Ethiopia’s press freedom crisis: Arrests, exile of Journalists intensify amid political turmoil

Press freedom has always been a source of concern in Ethiopia (Photo: Innocence Project)

By Million Beyene @MillionBeyene

Addis Abeba – For decades, Ethiopia has been closely scrutinized by international organizations advocating for journalists’ rights. The country’s long-standing struggle with freedom of the press has been a cause for concern, particularly during periods of political turmoil like the one unfolding over the past four years.

A global leader in press freedom and press protection, the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ), has consistently highlighted the deteriorating press freedom in Ethiopia while documenting multiple press freedom violations, including the arrests of numerous journalists.

The recent conflicts in the Amhara region between the federal government and the non-state militia, Fano, have further worsened the situation, resulting in the imprisonment of more journalists and media professionals.

A month ago, the CPJ expressed deep concern about the arrest of three journalists during the state of emergency declared in the conflict-ridden Amhara region. Abay Zewdu, chief editor of the YouTube-based Amhara Media Center (AMC), Yidnekachew Kebede, founder and editor of YouTube-based Negari TV, and Fekadu Mahtemework, editor-in-chief of the weekly Ghion Magazine, were all arrested between late August and early September.

In October 2016, the Ethiopian Media Council firmly stated that “even in a state of emergency, journalists and media should only be held accountable in accordance with the law. Failure to do so tarnishes the country’s international image.”

Detained journalists often languish in prison for months without formal charges as authorities attempt to suppress critical coverage. Press freedom advocates argue that such injustices indicate that the government’s motive behind these arrests may stem from dissatisfaction with certain journalistic viewpoints rather than actual criminal activities. This oppressive environment has led to a troubling trend where journalists and media experts feel compelled to seek asylum abroad, not only for their safety but also to protect their families.

One such voice is Tewodros Asfaw, a political analyst and founder of Ethioselam, a YouTube-based media outlet. After being accused of terrorism, imprisoned, and subsequently released, Tewodros chose exile, citing “government harassment” as the main reason for his decision. In an interview with Addis Standard, Tewodros disclosed, “The repeated imprisonment and harassment due to my profession were the primary reasons for my exile.”

Tewodros expressed a strong desire to continue his work in Ethiopia, surrounded by loved ones and his community. However, constant threats, intimidation, and actions from the government that endangered not only himself but also his family compelled him to seek safety abroad.

Enat Alemayehu, the wife of Tewodros, shared the pressure caused by her husband’s frequent arrests over the past two years. She disclosed to Addis Standard that the stress stemming from these experiences led her to contemplate whether exile might offer a better alternative to remaining in Ethiopia.

Enat recounted the constant interventions by security forces in their home, even during her pregnancy, attributing this harassment to her husband’s journalistic work. She revealed that beyond her husband’s imprisonments, the constant fear of his detention for his profession took a toll on their lives.

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While acknowledging that exile is not an ideal solution, Enat emphasized that her family’s welfare was her primary concern. “We are parents to a toddler, nearing two years of age. Our priority in decision-making is our family’s well-being,” she stated.

Enat believes that, under the circumstances, exile is the best choice. “What good does it do me to make him stay with my son and me except having a husband who is dead in spirit?” she questioned, reflecting on why she supported his exile.

Media professionals, experts weigh in

Such a distressing reality of the detention and exile of journalists and media professionals is deeply concerning for Tibebu Belete, President of the Ethiopian Broadcasters Association. In an interview with Addis Standard, Tibebu highlighted that the government’s treatment of journalists often does not align with the country’s broadcasting regulations. According to him, many journalists and media professionals find themselves incarcerated for reasons unrelated to their journalistic work, frequently under the charge of “terrorism.”

On a Yegna TV program broadcast on August 16, 2023, journalists Tewodros Zerfu (left) and Nigussie Berhanu debate the recently proclaimed state of emergency in the Amhara region

“A majority of these detentions are related to suspected terror offenses, which limits our association’s ability to advocate for their release,” Tibebu stated. Although the association is working to support its members, Tibebu says the current circumstances restrain their ability to provide substantial assistance.

One of the recent victims of government persecution is Dawit Begashaw, one of the founders and public relations head of the association, who remains in prison currently. Tibebu, who is also the Executive Director of Ahadu Radio and Television, further highlighted that several media entities have been forced to shut down, leaving a sense of apprehension among those still operating. “In this climate, simply being identified as a journalist can be intimidating,” he said.

Veteran journalist Eshetu Geletu, with over thirty years of experience, describes the current situation as challenging and bringing colossal damage to Ethiopian journalism. “Many colleagues, including newcomers to the field, have either gone into exile or abandoned the profession under various pretexts,” Eshetu stated.

For Matthewos Gebrehiwot, a faculty member in the Department of Journalism and Communication at Mekele University, the current state of affairs is diminishing the media landscape of the country even further. “Acquiring information has become a daunting task, and it is no longer universally acknowledged as a fundamental right,” he stated.

Matthewos also highlighted the polarization within the media sector, with many outlets serving political agendas. “This has led to public skepticism and diminished trust in numerous private media houses.”

Even under the mounting pressure, some journalists, including those exiled from Ethiopia, remain committed to professional journalistic principles. Others, however, have turned towards political activism instead of objective reporting. This shift has raised concerns within the journalism community, suggesting a crisis of identity for the profession. Experts argue that political pressures, ideological influences, and the agendas of authoritative figures and financial supporters may be limiting the scope of journalism and diverting it from its essential civic role.

Mathewos provides insight into the complex media landscape by pointing out the existence of many media entities that operate under the auspices of specific political factions or influential business figures, either explicitly or implicitly. He emphasized the challenges faced by professionals in the industry, particularly graduates who often deviate from their academic training and produce content influenced by hidden agendas, despite their journalism education.

“This suggests external pressures rather than deficiencies in knowledge or skills,” he argues.

Tewodros also argues that many journalists tend to reflect their own subjective views without making an effort to objectively understand alternative perspectives. “The lack of impartiality is a widespread issue. Only very few individuals are striving to present balanced reports.”

Many colleagues, including newcomers to the field, have either gone into exile or abandoned the profession under various pretexts.”

Eshetu Geletu, veteran journalist

Tewodros further warned that as political extremism and polarization continue to escalate in society, principled journalists who aim to maintain analytical balance and independence will face increasing marginalization. He called for the government to take greater responsibility for addressing the media crisis, as the elevation of balanced, impartial reporting is crucial for reducing societal divisions and ensuring the survival of a pluralistic democratic system.

An interesting trend observed in Ethiopia’s media sector in recent times is the prioritization of entertainment content by numerous domestic media outlets, seemingly at the expense of in-depth socio-political coverage. This shift is notable considering the need for a more thorough exploration of pivotal issues in the current societal context.

Particularly during periods of political turmoil, several media outlets prefer to engage in echoing government narratives instead of providing an independent and unbiased account. Academics like Matheos argue that an atmosphere of apprehension may be forcing media outlets to tread cautiously, avoiding sensitive political topics.

Tibebu suggests that the media’s inclination towards entertainment could be a strategic choice in the absence of government repercussions. However, he also believes that a significant portion of entertainment content, heavily influenced by European trends, often acts as a distraction rather than meaningfully contributing to the arts and culture.

Exiled journalist Tewodros adds depth to the issue by asserting that the domestic media’s focus on entertainment is the direct consequence of the challenges faced when attempting to cover politics without bias. “This is why most domestic media leans towards entertainment while many foreign-based media prioritize political coverage,” he argued. AS

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