Ethiopia’s ‘vicious cycle’

Over the past few weeks, authorities in Ethiopia have arrested thousands of people in the northern region of Amhara, citing a crackdown on armed groups there. Tefera Mamo, a former senior military commander in Amhara, was detained after giving media interviews in which he criticized the national government. Numerous journalists have been swept up, too, both in Amhara and in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia’s capital, including nine media workers across two outlets that had recently covered the crackdown. On Saturday, the head of Ethiopia’s Human Rights Commission called on officials to release eighteen media personnel currently in detention, calling the figure a “new low”; on Sunday, he updated the number to nineteen, adding “that we know of.” The government, for its part, recently put out a chilling statement warning that it will “continue to take irreversible measures on individuals involved in illegal activities who are planning and working to create havoc and chaos, also on those wearing a cloak of media outlets and journalists.”

Last week, in response to a question about the Amhara situation at a briefing, a US State Department spokesperson expressed concern about what he called “the narrowing space for freedom of expression and independent media in Ethiopia.” Ethiopian journalists, too, have spoken out about a “crossroads” moment for their profession, as Henry Wilkins, of the US-backed broadcaster Voice of America, recently put it, with Elias Meseret, a reporter who has worked with the Associated Press, telling Wilkins of a media climate marked both by a “lack of professionalism” and official “harassment and intimidation.” One journalist told Wilkins that press freedom in Ethiopia is still better now than in the highly repressive period prior to 2018, when the current government took over—but another told Al Jazeera that the situation now is as bad as, if not worse than, before. “The pressure has made Ethiopian journalists contemplate quitting their jobs or fleeing to neighbouring countries,” Al Jazeera’s Zecharias Zelalem wrote yesterday. “Some have toned down their reporting and are electing to write stories without bylines.”

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At the time, many media-watchers considered 2018 to be a turning point for the Ethiopian press; journalists who were then in exile returned home, and a number of new outlets flourished. The administration of Abiy Ahmed, the newly installed prime minister, allowed access to hundreds of websites that had been blocked under the prior regime while also moving to free journalists and other political prisoners; in its annual global census of jailed journalists, the Committee to Protect Journalists found none in Ethiopia for the first time since 2004. In 2019, Ethiopia hosted unesco’s annual World Press Freedom Day, with a UN official hailing the country’s “commitment to democratic reforms, especially in the media sector.” Later the same year, Abiy won a Nobel Peace Prize after ending a long-term conflict with neighboring Eritrea. And Ethiopia shot up forty places on Reporters Without Borders’ World Press Freedom Index.

Also in 2019, CPJ’s Muthoki Mumo visited Ethiopia and reported back on the encouraging signs for the press there. “I was fighting” for press freedom, Abel Wabella, a journalist who was detained on terrorism charges in the pre-Abiy era, said, “but I did not expect it to happen in such a short time.” Reporters with whom Mumo spoke, however, also urged caution, noting persistent challenges—around access to government officials, for instance, and ongoing advertiser skittishness about investing in critical media—and fretting that their newfound freedoms were, so far, rooted less in legal rights than political goodwill. Befekadu Hailu, the editor of a weekly, told Mumo that he didn’t know whether the flowering of press freedom would last. “There is equal chance for the change to regress as it can progress,” Befekadu said. “It needs collective effort of the media, civil society, and government to save it from falling into the vicious cycle.”

The caution would quickly prove prudent. Even before Abiy was awarded the Nobel, arrests of journalists started to tick up again; CPJ’s 2019 count found only one still in prison, but cautioned that this figure didn’t include “multiple complex cases of jailed activist-journalists.” Early in 2020, Yayesew Shimelis, a columnist and TV host, was detained after reporting on the spread of covid and later charged under terror laws; then, in the summer, the authorities implemented a national internet blackout (having sporadically blocked the Web on a regional basis since Abiy came to power), raided at least one media outlet, and arrested more journalists amid protests following the fatal shooting of a popular musician. CPJ’s count at the end of 2020 found seven journalists in prison. By that point, war had broken out between Abiy’s administration and forces in the northern region of Tigray whose leadership dominated the national government prior to 2018.

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According to RSF and Ethiopia’s Human Rights Commission, six journalists were detained in the first week of the conflict alone. One of those was Medihane Ekubamichael, an editor at the Addis Standard, with Tsedale Lemma, the publication’s editor in chief, suggesting that his arrest was connected to his early coverage of the war and ethnic Tigrayan heritage. A couple of months later, Tsedale spoke to my CJR colleague Feven Merid about the challenges Ethiopian media were now facing, and took aim at credulous prior Western coverage of Abiy. “There was a lot of hysteria, a lot of enthusiasm and happiness around the Peace Prize. That is how the international media functions,” Tsedale said. Now “the international media is confronted with a reality that we have been trying to highlight for a while. They’re reporting on the prime minister based on his words and based on his actions now. I think there is this moment of reckoning. People are seeing through him for what he’s doing. The period of infatuation seems to have come to a screeching halt.”

As the war developed, it was shaped by a furious battle for its narrative, with government officials shutting off Tigray’s internet and impeding physical access. Those who tried to report on what was going on in the region—where various parties have since been accused of rampant human rights abuses—faced increasingly sharp threats. In January 2021, just days after Tsedale spoke to Merid, Dawit Kebede Araya, a journalist with a state-owned Tigrayan broadcaster, was detained, then killed while driving in the regional capital, with the Addis Standard and others reporting that security forces were to blame. (By one count, Dawit became the first Ethiopian journalist killed in relation to their work since 1998, though CPJ is still investigating the circumstances of his death.) In February 2021, Lucy Kassa, an ethnic Tigrayan journalist, had just filed a story to the LA Times about alleged gang rape by Eritrean soldiers allied to Abiy’s government when unidentified men barged into her home in Addis Ababa and threatened to kill her. “I no longer feel safe here,” she wrote afterward, also for the LA Times. In March 2021, workers with Western outlets—the BBC, Agence France-Presse, and the Financial Timeswere arrested in Tigray. In May 2021, government officials expelled Simon Marks, a correspondent for the New York Times who had recently reported on atrocities including rape.

The year since then has seen at least one more killing of an Ethiopian journalist (the circumstances were again murky), more assaults of media workers, and more arrests, with some of those detained held in military camps; by the end of 2021, CPJ data showed Ethiopia as the second-worst jailer of journalists in its region, after Eritrea, a reversion to its pre-2018 status. Around the same time, with Tigrayan fighters surging, Abiy declared a state of emergency and the authorities subsequently swept up a number of journalists, including Amir Aman Kiyaro, an AP freelancer, and Thomas Engida, a camera operator; earlier this year, the state of emergency ended and Amir and Thomas were freed by a court, though reports at the time noted that both journalists still faced legal jeopardy. Last month, the government expelled Tom Gardner, an Economist correspondent, for unspecified ethical violations.

Then came the latest wave of arrests, the context for which has been as complex as the rest of Ethiopia’s war: forces and armed groups in the Amhara region fought on Abiy’s side against the Tigrayan forces, but relations between the national government and regional power brokers have grown strained. It’s simpler to state that journalists, once again, have been caught in the middle. Back in 2019, when CPJ’s Mumo visited Ethiopia with press freedom at a high ebb, she noted that the dawn of the Abiy era wasn’t the first time that the country’s media had experienced a period of liberalization; it had also done so in the nineties, only for that to be followed by a crackdown. The vicious cycle has now come around again. Tazebew Assefa, a board member at Ashara Media, an Amhara outlet that was raided just weeks ago, told Al Jazeera recently that the authorities “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.”

Below, more on press freedom in Ethiopia and around the world:

  • Ethiopia: In a recent op-ed for The Guardian, Kristin Skare Orgeret and Bruce Mutsvairo examined how informational polarization—a key problem identified worldwide in RSF’s latest World Press Freedom Index—is “emerging as one overarching hurdle inhibiting progress” in both Ethiopia and Mali. “Ethiopian news media have become dangerously divided along ethnic lines,” Orgeret and Mutsvairo wrote. “Facebook and Twitter have come under fire over their roles in the conflict. Critics argue they are not doing enough to prevent the spread of hate speech and incitements to violence on their platforms. Facebook whistleblower Frances Haugen has also stated that ‘in places like Ethiopia’ social media ‘is fanning ethnic violence,’ a claim the firms reject.”
  • Ukraine: Also for The Guardian, Isobel Koshiw assessed the state of the TV landscape in Ukraine, where rival channels have been broadcasting the same content since Russia invaded, an arrangement that has since been signed into law. Supporters of the arrangement say that it is necessary—with one calling it “the information war equivalent of our anti-aircraft systems” and pointing out that channels were left short-staffed after journalists left Kyiv earlier in the war—but others have been more critical, arguing, Koshiw notes, “that it amounts to a monopoly of the information space by President Volodymyr Zelensky’s team and could be exploited for political purposes.”
  • The Netherlands: CJR’s Caleb Pershan went deep on the murder of Peter R. de Vries, a Dutch investigative journalist who was shot and killed last year. “When they took Peter, that was an accident waiting to happen,” Paul Vugts, another reporter, said. “But it was a big shock for us all, because who is going to be next? Is it going to be a judge? Is it going to be us? We don’t know, but we expect more violence.” Pershan’s article is the third in a CJR series on murdered journalists. You can read more about the series—and find Paroma Soni’s story on Mexico and Merid’s story on Haiti—on this landing page.
  • Everywhere: On Monday, The Guardian announced that its website is now available to users of Tor as an “onion service.” Tor “helps conceal its users’ locations” and “makes it harder for internet service providers to identify what their users are accessing,” meaning that users “can bypass censorship in parts of the world where access to independent news might be difficult or if certain websites and services are banned,” the paper writes. “The introduction of a Guardian onion service means that the entire communication pathway between a reader and The Guardian takes place within the Tor network, thereby avoiding potential risks with the ‘hop’ between the Tor network and the world wide web service” while protecting reader anonymity in other ways.


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Jon Allsop is a freelance journalist whose work has appeared in the New York Review of Books, Foreign Policy, and The Nation, among other outlets. He writes CJR’s newsletter The Media Today. Find him on Twitter @Jon_Allsop.

TOP IMAGE: FILE - Ethiopian military parade with national flags attached to their rifles at a rally organized by local authorities to show support for the Ethiopian National Defense Force (ENDF), at Meskel square in downtown Addis Ababa, Ethiopia on Nov. 7, 2021. Ethiopian lawmakers voted on Tuesday, Feb. 15, 2022 to end the country's three-month state of emergency, citing recent developments in the conflict, as mediation efforts continue to end the deadly war in the north. (AP Photo, File)