The Ethiopian Government’s Unlawful Control Over Press and Digital Media

On April 26th, 2022, a representative of the Ethiopian Attorney General’s office accused the police of the ‘spread of disinformation and hate speech.’ The statement triggered an enormous crackdown on the press due to the oppressive standards of the Ethiopian government, which remains deeply concerned about its reputation in the global arena.

The country has severed all ties of communication to prevent others from finding out the truth regarding the country’s humanitarian crisis. The police have trashed local newsrooms, and the Ethiopian Media Authority filed criminal charges against over 25 media outlets. Widely recognized international correspondents, such as Tom Gardner from the Economist, have been expelled from the country. Over twenty journalists, including magazine editors and talk show hosts, have been forcefully detained even though the Ethiopian media law prohibits pre-trial detention for all alleged offenses committed through the media. For this very reason, Daniel Bekele has repeatedly demanded the immediate release of all media personnel, but his words have been ignored so far.

The justification of these unlawful arrests links to their role in reporting the ongoing fights between the Ethiopian army and militias in the Amhara region. To limit the coverage of such events, Ethiopian security detained over 4000 anti-government demonstrators and opposition politicians.

Government officials claim that the behavior of such rebels exacerbated the bloodshed, leading the country deeper into chaos and strife. Representative of the Amhara Regional Government, Gizachew Mulune said ‘the right to free speech doesn’t permit one to tarnish the honor of individuals, communities, the government or the country,’ further adding that ‘calling for ethnic and religious clashes and pushing extremist agendas are unforgivable crimes and cannot be considered free speech.’

Contrastingly, press freedom advocates have ridiculed Mulune’s comments, countering that the detentions have been a long trend. Angela Quintal, the head of the Committee to Protect Journalists, argued that the restrictions on the media have increased tremendously over the last three years, especially during the civil war. For decades, journalists were arrested, detained, and denied a trial for prolonged periods of time, and there is no end to such unlawful behavior in sight. Many Ethiopian journalists have either given up their careers or contemplated doing so, given the intense pressure placed on them. Some have even fled to neighboring countries out of fear and toned down their reporting on certain matters for the sake of their own protection.

In 2009, the government passed a bill that was used to sentence journalists to jail on the basis of terrorism. Journalists were given two options: report what the state wanted them to report or become a state enemy. The older generation of journalists who survived that horrific period of time is terrified that history is repeating itself.

This shift in attitude regarding the press came as a surprise to those who were optimistic when Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed took charge of the country. When he first came into power, he had ordered the release of the thousands of detained politicians and journalists and promised them to operate freely in 2018. Exiled reporters made their way back into the country, digital news outlets proliferated, and the year 2018 became the first year since 2004 in which no journalists were arrested.

However, once the civil war in the Tigray region broke out, things regressed. Radios and television networks were forcefully shut down, and journalists were once again targeted and arrested. Additionally, government propaganda skyrocketed. Officials described local journalists as traitors, and foreign correspondents were labeled mercenaries. Even aid workers were prohibited from entering the region, which fulfilled their efforts to control the flow of information. The year 2021 was even more catastrophic as Prime Minister Abiy seized leadership over the Ethiopian Media Authority and enforced the destruction of media equipment as well as the incarceration of journalists.

The government has left journalists and aid workers helpless. Those who wish to help the innocent civilians survive are only left with the option to send donations to companies such as the Ethiopia Children’s Relief Fund. Even with the country’s rapid disintegration, it ranks low in terms of importance within the global arena. However, legal action should be taken to ensure the safety and well-being of all journalists trapped in Ethiopia, whether that means deploying a strong military force from powerful countries or raising awareness through the media. The people of Ethiopia deserve the same level of attention as any other group impacted by a humanitarian crisis.