Journalists in Ethiopia Say Press Freedom is at ‘Crossroads’

When Ethiopia’s Prime Minister Ahmed Abiy took office four years ago, Reporters Sans Frontiers, a Paris-based group that promotes press freedom, raised Ethiopia’s ranking in its international press freedom index by 40 places.

It was a giant leap forward after decades of media repression by the state. But since the war between federal government forces and rebels in the Tigray region began in late 2020, Ethiopia has dropped in the rankings.

To mark World Press Freedom Day 2022, VOA spoke to Ethiopian journalists about how free they feel to carry out their work.

Elias Meseret, who worked with the Associated Press and now lives outside of Ethiopia, told VOA that press freedom in Ethiopia is at a crossroads.

“Overall, I can say that lack of professionalism and also extreme views have become the hallmarks of the state of the media in Ethiopia, at this point in time,” Meseret said. “For this to change, I think the government has a responsibility to let media professionals do their job freely. This means without any harassment and intimidation.”

Assegid Mulugeta, a radio presenter for the government-owned broadcaster, the Ethiopian Broadcasting Corporation (EBC), thinks press freedom has improved in recent years. Mulugeta said it’s a positive development that for the first time in 20 years, there are no journalists in prison.

However, the Ethiopian Human Rights Commission released a statement Tuesday expressing concern for journalist Gobeze Sisay, whose whereabouts are unknown since plainclothes officers arrested him on Sunday.

Another journalist, Amir Aman Kiyaro, was arrested in November and released in March. But he still may face years in prison if convicted of violating the country’s wartime state of emergency law and anti-terrorism law.

Still, radio presenter Mulugeta said he sees improvement.

Under the pre-2018 TPLF government, he said, there were “lots of stifling systems, there was lots of censorship, there was beating of journalists, there was lots of pressures and censorship against journalists and now we are seeing the booming of YouTube and online media … this is a good thing to hear.”

Sisay Sahlu, editor at The Reporter, a private newspaper based in Addis Ababa, said independent media often get stonewalled by the government.

“My experience and the experience of my friends from public media is totally different,” he said. “As a private newspaper employee, it’s tough to get information for me.”

Sahlu said that for a simple story, he might call 10 officials, who all may be unwilling to answer his questions.

“When you call them, they don’t give us any clue,” he said. “We write a letter to them, they are not talking. Finally, when we publish [the story], they are coming to our office. Sometimes they are on the phone and start a verbal fight. Either they are giving us information or not.”

A government spokesman was not immediately available for comment.

In the latest World Press Freedom Index, Ethiopia is ranked 114th, down 13 places from its ranking in 2021.

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