Tigray War Exposes Limits to Abiy’s Promises of Press Freedom

WASHINGTON - In September 2019, Simon Marks moved to Ethiopia, drawn by the rapid changes following its shift in leadership and declaration of peace with neighboring Eritrea after a war and decades of tensions. 

Since then, he has reported on the widespread optimism after Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed came to power and won the Nobel Peace Prize, and the human cost of the war in Tigray.

But on May 20, Ethiopia expelled Marks from the country. The freelancer, who reports for The New York Times and Voice of America, among others, is the latest casualty in what many journalists and rights groups say is a limited tolerance for critical reporting on the Tigray conflict.

Since November, the Ethiopian government has been fighting the Tigray People’s Liberation Front, or TPLF, a regional political party that led the country’s ruling coalition for nearly 30 years. The war has displaced tens of thousands of people and left millions in need of humanitarian aid, the United Nations says. 

Journalists and human rights groups have alleged serious abuses: mass killings, gang rapes, violence. Victims’ accounts predominately blame federal Ethiopian soldiers, the Amhara regional militias and Eritrean forces fighting in the region. The U.N. human rights chief has said that “serious violations of international law” may have been committed by Ethiopia, Eritrea and the TPLF.  

From the start of the Tigray conflict, Ethiopia’s government sought to limit information. Media access was restricted, and journalists covering the conflict were arrested. At least seven have been detained since November, and local media say they have been threatened, beaten or questioned over their reporting. The region was also hit with an internet and communications blackout.

At this “huge moment” in Ethiopia’s history, Marks said, “the country benefits from having as many professional journalists there as possible.”

“So, I felt sad that it had come to this and that everything I’ve been doing is so politicized,” he added. “And that the government in the end took a decision that I believe is just not in their interests in the long term.”

The deputy director general of the Ethiopian Broadcast Authority, Yonatan Tesfaye Regassa, did not reply to VOA’s request for comment.

Ethiopia’s prime minister’s office did not respond to VOA’s email requesting comment.

But at a June 3 briefing, Billene Seyoum, a spokesperson for the office, said that “claims of stifled media spaces are unfounded.”

Marks said he began to feel government pressure while reporting on protests in 2020 following the killing of Hachalu Hundessa, a popular singer from Ethiopia’s Oromo region. More than 100 people were killed in the protests, which led to mass arrests.

The journalist was later prevented from traveling to the Tigray region to cover the September regional elections that the central government had declared illegal. Ethiopia postponed national and regional elections because of the pandemic.

When the war started, Marks traveled to the regional capital, Mekelle, to speak with civilians being affected, including witnesses to the November Mai-Kadra massacre, which the U.N. said could be considered a war crime.

A Reuters investigation published Monday said the incident involved two attacks: one against Tigrayans, and the other against Amharas. It resulted in at least 767 dead.

Through interviews with witnesses, Marks was able to dispute the government’s claim that only Amharas were killed. Marks believes this reporting, along with his coverage of other violence and abuses, put him at odds with authorities.  

In March, his media accreditation was revoked, and the media regulator accused Marks of “fake news,” according to reports at the time.

“The government opinion seems to be that if a reporter writes sympathetic stories about the victims of violence in war, then he or she must be partisan to one side of the conflict,” Marks said.

“It’s normal to sympathize with mothers and babies with no food, or a mother who is unable to lactate because she has no nutrition. Or simply people who have had their family members slaughtered by soldiers,” he said. “The unfortunate aspect is that mine and other people’s reporting has become highly politicized by reporting on atrocities or human rights abuses.”

When he was finally expelled, he wasn’t given a specific reason, Marks said. He had just received a call to attend an immigration meeting that he “didn’t get a good feeling about.”

At that meeting, an immigration official told the journalist he needed to leave that day. “That was a done deal. There was no room for negotiation,” Marks said. He was flown to Brussels.

Ethiopia’s ambassador to the U.S. did not respond to VOA’s request for comment sent via messaging app.

Restrictions return 

Early in his leadership, Prime Minister Abiy was praised for improving conditions for the media, releasing several journalists and promising to amend a controversial anti-terror law that had been used to jail critics.

Up to that point, the country had a poor press freedom record, with high numbers detained and a repressive media environment.

But rights groups have pointed out that when Abiy faced protests or unrest, he fell back to the same past patterns of arrests and censorship.

In 2020, the government adopted a new version of the anti-terror legislation, despite criticism from human rights and free speech advocates.

Muthoki Mumo, the sub-Saharan Africa representative for the New York-based Committee to Protect Journalists, said earlier optimism has been tempered by a return to old ways.

“What we’ve seen,” Mumo said, “is a steady erosion of some of the (progress) made in early 2018.”

“The legislative commitments, the commitments to make legislative reforms were still there,” she said. “But then suddenly we started seeing a regression to old styles, old tools of dealing with the media, censoring the media essentially.”

The pressure from the government has driven some local journalists to publish stories without bylines or even to flee. One of those is freelance reporter Lucy Kassa.

In February, armed men, who refused to identify themselves, entered Lucy’s home, confiscated her computer and accused her of having links to the TPLF.

Lucy had just filed a story for the Los Angeles Times that included accounts from rape survivors who said their attackers were Eritrean soldiers.

At that time, the Ethiopian government was denying the presence of Eritrean soldiers.

Fearing for her safety, Lucy left the country, but even now she doesn’t feel safe.

“Even those of us who flee the country, we are still operating under fear because the supporters of the government have become as dangerous as the government itself,” she said. Lucy asked that her current location not be identified because she fears retaliation.

The journalist said she and others are being harassed online and threatened on social media by people accusing them of being TPLF sympathizers, anti-government, fake news and propaganda.

All local journalists work in an uncertain environment, but Tigrayan media come under extra scrutiny, Lucy said.

“Whether you like it or not, you will be defined by your ethnic background. For Tigrayans, for those who come from Tigrayan ethnic background, the pressure is much worse,” she said.

Lucy said the men who came into her home tried to link her ethnicity to her reporting, saying that because she is Tigrayan, she supports the TPLF.

Marks also said reporting deemed sympathetic to Tigrayans could lead to accusations of bias.

“All of a sudden it makes you a TPLF sympathizer, which couldn’t be further from the truth,” he said.

The freelancer added that local reporters risk tougher consequences, including imprisonment.

‘Grave message’

The erosion of media rights has “accelerated” over the past six months, with arrests of journalists or media workers who help foreign media “and intimidation coming from that regulator,” said Mumo, of CPJ.

“It does send one very grave and cohesive message of ‘be careful of what you’re reporting,’” Mumo said.

Marks’ expulsion has had an impact on foreign and local journalists, she said, adding that it sends a message: If this can happen to a foreign correspondent, “what could potentially happen to me?”

It also makes independent journalism harder.

It’s much more difficult to report on a country when you’re not there to see people’s faces, to interview them, to speak with sources in a safe manner, particularly in the context of internet shutdowns,” she told VOA.

Marks says the experiences of local journalists make his being expelled relative.

“Many others take much bigger risks than I take, especially the local reporters,” he told VOA. “Many have called me since I’ve been deported to say they are fearful that they can no longer really do their job.”

The impact, Marks said, will be a lack of information for those who need it.

“The spillover effects from something like this, which are going to hurt in the end, is the public’s right to know and hold their leaders accountable,” he said.

Source: Voice of America