Ethiopia-based foreign journalists who can more easily seek backup from international agencies or embassies. Ethiopian journalists from Tigray face even more difficulties from the conflict’s fallout. Ethnic Tigrayan journalists have reportedly been collectively suspended from state media outlets, while several anchors of state-owned Ethiopian television were suspended from work for objecting to the wording of news about the Tigray war, according to a source in the industry.

Commenting on an RSF statement about the attack on Kassa, who is Tigrayan, the government’s Ethiopia State of Emergency Fact Check said “all individuals need to be free from any form of harm” but added the press watchdog was wrong in describing her as working for foreign organisations because she did not have the necessary press authorisation.

CPJ condemned the government unit’s statement as “disgraceful”. “Instead of identifying these attackers and holding them to account, authorities have instead sought to discredit Lucy Kassa by saying she’s not a legally registered journalist, exposing growing hostility to the [press],” it said.

‘Extreme intolerance’

But the screw seems to be turning also on foreign journalists, too. Even while being denied access in Tigray, journalists have said that members of foreign media are also portrayed by the Ethiopian state as “traitors” and enemies of Ethiopia, “paid by Western governments to destabilise Ethiopia”. Foreign reporters also report difficulties renewing work visas, while some have been threatened with deportation. Just quoting the TPLF, the region’s former governing party that has clashed with Abiy, will get you in trouble, journalists have said.

“The level of intolerance around Tigray is as extreme as anything I have seen,” said one long-term commentator on Ethiopia who recently visited the country after working there for nearly a decade, and who described Abiy as displaying “classic dictatorial tendencies”.

There have also been suggestions by journalists the government is employing a coordinated strategy to oppress and undermine journalists through social media, state media and the Ethiopian diaspora. Al Jazeera could not independently verify these claims.

But just as the government is being accused of firing out reams of propaganda and leveraging claims of fake news, so, too, have its opponents. The anti-government strategy appears to be focused on increasing activity on social media – in particular, on Twitter – with supporters encouraged to create new accounts and respond to content about the conflict while also spreading hashtags and tweeting at influential Twitter users. The government has countered by positioning itself in the role of fact-checker and provider of reliable information, usurping the job that the media should be doing.

The result is an extremely confusing information environment compounded by a general sense of suspicion about the information coming out about the conflict – all of which journalists must contend with and try to make sense of, while being impeded by the government.

“The government needs to understand the media is an important component to building a strong democratic society that can inform the public and serve as a platform for dialogue,” said Tewodrose Tirfe, chair of the Amhara Association of America, a US-based advocacy group for the Amhara, Ethiopia’s second-largest ethnic group.

“The government needs to view the Ethiopian media as a partner and not limit journalists access to conflict areas and government officials.”

Source: Al Jazeera