Ethiopia’s civil war dashes once-high hopes for press freedom

In a Facebook post in late October, Awlo Media Center, an Ethiopian online media outlet critical of Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed’s administration, said “pressure and obstruction” from the government had forced him to close and lay off all its employees.

The closure came after a number of journalists and media workers from the Awlo Media Center were arrested in late June and held incommunicado for weeks at a military camp in eastern Ethiopia, according to media and CPJ documentation. After their release, Awlo said, the outlet’s operations were effectively crippled when security personnel refused to comply with court orders to reopen the company’s offices in the capital Addis Ababa or return the equipment. confiscated.

Awlo Media Center’s silence reflects how hostile the media environment has become as Ethiopia descends into civil war. The year-long conflict, which pits the federal government against forces led by the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF) – a political group that dominated a repressive Ethiopian government for nearly three decades – has left thousands dead and more than two million displaced. Parts of the country are facing famine.

Since the start of the war, CPJ has documented multiple press freedom violations, including the arrests of scores of journalists. At least nine of them remained in detention on December 1, 2021, according to CPJ’s annual prison census, and CPJ is investigating reports of others still in detention following a series of arrests in November.

CPJ also confirmed the murder of a journalist in connection with his work, the first such case documented since 1998, and continues to investigate the motive for the murder of a second journalist. Other setbacks for the media include the expulsion of at least one foreign journalist for covering the war; the one-week suspension of Addis Standard, an independent news site; attacks and intimidation of members of the press; and an internet outage in large parts of northern Ethiopia.

“I remain hopeless about the media in Ethiopia. I know it’s gloomy but that’s my feeling,” said one of 10 journalists who spoke to CPJ in November. Like almost all the other interviewees, this journalist requested anonymity, terrified of retaliation for sharing opinions with an international organization.

CPJ research shows that most journalists arrested since the start of the war have faced vague charges of supporting the TPLF that never materialized into formal charges. Many of these journalists were ethnic Tigrayans. Police have also entrenched a tendency to claim they need time to detain journalists in seemingly indefinite investigations; and defied or delayed compliance with court orders to release journalists on bail, according to this research. For example, Kibrom Worku, a radio journalist, and Tesfa-Alem Tekle, a Nation Media Group correspondent based in Kenya, remained detained in early December after being released on bail.

“I’m not even asking not to be arrested now. But what I’m asking is to be arrested by a government that will allow me to defend myself, not throw me into a camp and forget about me,” he said. said another reporter in an interview. with CPJ.

On November 2, the federal government declared a state of emergency and passed sweeping legislation authorizing warrantless searches; potentially indefinite detentions; and suspends due process. The law also gave regulators the power to suspend or ban media “suspected of providing direct or indirect, moral or material support to terrorist organizations”.

“What counts as indirect moral support, no one knows. Is it a prayer or a wish? Or an article?” an editor noted via the messaging app. The publisher said they started avoiding critical war coverage after the state of emergency.

In a statement released in mid-November, the Ethiopian Human Rights Commission, a local watchdog, estimated that thousands of people, mostly ethnic Tigrayans, had been arrested since the proclamation of the ban. ’emergency state. Journalists and media outlets faced arrests and restrictions during pre-Abiy states of emergency in Ethiopia, as documented by CPJ. Political changes in early 2018, when Abiy became prime minister, and the release of journalists previously detained for years had raised hopes for a new media era in what was once one of the most censored countries. in the world.

Today, Ethiopia has once again become one of the worst jailers of journalists in sub-Saharan Africa.

Authorities tightened their legal restrictions in a November 25 statement, banning “unofficial dissemination.”[ion] information on military maneuvers, warfront updates and results by any means” and warning against “using freedom of information as a pretext” “to support the terrorist group directly or indirectly.” In an emailed statement, Kennedy Wandera, president of The Foreign Press Association Africa, a regional press rights body, told CPJ that the latest order was a “bad sign of things to come for the country’s media”.

“The country’s journalists had to change the way they reported, wrote and edited throughout the war. [ban on unofficial information] is just a continuation of the year-long assault on the media; media that had already been decimated,” said Zecharias Zelalem, a Canada-based freelance journalist who spoke to CPJ via messaging app.

At a press conference on November 30, Billene Seyoum, the prime minister’s spokesman, said reports that the media had been “suppressed” by the state of emergency constituted “deliberate misinformation”. CPJ did not receive a response to Nov. 30 emails seeking comment on the arrests of journalists, the closure of Awlo Media Center, and state emergency regulations from Billene or the Minister of Health. Justice Gedion Timothewos Hassebon. In a December 8 telephone conversation, federal police spokesman Jeylan Abdi said no journalists were being detained in Ethiopia for their professional work but rather for “violation of the law in force in the country”. He did not address specific cases or respond to an email seeking comment on the closure of Awlo Media Centre.

As the closure of Awlo shows, this assault on the press had a chilling effect. Four Ethiopian journalists arrested in the past year told CPJ they had left the profession or were no longer able to work because they had gone underground.

“Even if I am freed,” said a reporter, “I am not free.”

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