Journalists grapple with information blackout in Ethiopia | Voice of America

When fighting broke out in Ethiopia’s Tigray region in early November, the north of the country was cut off from the internet, cell phones and landlines. Journalists say the government-imposed blackout made it virtually impossible to get accurate information about the conflict.

“We’ve had journalists and publishers speak out and say that it is essentially incredibly difficult to document what is happening on the ground,” said Muthoki Mumo, the representative of the Sub-Saharan Journalist Protection Commission. “Since you cannot contact sources, it is difficult to verify what you hear, and it is in this kind of environment where the job of journalists becomes difficult, perhaps where you may even see misinformation not being verified.”

At crucial moments, such as the pressure from the Ethiopian army in recent days to retake the northern city of Mekelle, news outlets failed to verify basic information. The exact number of victims remains elusive.

An Ethiopian refugee who has fled fighting in Tigray province sits with a radio in the shadow of a straw hut near the Um Raquba ...
FILE – An Ethiopian refugee who has fled fighting in Tigray province, detains a radio in the shadow of a straw hut at Um Rakouba camp in Sudan, November 18, 2020.

The federal government said the Tigray raid is limited military action against some members of the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF) after it attacked a military base. But the TPLF is calling it a war against Tigray, a war that continues to fight through its forces.

Federal troops said they had recaptured the Mekelle airfield and an important military post, while avoiding civilian casualties. TPLF said there were many civilian casualties and federal troops shelled the city center. The government says it is now in control of the region and has declared victory.

But due to blackouts and coverage limitations, major news outlets use disclaimers who claim they cannot independently verify claims.

“The jobs that journalists do are the most crucial at times like this,” said Mumo. “It’s at times like these that we need to jealously guard the gains we’ve made in press freedom … we need journalists to shed light on what’s going on.”

No first blackout

It is not the first time that the Ethiopian government has cut off communications when tensions in the country flared up. In 2019, there were widespread communication blackouts following a coup attempt in the Amhara region. In June of this year, the government shut down the internet in the Oromo region after the murder of a well-known singer, Hachalu Hundessa, whose death led to clashes.

Despite the central government’s tight control over the internet and communications infrastructure, it said the power outage in Tigray was carried out by the Tigray regional government.

“We [the Ethiopian government] are not the ones who disconnected telecom connectivity in Tigray, ”Ethiopia’s democratization minister Zadig Abraha told German public broadcaster Deutsche Welle. “It is the TPLF that cut telecom connectivity, with the intention of keeping the Tigrayan people incommunicado from the rest of the world so that they would continue to be fed by the fake TPLF propaganda. Now we are working with the experts to reconnect the telecom connectivity, and in some places it has already been restored. ”

The government also tried to control the flow of information from Tigray by arresting journalists.

At least six journalists were arrested in the first week of the conflict, according to Reporters Without Borders. One of those arrested, Medihane Ekubamichael, ran into COVID-19 behind bars.

“It is unclear why these individuals are being held,” she said. “The lack of transparency is something that is unacceptable. Family, colleagues and lawyers should at least be informed immediately as to why an individual journalist has been arrested. ”

Cooling effect

Reporters in the country say the crackdown has led to personal and online harassment of journalists and has a chilling effect on the media’s ability to cover the conflict freely and accurately.

“Every time one of our colleagues is arrested, we don’t care if that person is [a person from Tigray] or Oromo, we see them as an Ethiopian. We see them as colleagues, ”said Samuel Getachew, an Addis Ababa journalist at The Reporter newspaper. “Any good society should leave the media alone, because it is an important institution.”

A man reads the Ethiopian Reporter newspaper with the Nobel Peace Prize awarded for Ethiopia's Prime on its cover ...
FILE – A man reads The Reporter newspaper, with the Nobel Peace Prize awarded to Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed on its cover, in Addis Ababa, December 11, 2019.

Samuel worries that Ethiopian journalists will leave the profession and make way for foreign journalists to mainly cover the news.

“When passionate people leave the media, it will be [public relations], mainly Chinese companies implementing their ideas and pushing us to be like them, ”he said. “There is nothing wrong with being like China, but many of us prefer to be like Ethiopia. We might take different ideas here and there, but we’re passionate. I mean, we were born here. ”

Samuel urged the international community not to give up on Ethiopian journalism and Ethiopian progress. He said he had been lucky enough to write positive stories about reforms in the country for the past two years.

“I think many of us were tired of telling sad stories about Ethiopia forever,” said Samuel. And we began to see hope. And I hope that hope returns, because the last two years since 2018, with the exception of this year, I think have been the best Ethiopian years I’ve seen in my generation. ”

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