Fear returns for Ethiopia’s press freedom


After coming to power in 2018, Ethiopia’s Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed initially freed dozens of journalists from jail, lifted bans on more than 250 outlets and repealed some widely criticised media laws, according to the International Press Institute.

Encouraged by this development, journalist Dessu Dulla rushed home from the Netherlands, where he fled in 2004 for fear of repression.

The 45-year-old, now a deputy editor at a local online news outlet, initially savoured new freedoms under Abiy, who won global plaudits including the 2019 Nobel Peace Prize which noted his work on “discontinuing media censorship.”

Three years on, Dessu and four other Ethiopian journalists interviewed by Reuters say they once again fear a knock on the door.

At least 21 journalists and media workers have been detained since early 2020, some international media watchdogs say.

Dessu was arrested last year while reporting on the arrest of a political activist in his restive home region Oromiya. He and two colleagues were never charged but were held for three months.

“I thought it would be another era and that democracy and freedom of speech may be restored, but actually things are deteriorating, so many journalists have fled the country and some are in jail,” he told Reuters by phone from Addis Ababa.

“Unfortunately, Ethiopia has re-joined the list of worst jailers of journalists in sub-Saharan Africa,” said Muthoki Mumo, the Committee to Protect Journalists’ (CPJ) sub-Saharan Africa representative.

Billene Seyoum, the prime minister’s spokeswoman, said conditions for journalists had improved.

“The environment for media and journalism since Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed took office are quite favourable,” she said, noting that 44 new broadcasters had been issued licences and that a new media law was passed this year.

As in every country, journalists have to obey the law, Billene said, adding “there is no perfect environment; however, it cannot be said that a nascent democracy like Ethiopia is regressing.”

When asked about individual cases including Dessu’s, she referred questions to the attorney general, the federal police and the Ethiopian Media Authority (EMA), which accredits journalists.

The attorney general’s spokesman and federal police did not respond to requests for comment. The EMA said “freedom of expression and the protection of the press are sacred values that are enshrined in the Ethiopian constitution.”

At least six journalists were detained in November, when fighting erupted between Abiy’s troops and rebellious leaders in northern Tigray, said international press freedom groups the CPJ and Reporters Without Borders (RSF).

They included Medihane Ekubamichael of the Addis Standard, an independent English-language news website, and three journalists from the state-owned Ethiopian Press Agency. One of the four declined to comment and the other three did not respond to requests for comment.

Police accused Medihane in court of trying to “dismantle the constitution through violence”, his website reported. He was released without charge more than a month later.

The other three were accused of conspiring with groups fighting the government and dismantling the constitution; they were held between five to eight weeks before being released.

In December, Reuters cameraman Kumerra Gemechu was detained for 12 days without explanation. He was released without charge.

None of the journalists arrested since last year has been charged. All but one were released after days or months in jail.

In early March, the EMA revoked the credentials of an Irish citizen who reported on rape and rights abuses from Tigray for The New York Times.

The newspaper announced the revocation of Simon Marks’ credentials in May and urged the government to rethink what it called an “authoritarian approach”. A week later, the government expelled Mr Marks, who also worked for other publications, saying he had published “unbalanced reports”.

Mr Marks told Reuters that he was given no credible reason for his credentials being revoked and no explanation for his swift deportation.

“It is alarming that the government of Ethiopia treated the journalist, Simon Marks, like a criminal, expelling him from the country without even letting him go home to get a change of clothing or his passport,” said Michael Slackman, assistant managing editor for International at the Times.

“With the credibility of an upcoming national election at stake, we call on the leaders of Ethiopia to reverse its efforts to muzzle an independent press.” (Source: The Independent)