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

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.Freelance journalist Simon Marks (Courtesy Photo)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 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.  Sorry, but your browser cannot support embedded video of this type, you can
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.”Freelance journalist Lucy Kassa (Courtesy Photo)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, Freelance journalist Lucy Kassa says her home in Addis Ababa was raided by three armed men dressed in civilian clothes. The aftermath of that raid is seen in this photo from WhatsApp. (Courtesy image)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.

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