Journalist Dessu Dulla, shown here reading the news in the studio of the Oromia News Network (ONN) in Addis Ababa on May 25, 2021, is one of numerous journalists arrested since the start of the country's civil war. (Reuters/Tiksa Negeri)

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

In a Facebook post at the end of October, Awlo Media Center, an Ethiopian online news outlet critical of Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed’s administration, announced that the government’s “pressure and obstruction” had forced it to shut down and lay off all of its employees.  

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

The silencing of Awlo Media Center reflects just how hostile the media environment has grown as Ethiopia descends deeper 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 numerous journalists. At least nine of them were still in custody on December 1, 2021, according to CPJ’s annual prison census, and CPJ is investigating reports of others still being held following a spate of November arrests.

CPJ has also confirmed the murder of one journalist in connection to their work, the first such case documented since 1998, and continues to investigate the motive behind the shooting of a second reporter. Other setbacks for the media include the expulsion of at least one foreign journalist for war coverage; the week-long suspension of Addis Standard, an independent news site;  assaults and intimidation on members of the press; and an internet disruption in large chunks of northern Ethiopia.

“I remain hopeless about the media in Ethiopia. I know that is dark but that’s my feeling,” said one of 10 journalists who spoke to CPJ in November. Like almost all the others interviewed, this reporter requested anonymity, terrified of reprisal for sharing opinions with an international organization.

CPJ research demonstrates that most of the journalists arrested since the start of the war faced vague accusations of supporting the TPLF that never materialized into formal charges. Many of these journalists were ethnic Tigrayans. Police also entrenched a pattern of claiming to need time to hold journalists in custody amid 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 correspondent for the Kenya-based Nation Media Group, remained detained in early December weeks after they were granted bail. 

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

Interactive map and more regional analysis of CPJ’s 2021 data

On November 2, the federal government declared a state of emergency and passed a sweeping law that allows warrantless searches; potentially indefinite detentions; and suspends due process. The law also gave regulators 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 nobody knows. Is it a prayer or a wish? Or an article?,” an editor noted via messaging app. The editor said they had started avoiding critical coverage of the war after the state of emergency.

In a mid-November statement, the Ethiopian Human Rights Commission, a local watchdog, estimated that thousands of people, most of them ethnic Tigrayans, had been arrested since the state of emergency was declared. Journalists and the media were targeted for arrest and restrictions during pre-Abiy states of emergency in Ethiopia, as CPJ has documented. The political changes of  early 2018, when Abiy became prime minister, and the freeing of journalists previously detained for years had raised hopes of a new media era in what was once one of the world’s most-censored countries

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

Authorities tightened their legal restrictions in a November 25 statement, by forbidding unofficial “disseminat[ion] of information on military maneuvers, war front updates and results via any medium” and warning against “using freedom of information as a pretext” “to support the terrorist group directly or indirectly.” In an emailed statement, Kennedy Wandera, the chairperson 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 media in the country.”

“Journalists in the country have had to amend how they report, write and edit throughout the war. This [ban on unofficial information] is just a continuation of the year-long assault on the media; a media that had already been decimated,” said Zecharias Zelalem, a Canada-based freelance journalist, who spoke to CPJ via messaging app.

In a press conference on November 30, Billene Seyoum, the prime minister’s spokesperson, said that reports that the media had been “clamped down” by the state of emergency were “purposeful disinformation.” CPJ did not receive responses to November 30 emails requesting comment on the arrests of journalists, the closure of Awlo Media Center, and the state emergency regulations from Billene or Justice Minister Gedion Timothewos Hassebon. In a telephone conversation on December 8, federal police spokesperson Jeylan Abdi said that there were no journalists detained in Ethiopia for their professional work but rather for “violation of the existing law of the country.” He did not address specific cases or respond to an email requesting comment on the closure of Awlo Media Centre.

As Awlo’s shutdown shows, this assault on the press has had a chilling effect. Four Ethiopian journalists arrested over the past year told CPJ that they had quit the profession or were no longer able to work because they had gone into hiding.

“Even though I am released,” said one journalist, “I am not free.”

Editor’s note: Following the publication of CPJ’s 2021 prison census, which listed nine journalists detained for their work in Ethiopia, CPJ research confirmed that at least seven other journalists were held in the country in connection with their work on December 1, 2021. With 16 journalists behind bars on the date of the annual census, Ethiopia tied with Eritrea as the year’s worst jailers of journalists in sub-Saharan Africa.

The seven additional journalists in custody were state media reporters Teklehaimanot Girmai and Mekonnen Yibrah; Associated Press contributor Amir Aman Kiyaro; freelance cameraperson Thomas Engida; Addisu Muluneh, a reporter with the state-affiliated Fana Broadcasting Corporation; Ermias Tesfaye, a reporter with the news site Ethiopia Insight; and Mikiyas Tilahun, who contributed to the YouTube-based news outlet, Reyot Media. They were not listed in the 2021 census either because CPJ was not aware of their detention at the time or was still investigating their cases. All were released by April 2022.