Tuesday, May 30, 2023

Media arrests ‘echo’ in Ethiopian newsrooms

June 18 is seven months in prison for Dessu Dulla. The Ethiopian journalist is accused of anti-state activities. If convicted, he could face life in prison, or even the death penalty.

This is a sharp turn for Dessu, who returned from exile in Europe in 2018, drawn by what at the time seemed like a period of reform.

He started working at ONN, where he hosted the weekly program “Under the Shadow of Democracy,” looking at threats in Ethiopia and its Oromia region.

“I thought it would be a different era and that democracy and freedom of speech could be restored,” Dessu told Reuters before his arrest last November. But “actually things are going backwards. So many journalists have fled the country, and some are in jail.”

Dessu is one of more than 20 journalists currently being held in Ethiopian prisons. Most reported on the conflicts in the Tigray, Oromia and Amhara regions of Ethiopia.

File - dessu dulla, the ethiopian journalist working for the oromia news network, speaks on his cell phone outside his studios in addis ababa, ethiopia may 25,

FILE – Dessu Dulla, the Ethiopian journalist working for the Oromia News Network, speaks on his cell phone outside his studios in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia May 25,

In addition to arrests, Ethiopia’s media regulator announced in April that it was taking legal action against 25 media outlets that it said were spreading false news and hate speech.

Authorities say their actions are designed to stop the spread of disinformation or anti-state activities. But legal groups and journalists say Ethiopia is using legal avenues to silence critics or dissidents.

Tsedale Lemma, who founded the newspaper Addis Standardsaid the arrests of journalists, many of whom were pro-government during the war in Tigray, send a broader message to media across the country.

“This is the effect that is really resonating across media outlets in Ethiopia,” Tsedale said, adding that it creates challenges “because you will not know what it is going to be that the government is turning against this time around.”

WATCH: Ethiopia intensifies oppression of journalists

In Dessu’s case, he and his ONN colleague Bikila Amenu were involved in a case involving 15 members and supporters of the Oromo Liberation Front (OLF) political party, who are accused of plotting to overthrow the government.

A court charged the journalists in April with a law that excludes “violations of the constitution”.

Authorities say the journalists’ news coverage was sympathetic to the OLF.

Their lawyer, Milkiyas Bulcha, told VOA Amharic Service Dessu and the others were not given a fair chance to defend themselves.

“The prosecutor restricts the accused’s right to defend themselves, and they do not meet the standards required by law,” he said.

Therefore, Milkiyas said, “they should be released from prison without any conditions.”

Legal landscape

Advocacy groups say the use of anti-terrorism and other laws to silence the media and political dissidents should end if Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed keeps the promises he made when he took over in 2018.

“It’s really simple,” Angela Quintal, Africa Program Coordinator for the Committee to Protect Journalists, told VOA. She said the CPJ wanted the release of “all journalists currently behind bars in Ethiopia and that the government should end its prosecution of the independent press.”

But Ethiopian authorities say they are trying to tackle disinformation and prevent polarization or ethnic divisions.

File - ethiopian prime minister billene seyoum addresses a news conference in addis ababa on june 9,

FILE – Ethiopian Prime Minister Billene Seyoum addresses a news conference in Addis Ababa on June 9,

Speaking at a press briefing on June 6, Billene Seyoum, a spokeswoman for the Prime Minister’s Office, referred to the recent wave of arrests, saying: “It’s really important to unpack who a journalist is. is and who is not. “

As far as the media authority is aware, she said, “many of these that go under the banner of journalists are not accredited or unlicensed.”

The spokesman said strong laws restricting hate speech and disinformation are needed to regulate or control the growth of explosive rhetoric, especially online.

It is “problematic,” Billene said, “if everyone with a YouTube channel is considered a journalist and there is no way to regulate what is said.”

However, Quintal said legal action against the media is taking the country on a dark path.

“It is shocking that Ethiopia is once again among the worst prison guards of journalists in Africa and where proper process and the rule of law have been violated time and time again,” she told VOA.

“Prime Minister Ahmed Abiy’s government can still live up to its promise of reform when he first took office by reversing the worrying decline in press freedom we have seen, especially since the war in Tigray began.” said Quintal.

Abiy was praised in 2018 for his progressive moves, including the release of all journalists who are in jail and the restoration of access to blocked news sites.

In 2019, the United Nations held its press freedom conference in the capital, Addis Ababa, to commemorate World Press Freedom Day. Abiy was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize the same year.

But by 2021, with the war in Tigray underway, Abiy has shown less tolerance for reporting that is critical or challenging government action, and that equates authorities with false or biased news.

In a speech to lawmakers Tuesday, Abiy said: “Let us not designate individuals involved in the destruction of national institutions as ‘activists’ and ‘journalists’.”

Media Watchdog Reporters Without Borders (RSF) notes that conflict has wiped out most of the press freedom gains Ethiopia has made in recent years.

“Since the beginning of the civil war, the government has made a determined effort to take control of the story,” according to RSF. The watchdog places Ethiopia 114th out of 180 countries, where 1 is the freest, on its annual Press Freedom Index.

VOA’s Vincent Makori and VOA’s Nakor Melka contributed to this report.

This article is republished from – Voa News – Read the – original article.

Nation World News Desk
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