(Updated July 16, 2021 06:47 PM) Ethiopia's media regulator on Thursday revoked the license of the Addis Standard's publisher, forcing the monthly magazine and news website to cease operations immediately.
The outlet's publisher, JAKENN Publishing, said in a statement that the Ethiopian Media Authority did not explain why it temporarily revoked the Addis Ababa media company's license.
The regulator called the Addis Standard around noon Thursday and requested that an employee bring the license to an impromptu meeting, an Ethiopia-based journalist with knowledge of the situation told VOA. The journalist requested anonymity over security concerns.
At the meeting, the regulator took back the license but did not provide written documentation about the suspension, the journalist said.
A statement from the EMA said the license was revoked over complaints that it was being used to "advance the terrorist group's agency," including by "legitimizing a terrorist group as a 'Defense Force.'"
That group is likely the Tigray People's Liberation Front, which Addis Ababa has officially designated a terrorist organization and has been battling in Ethiopia's north since November, Reuters reported.
The TPLF is a former member of the coalition that ruled Ethiopia for more than 30 years. In May, Ethiopia designated the group a terrorist organization.
The suspension came two weeks after police in the capital arrested about 20 journalists and staff from the independent broadcaster Awlo Media Center and YouTube-based broadcaster Ethio-Forum.
'A way to silence the journalists'
The arrests, which took place between June 30 and July 2, are likely connected to coverage of Ethiopia's government, including reporting on the conflict in Tigray, press freedom analysts and a journalist told VOA.
"They're all labeled as being very close, politically speaking, to the TPLF, the ruling party in the Tigray region. But this is just a way to silence the journalists who dare to report about it," said Arnaud Froger, who covers sub-Saharan Africa for media watchdog Reporters Without Borders.
Three of those detained were released on July 6, according to the independent Ethiopian Human Rights Commission. The others remain in custody but have not been formally charged or given the right to be visited by their lawyers and families, both of which are violations of Ethiopian due process, the commission said in a statement.
#Ethiopia: Detention of Ethio-Forum and @AwloMedia journalists and staff should follow due process; detainees should be released immediately if court order not produced #pressfreedom pic.twitter.com/CIm5pIXVQc --- Ethiopian Human Rights Commission (@EthioHRC) July 11, 2021
Ethiopia's embassy in Washington did not respond to VOA's emails requesting further details and comment.
Fighting in Tigray has dominated regional news coverage since Ethiopia's federal government launched a military offensive against the TPLF in November. On June 28, federal forces withdrew from the regional capital, Mekelle, and Tigrayan forces reclaimed it.
The United Nations office on human rights earlier this year warned that "serious violations of international law, possibly amounting to war crimes and crimes against humanity, may have been committed by multiple actors in the conflict," including Ethiopia's army, Tigrayan forces, Eritrea's military and Amhara regional militia.
On Monday, the European Union's foreign policy chief said the EU should consider enacting sanctions against Ethiopia.
When Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed came to power in 2018, it appeared that Ethiopia would shake off its reputation as having a repressive media environment. Imprisoned journalists were freed and bans on several news outlets lifted.
But since 2016, conditions for journalists have worsened in the face of new political challenges, said CPJ's sub-Saharan Africa representative, Muthoki Mumo.
"Since the conflict in Tigray started, we have definitely seen an intensification and increasing frequency and variety of attacks against journalists," Mumo told VOA.
The press freedom advocate cited physical attacks, barriers to access and telecommunications blackouts among the obstacles, but added that these issues were not exclusively tied to the conflict in Tigray.
Independent photographer Finbarr O'Reilly, who was in Mekelle on assignment for The New York Times when federal forces withdrew, said reporting on Tigray had challenges.
While O'Reilly and the reporter he was working with didn't have much trouble entering Tigray once they were in Ethiopia, an internet and telecommunications blackout in late June made it harder to file materials.
Tigrayans generally consider the media to be a helpful presence, O'Reilly said, but the government side does not.
"We were fortunate that we had access, but of course we had to take our own security seriously, at every step of the way," O'Reilly said. "Where do you go? Who's in control? Are you going to run into Eritrean forces, who are accused of some of the most brutal, wanton acts of violence? Are you going to run into recently defeated remnants of Ethiopian forces, who will take out their frustration and anger upon you?"
O'Reilly said he was subjected to a disinformation campaign after he left Ethiopia.
"The campaign to discredit the reporting that we've done and call it propaganda -- the barrage of trolling and online abuse that we've received on social media, Instagram, Twitter, and so on from supporters of Ethiopian government -- is pretty intense," he said.
The journalist said he did not receive threats or harassment from Tigrayan supporters.
O'Reilly said the prime minister's personal spokesperson even directly contacted him to express her displeasure with what she considered to be propaganda.
Fear of retaliation
The unidentified journalist who spoke with VOA said that they try to avoid reporting on Tigray or other sensitive issues like a border dispute with Sudan for fear of government retaliation.
The journalist said an official from Ethiopia's broadcast authority called earlier this year to criticize an article and to say that the consequences would be severe if the journalist continued to report on such topics.
Officials have also contacted the journalist asking for headlines and wording in articles to be changed, and accusing them of writing stories "with the intention of tarnishing the name of the country" on the international stage, the journalist said.
But the most recent call reached a new level.
"After that warning from the regulatory body, I am very careful in the stories I'm working on," the journalist said, adding that self-censorship is common among peers.
Media arrests are also viewed by the press community as cause for concern, the journalist said, adding that they still try to report in the hopes that they can contribute in even a small way to improving Ethiopia's democratic system.
"Yes, I have a fear," the journalist said. "But what can I do?"