Ethiopia: Censorship and Suppression - Govt's Crackdown on Free Press Intensifies

Newspaper stands in Addis Ababa in 2016.

The Ethiopian government is threatening sanctions on journalists and media outlets that will 'glorify' the victories of the Tigray People's Liberation Front (TPLF), a former ruling party now considered a terrorist group in Addis Ababa.

In the latest crackdown on independent media, the Ethiopia Media Authority warned news outlets not to equate the Tigray fighters to a national army, and not to consider TPLF the governor of the region.

Yonatan Tesfaye Regassa, deputy director-general of the authority warned, in a letter to correspondents, of "stringent measures" against any journalist who reports on Tigray fighters as though they were a national army.

"The Ethiopia Media Authority has found out that some foreign media are repeatedly characterising the TPLF as a national army by calling it's the Tigray Defence Force or TDF," Yonatan wrote in a letter dated July 16, and which was circulated under the subject 'terminologies that violate Ethiopia's territorial integrity.'

"Bearing in mind that Tigray is one of the federal units of Ethiopia that cannot have a force with that nomenclature, and as the country's Parliament has labeled TPLF a terrorist organisation, the authority informs that use of such terminology violates Ethiopia's territorial integrity, national interest and security," he said.

He was referring to a parliamentary decision earlier this year to ban the TPLF and label them as a terrorist movement.

Other forbidden terminology

Ethiopia has also warned journalists against referring to the TPLF and its leader, Debretsion Gebremichael, as the leader of Tigray.

Once President of Tigray Regional State, Debretsion was stripped of the powers by Ethiopia after he defied the postponement of national elections and held local polls.

In November, the Ethiopian Parliament nullified the authority and declared Debretsion and 96 other senior army officers, TPLF and government officials as fugitives.

The region is officially under a provisional administration but it fled recently as the Tigray fighters stormed the capital, Mekelle.

"It shall be understood that further use of the same terminology by any foreign media outlet will be a grave violation of Ethiopian law, which will lead to stringent measures."

The warning, which could mean journalists losing their press credentials and outlets banned from covering the conflict, came as Addis Ababa upped their labelling of TPLF as an outlet using child soldiers in the war.

Billene Seyoum, Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed's spokesperson, specifically accused New York Times and the Associated Press of "glamourising the use of child soldiers by the TPLF".

Uproar

On Friday, uproar followed the suspension of Addis Standard, an online news magazine published by Jakenn Publishing PLC. Officials of the company said they were suspending publishing activity after the Authority withdrew its licence.

"The management of JAKENN deeply regrets and is disturbed by the decision taken today by the Ethiopian Media Authority to recall JAKENN's recently issued media license without due explanation," the firm said in a statement on Thursday.

Various press freedom lobbies protested the decision, saying the outlet was being punished for sustaining an independent line of reporting on the Tigray conflict.

"Today's move to withdraw its license is the latest demonstration of the government's hostility towards independent journalism," said Muthoki Mumo, CPJ's sub-Saharan Africa representative said in a statement on Friday.

"Authorities should immediately restore Addis Standard's licence, ensure that it can operate independently, and cease all efforts to harass and censor journalists and media outlets."

Other reactions

Other groups including Reporters Without Borders (RSF) said they had written to the authority seeking clarifications on the withdrawal of the licence.

The Foreign Press Association of Africa tweeted that Ethiopia should allow a free press as it is essential for democracy.

"We feel disappointed that @EthMediaAuth, with no explanation, has suspended activities of @addisstandard. Censorship, suppression and repression of the media only happens in authoritarian democracies," the association tweeted.

A unilateral ceasefire declared by Ethiopia two weeks ago looked all but broken after Amhara militia allied to Ethiopian forces clashed with the TDF.

The Tigray fighters have gone on to declare certain victories and retaken towns initially lost to Amhara, Eritrean and Ethiopian forces.

Prime Minister Abiy said he will "repel" any attacks.

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