In Abiy's Ethiopia, press freedom flourished then fear returned
- PM Abiy Ahmed initially lifted press curbs, freed journalists
- Arrests occurring again, particularly during Tigray fighting
- 'Dangerous throwback' to repression, say rights groups
- Government says environment for journalists 'favourable'
NAIROBI, May 28 (Reuters) - When Ethiopia's Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed took over in 2018 and freed dozens of jailed members of the media as part of a raft of political reforms, journalist Dessu Dulla rushed home from the Netherlands.
The 45-year-old, now a deputy editor at a local online news outlet, said he had fled repression in 2004. He initially savoured new freedoms under Abiy, who won global plaudits including the 2019 Nobel Peace Prize which noted his work on "discontinuing media censorship."
Three years on, Dessu and four other Ethiopian journalists interviewed by Reuters say they once again fear a knock on the door. At least 21 journalists and media workers have been detained since early 2020, some international media watchdogs say.
Dessu was arrested last year while reporting on the arrest of a political activist in his restive home region Oromiya. He and two colleagues were never charged but were held for three months.
"I thought it would be another era and that democracy and freedom of speech may be restored, but actually things are deteriorating, so many journalists have fled the country and some are in jail," he told Reuters by phone from Addis Ababa.
"Unfortunately, Ethiopia has rejoined the list of worst jailers of journalists in sub-Saharan Africa," said Muthoki Mumo, the Committee to Protect Journalists' (CPJ) sub-Saharan Africa representative.
Billene Seyoum, the prime minister's spokeswoman, said conditions for journalists had improved.
"The environment for media and journalism since Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed took office are quite favourable," she said, noting that 44 new broadcasters had been issued licenses and that a new media law was passed this year.
As in every country, journalists have to obey the law, Billene said, adding "there is no perfect environment; however, it cannot be said that a nascent democracy like Ethiopia is regressing."
When asked about individual cases including Dessu's, she referred questions to the attorney general, the federal police and the Ethiopian Media Authority (EMA), which accredits journalists.
The attorney general's spokesman and federal police did not respond to requests for comment. The EMA said "freedom of expression and the protection of the press are sacred values that are enshrined in the Ethiopian constitution."
EMA head Mohammed Edris provided Reuters with an English translation of the new media law, approved by parliament in February and signed into law in April.
The law states that the regulator, the EMA, shall be independent, and details on what grounds the authority will revoke broadcaster service licenses. It also says journalists will not be forced to reveal a source that provided information on a confidential basis.
At least six journalists were detained in November, when fighting erupted between Abiy's troops and rebellious leaders in northern Tigray, said international press freedom groups the CPJ and Reporters Without Borders (RSF).
They included Medihane Ekubamichael of the Addis Standard, an independent English-language news website, and three journalists from the state-owned Ethiopian Press Agency. One of the four declined to comment and the other three did not respond to requests for comment.
Police accused Medihane in court of trying to "dismantle the constitution through violence", his website reported. He was released without charge more than a month later.
The other three were accused of conspiring with groups fighting the government and dismantling the constitution; they were held between five to eight weeks before being released.
In December, Reuters cameraman Kumerra Gemechu was detained for 12 days without explanation. He was released without charge. read more
None of the journalists arrested since last year has been charged. All but one were released after days or months in jail. read more
IRISH JOURNALIST EXPELLED
In early March, the EMA revoked the credentials of an Irish citizen who reported on rape and rights abuses from Tigray for The New York Times. read more
The newspaper announced the revocation of Simon Marks' credentials in May and urged the government to rethink what it called an "authoritarian approach." A week later, the government expelled Marks, who also worked for other publications, saying he had published "unbalanced reports".
Marks told Reuters that he was given no credible reason for his credentials being revoked and no explanation for his swift deportation.
"It is alarming that the government of Ethiopia treated the journalist, Simon Marks, like a criminal, expelling him from the country without even letting him go home to get a change of clothing or his passport," said Michael Slackman, assistant managing editor for International at the Times.
"With the credibility of an upcoming national election at stake, we call on the leaders of Ethiopia to reverse its efforts to muzzle an independent press."
Two journalists were shot dead this year.
An unidentified gunman shot dead Ethiopian journalist Dawit Kebede Araya, who worked for Tigray state TV, in the regional capital Mekelle in January. read more
This month, journalist Sisay Fida from Oromiya region's state-owned Oromia Broadcasting Network was shot dead in the Kellem Wollega zone of the state, the zonal security head told Reuters.
The new chief executive of the Tigray regional government and the chief spokesman for the Oromiya regional government did not respond to phone calls and text messages seeking comment.
For months after the conflict broke out, the government restricted access to the Tigray region, but that began to loosen in March.
The government says the only crackdown has been on criminals threatening peace and unity, and it accuses some journalists of colluding with insurrectionists, without providing specifics.
"We expect professional reporting that lives up to the standards of journalistic ethics," the EMA said, noting that 129 foreign correspondents had been licensed and 82 foreign journalists had been given access to Tigray.
WIND OF CHANGE?
After coming to power, Abiy initially freed dozens of journalists from jail, lifted bans on more than 250 outlets and repealed some widely criticized media laws, according to the International Press Institute, a global network of editors, media executives and journalists.
But the old laws were not replaced by a clear regulatory framework relating to media practice, leading to a legal vacuum around such issues as how new media businesses are allowed to operate, found a 2020 study commissioned by the Fojo Media Institute at Sweden's Linnaeus University and International Media Support, a non-profit Danish media advocacy group.
The groups, which both helped to draft Ethiopia's new media law, added that the new law was a promising step because it was broadly based on the continent's "most solid" legislation such as that in Kenya and South Africa.
However, before separate legislation against hate speech and misinformation was passed in early 2020, the United Nations' special rapporteur on freedom of expression warned the hate speech law could worsen ethnic tensions and possibly fuel further violence.
The rapporteur said the law could be used to silence government critics and might lead to arbitrary arrests because it gives officials at the federal and regional levels wide discretion to determine whom to prosecute.
Most parliamentarians, however, supported the legislation.
"Ethiopia has become a victim of disinformation," Abebe Godebo, who voted for the law, said when it was passed. "The country is a land of diversity, and this bill will help to balance those diversities."
MEDIA REFLECT NATIONAL DIVISIONS
Ethiopia was one of the world's most repressive states for media before Abiy's election in 2018, according to some media watchdogs.
Governments led by Abiy's predecessors Hailemariam Desalegn and Meles Zenawi detained tens of thousands of people - including reporters and bloggers - often under anti-terrorism laws.
At least 60 journalists fled abroad between 2010 and 2018, New York-based Human Rights Watch said.
The head of Ethiopia's state-appointed human rights commission, Daniel Bekele, himself a former political prisoner, has spoken up for journalists, but also says the media reflect - and at times worsen - divisions.
"It is not unusual for media to have an ideological bias but in our challenging context we need more responsible media for accurate facts, fair analysis, (and to) promote social justice and peaceful co-existence," he told Reuters.
Dessu's Oromia News Network (ONN) broadcasts via 10 journalists, all but one ethnic Oromos.
He frequently posts on social media in his native Afaan Oromo language, and his posts sometimes appear supportive of the Oromo Liberation Front (OLF), an opposition party that spent years in exile but was allowed back in after Abiy took office.
Separatists are waging an armed insurrection in Oromiya.
In March last year, Dessu, another reporter and their driver were arrested after reporting on the detention of an Oromo political activist, Dessu said.
Oromiya Police Commissioner Ararsa Merdassa did not respond to a request for comment on Dessu's case.
Dessu and his two colleagues were held nearly three months without charge despite court orders to release them, said Dessu and the New York-based CPJ, which looked into the detentions. Reuters has not reviewed those orders.
Now he avoids working outside his studio in Addis Ababa for fear of being arrested again, and he said some journalists he knew were self-censoring or again seeking exile.
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