Ethiopia’s free press fights to survive Abiy’s wartime crackdown

By The Africa Report
Posted on Thursday, 5 May 2022 13:40

Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed addresses the inauguration ceremony of a building of the new headquarters of the Commercial Bank of Ethiopia (CBE) in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, Feb. 13, 2022. Ethiopia on Sunday inaugurated the 209.15-meter-tall landmark building located at the heart of its capital city, which houses the country's largest public-owned commercial bank. The CBE new headquarters was built by Chinese construction giant China State Construction Engineering Corporation. (Xinhua/Wang Ping) - Wang Ping

Last week, one of Ethiopia's popular Amharic magazines, Feteh ('Justice'), came out with a riotous cover page that allegorically portrayed Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed as the late Ababa ('Father') Tesfaye, a prominent children's storyteller.

The cover illustrates Abiy waving to children from a TV screen – an iconic scene of Tesfaye, as generations recall him narrating tales on national television. The magazine’s title? An Era of Fairy Tale.

The critique appears inspired by a character assessment that is gaining popularity on social media following Abiy’s repeated public speeches in which he recites stories and proverbs instead of addressing critical issues.

Run by an acclaimed journalist, Temesgen Desalegn, Feteh has become known for its satirical take on current affairs. On the surface, this suggests an improved media freedom space since Abiy took office in 2018, but the reality is more nuanced.

In October 2020, Temesgen and the magazine’s editor were arrested by police following the publication of an article about the mayor of Addis Ababa’s bank account. They were released a day later due to public backlash.

Even when management of a media [publication] has decided to maintain its critical voice at any cost, writers are resorting to self-censorship.

This was nothing new in Temesgen’s long career. Several newspapers and magazines he managed were forced out of print by the previous EPRDF government and he served three years in prison after he was jailed in 2014 for publishing articles deemed as “attacks against the state” and “written to incite the youth to dismantle the constitutional order”.

Feteh Magazine is Temesgen’s latest endeavour and was first published in 2019. Three years later, Temesgen now believes Ethiopia’s journalism is shackled by fear of reprisal in an increasingly repressive climate.

“It’s getting difficult to have journalists write these bluntly critical writings,” he says. “Even when the management of a media [publication] has decided to maintain its critical voice at any cost, writers are resorting to self-censorship.”

Early improvements

It is common for self-proclaimed reformist governments to initially be accommodating to press freedom. The EPRDF too, in its early days, was acclaimed for setting up a precedent for freedom of expression, putting an end to government censorship.

The trend continues under Abiy. In 2018, after the current ‘reform’ government came to power, there were promising signs of freedom of expression, including the release of political prisoners, and even the country’s most cynical critics were singing Abiy’s praises.

The government has initiated legal reforms of freedom of expression and media, amending the country’s media proclamation. Among many provisions, the new proclamation decriminalises defamation and restricts it to civil liability.

These reforms have helped spark a proliferation of private media houses in the country. Among these is Wazema Radio, which was founded by exiled journalists and whose online platform operated from the US.

In 2020, however, its editors decided to set up shop in Ethiopia and undergo the necessary registration. “In comparison, there’s a departure from old ways,” says Wazema co-founder Argaw Ashine. “The government appears more tolerant of criticism.”

The new attitude was also reflected in the number of jailed journalists. According to the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ), for the first time in more than a decade, no Ethiopian journalists were behind bars in 2018. This remained true until 2020 when seven journalists were jailed.

Old habits die hard

“All have come presenting themselves as forces of change and freedom, promising to also free the media,” journalist Bekalu Alamirew says on government-media relations under successive Ethiopian regimes. “But they all have revealed themselves as authoritarians inherently opposed to freedom and critical media.”

According to Muthoki Mumo, the representative for sub-Saharan Africa at the CPJ, things started to shift in April 2020, when the committee began flagging various arrest cases documented in Ethiopia. In 2021, CPJ reported a worsened situation, with nine journalists in jail as of November.

Reporters Without Borders supports the claim that media freedom is deteriorating. Ethiopia’s ranking on the organisation’s 2022 index fell by 13 points from the year before. Of the five main indicators used in the scoring, Ethiopia performed worst on security indicators and best on legislative indicators.

In an open letter last month, Argaw and other Ethiopian journalists took a stand for press freedom, stating that more than 40 journalists had been arrested in 2021.

As the editor of Awlo Media, an online TV channel, Bekalu has also had first-hand experience with repression. In the years since 2019, Awlo became an influential platform airing hard-hitting political content and opposition views.

The ruling party was not happy with the criticism and its officials would decline Bekalu’s interview requests. Since November 2020, he has been repeatedly arrested, his whereabouts often left undisclosed.

“We were working amid death threats and harassment often coming from the government intelligence, which tried to silence us,” he says. “Some in the opposition had also their own bias towards Awlo, but informally, even ruling party officials have been appreciative of our critical work.”

We have perhaps reached the worst point and form of tightening up the media space.

In June 2021, security forces raided Awlo TV‘s studio, detaining Bekalu and a dozen staffers at gunpoint. They were held behind bars until mid-August. Three months later, Awlo announced it had ceased operations, citing “injustice and harassment by the government”. “We have perhaps reached the worst point and form of tightening up the media space,” Bekalu tells The Africa Report.

The struggle persists in other media as well. Last year, authorities prohibited Feteh from being circulated on the Saturday before national elections. Still, Feteh chooses to maintain its critical voice.

The political crisis in the country has not only altered how the government interacts with the media, but it has also emboldened mob justice.

“Threats used to come from the government,” Argaw tells the Africa Report. “Now there are non-state vigilantes that also act outside and within the government.”

War and repression

Since 2018, a journalist we’ll call Henok – to protect his identity – has extensively covered Oromia, Ethiopia’s largest regional state, shedding light on political scandals and the armed conflict between the Oromo Liberation Army (OLA) and federal and regional forces.

It has not been without risk. Between mid-2020 and late 2021, Henok was arrested by Oromia police three times. “There are always risks attached to covering the conflict here,” he says. “Unfortunately, unlawful jailing of journalists has today become a norm.”

Worse, he says, authorities have accused him of being a traitor who supports the insurgents. “Journalists reporting politics in Oromia will only be tolerated if they work in government mediums,” he says. ” Even then, they must side with the state and its narrative.”

The government’s attempt to push its narrative has also led to blanket shutdowns on phone and internet communications for months at a time in many parts of the region.

…in Ethiopia’s case, it is an actor of the conflict and wants to limit access and control the narrative.

For now, despite some credible local and international media coverage of abuses, there largely remains a “hidden war” and underreported atrocities committed by all sides.

Sustaining injuries from beatings in jail, Henok was forced to remain in bed for weeks after his release in January. Since recovered, he believes there is still a lot to report in Oromia.

“Attempts to block and cut information lines have continued. This has made things difficult not only for journalists but also for rights organisations verifying abuses by all sides there,” Henok tells The Africa Report. “I will keep doing my job, but still, I don’t feel safe to report freely. I am too vulnerable already.”

An even more worrying trend is the killing of journalists. Dawit Kebede and Sisay Fida, two journalists who were working for state broadcasters in Tigray and Oromia, were shot dead last year. The regional governments and rebel groups have traded blame in both cases.

Muthoki said the last case of journalists being killed in Ethiopia had been in 1998, but now the war in the country’s north has turned Ethiopia into one of the worst places for journalists in Africa.

According to a new CPJ report, two journalists from Oromia News Network (ONN) are on trial on charges that could carry the death sentence after being arrested in Oromia in November 2021.

“It is apparent that the war and other conflicts have resulted in suppression of media and journalists’ freedom to move and report,” says Befekadu Hailu, the co-founder of the Center for the Advancement of Rights and Democracy (CARD). “The government could have installed a system where journalists can have protection to do their job. But, in Ethiopia’s case, it is an actor of the conflict and wants to limit access and control the narrative.”

Trudging on

Bekalu is currently working on opening a new online TV channel, Alpha. but he keeps facing challenges and smear campaigns, including from pro-government journalists that Abiy has publicly hailed.

“I am not sure what will happen to me next week; I don’t have any guarantee that I won’t be arrested,” he says. “But I know for sure I cannot sit idle in a state that doesn’t want you to speak about its people dying.”

Temesgen, for his part, says he will only begin to see a gleam of hope once the government commits to establishing a state and media that is “based solely on rule of law rather than individual will”.

Befekadu concurs that rule of law is the most important part of the puzzle. “Previously, there were more repressive laws and the practice matched the laws. Now, legal frameworks are liberalised while the practice remains the same,” he says. “Rule of law [would] have protected and allowed media freedom, if it was in place.”

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