The war seems to be over in tigray but press freedom remains under threat in Ethiopia

The war seems to be over in tigray but press freedom remains under threat in Ethiopia: After two years of bitter fighting between the government of Abiy Ahmed and the Tigray Liberation Front (TPLF), the conflict seems to have come to an end. However, the exact number of casualties and the precise course of events have yet to be determined, as the Tigray region has been closed to journalists since 2021. With peace, can the press return to the region?

Ethiopia and Tigray rebels sign peace deal roadmap

Tens of thousands of deaths in two years

The conflict began in November 2020, when Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed tried to organize elections in the Tigray region in the north of the country, where some of the inhabitants are demanding independence. The regional authorities have been challenging the government for several months now, and Prime Minister Ahmed no longer intends to remain silent. Accusing the TPLF of attacking military bases, the Prime Minister sent the army into Tigray. But the armed rebels would not let the military reach the regional capital Mekele, pushing them back on the first day.

The TPLF rebels then spread throughout Tigray to “liberate” it from the government of Abiy Ahmed. Numerous accounts point to hundreds of abuses committed by the army and rebels, resulting in tens of thousands of deaths, thousands of rapes and the exile of two million Tigrayans. The 13 million Tigrayans traumatized by the war have been threatened by famine for months, while the destruction of infrastructure has led to serious water supply problems in many towns.

The situation is such that Médecins Sans Frontières announced in July 2021 that it would stop its activities in the region, following the death of three of its staff on June 24. Hundreds of sexual abuses have also traumatized the population, committed by both the independence rebels and the government of Abiy Ahmed, without any media coverage. For if press freedom was already restricted, Ethiopian and foreign journalists located in Tigray will be expelled from November 2021, one year since the start of the war.

Despite peace, the press is still muzzled

Abiy Ahmed’s government has banned coverage of military operations in Tigray, Afar, and Amhara and has imprisoned journalists while they report, according to NGOs and several reporters. We were able to contact the African branch of the Committee to Protect Journalists, an international NGO, which told us that “there is no assurance of a safe return of the journalists to Tigray or of possible investigations into the crimes they allegedly suffered.” They also informed us that three Tigray TV journalists had been released, “but two others are still in detention,” according to Mythoki Mumo, head of CPJ’s Sub-Saharan branch.

press freedom in Ethiopia - tigray

The peace treaty between the Ethiopian federal authority and the Tigrayan rebels was signed on November 2, 2022, formalizing the disarmament of the TPLF. Federal authorities are now working to restore power, deliver humanitarian aid to starving areas, and recover heavy weapons used by the TPLF. The federal army and foreign forces (Eritrea) have also been asked to withdraw from the country as part of the peace agreement.

Journalists will soon have access to Tigray again?

An apparent return to normalcy, as many questions remain unanswered without the work of media actors. Some men and women have nevertheless tried to bring some information to Ethiopians and the international community.

Among these whistleblowers are Solomon Weldegerima and Isaac Welday, two investigative journalists who have revealed the names of the prisoners to the general public, even though communication services in Tigray are only partially restored.

Solomon Weldegerima is a Tigrayan journalist who worked in a regional media before the war. He fled his home during the repeated assaults not far from his home, being a prime target as a journalist. He says he and his colleagues will soon have access to Tigray again, in areas controlled by the federal government and international forces. “However, they will not have access to areas under the yoke of the TPLF. Solomon says he is “fighting for the truth” and is not afraid of any of the warring parties. For him, “peace cannot return to Tigray as long as the TPLF”, which he does not hesitate to call a “terrorist group”, remains in power.

Not sure …

Solomon has not lived in Tigray for two years, but on the border of the region, where he has managed to get information about the war from the inside. The reporter has only one goal: to show the atrocities committed by both the army and the TPLF, as well as to combat the rebels’ “propaganda” in the region. His last trip, for which he does not want to give the exact date, lasted two days. He gets his information from locals who still have an internet connection, albeit a very weak one, “mainly from workers for NGOs or humanitarian associations. I include people who support the government action and those who see the TPLF as the cause of the war. Some anti-TPLF fighters also spoke to me. Many of them were only able to interact with me with the restoration of government communication services.”

The war seems to be over in tigray but press freedom remains under threat in Ethiopia

Not a word about the abuses of Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed’s army, which many outside observers say has been involved in deadly raids and mass rape campaigns, as well as blocking the delivery of humanitarian aid. “The TPLF was the first to declare war in a blitzkrieg instigated by the leader Seque Turea. They must be held fully responsible for the war. However, abuses were committed by both sides, and all individuals involved in them must be arrested and tried.”

“I could not move freely, I was terrorized by the rebels. They threaten anyone who does not support their version of events and consider them enemies of Tigray to be shot.

The war seems to be over in tigray but press freedom remains under threat in Ethiopia

He says he was blackmailed by the TPLF because of his status as a journalist, including leaking his personal information. But that doesn’t stop him: “There is an Ethiopian proverb that says: hilmi ferihka leydekeska aytihedry, you can’t sleep without being scared by a dream. Mine is to expose the truth. I know the TPLF is dangerous, but as long as I fight for my people, the risk is worth it.”

The journalist says that a few “government and independent” journalists may soon be allowed to travel to Tigray again, “especially to areas under the control of the ENDF, the Ethiopian army: Welkayt, Shre, Adwa, Aksum, Raya remain accessible.”

He also confirms “the atrocities committed by the rebels: mass rapes, robberies and destruction” have been commonplace for the past two years in Tigray, “but also in the neighboring regions of Afar and Amhara.”

Propaganda, the press’ number one enemy

After two years of bitter fighting in Tigray the conflict seems to have come to an end with peace can the press return to the region? As Solomon says repeatedly in our interview, the TPLF’s intense propaganda is undermining the understanding of events within the region itself, further dividing the population. For the past two years, “I have been fighting against the rebels through debunking fake news, in order to allow my people and the international community to shed full light on the war. We need to realize how dangerous the TPLF is.” He hopes to be able to return home freely soon. He has also decided to start his own media outlet to disseminate his own information.

Isaac Welday, another freelance journalist, reported to the media the arrest of five tiger journalists in May and July 2022 by federal authorities for covering events in the region. He told us that he worked for the interim government shortly before the war began.

He then left his job to devote himself entirely to his vocation as a journalist. “I want to set the record straight, I’m not on anyone’s side,” he says over the phone. “On three occasions, I was arrested by the federal government and placed in custody. For him, both the rebels and the government “are torturers. They are anti-journalists and against all the actors of peace,” civilian or not.

The peace agreement is a good sign for the future

Sadibou Marong, director of the Africa office of Reporters Without Borders, is not so clear-cut. “The peace agreement is a good sign for the future, especially for a better flow of information and journalists in the country. But there is still the fear of reprisals, and many journalists prefer to remain safe abroad. It is up to the authorities to work on their return and give them guarantees. The biggest problem, according to him, lies “in controlling the narrative of the war, that is, the propaganda and disinformation on social networks that have been taken up by the media.”

The NGO has been fighting against this propaganda since the beginning of the war, “which is found in both the TPLF and the federal government. The authorities were talking about a security operation, but it was really a war” to denounce. “The TPLF and the central government are guilty of abuses and arbitrary detentions. As soon as the war broke out, we witnessed the assassination and detention of journalists. Some were accused of promoting terrorism and were sentenced to death. Others were persecuted by the federal authorities and had to go into exile abroad or seek assistance.”

The war seems to be over in tigray but press freedom remains under threat in Ethiopia

The peace has only been signed between the parties since November 2, 2022, underscoring its fragility. Despite the ongoing violence in the neighboring regions of Afar and Amhara, the African and European Unions are trying to endorse the peace agreement, as did the head of foreign diplomacy, Catherine Colonna, on January 12 and 13. She was accompanied by her counterpart Annalena Baerbock and the chair of the African Commission, Moussa Faki. The total number of victims remains unknown, due to the lack of documentation, despite the efforts of the few journalists who remained on site. The repatriation of exiles, the counting and judicial treatment of the crimes committed during these two years, and the future of the TPLF and Tigray remain unresolved issues that the multiple parties have yet to discuss.


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