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  • Merry Nebiyu

Continuing Conflict in Ethiopia’s Tigray Region Brings Attention to the Issue of Reputable Media

On April 6, Amnesty International and the Human Rights Watch declared the ongoing conflict in the Tigray region an attempt at “ethnic cleansing” by the Ethiopian government against the Tigray people. The official declaration has legitimized the starvation, displacement of peoples, and mass killings of Tigrayans since November 2020. For months, activists have called on international peacekeeping groups to deem this crisis a ‘genocide’ or, at the very least, an ‘ethnic cleansing’ in order to further validate calls for international aid and intervention. With this recent escalation in verbiage, there has been an unprecedented, yet anticipated, increase in censorship on those within the Ethiopian borders, as well as in southern regions of Eritrea.

Nobody expected that a Nobel Peace Prize winner would become entangled in a two year long conflict rife with unspeakable atrocities, mass starvation, and a refugee crisis. Yet, Ethiopia’s Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed currently finds himself in that exact situation as he deals with the aftermath of the crisis in the state’s Tigray region.

In November 2020, Ahmed deployed troops into Tigray, one of 10 of Ethiopia’s autonomous provinces, under the guise of “domestic law and order”. Shortly thereafter, however, mass gunfire erupted, bombs were dropped, and Mekelle, the capital city of Tigray, was seized and occupied by federal forces. Since then, over 60,000 refugees have fled to neighboring states and the Tigray region has been declared a dire humanitarian issue, gaining international attention.

The portrayal of this strife is universally consistent, with many nations having publicly denounced the Ahmed administration for the apparent continuation of this tragedy. Yet this cacophony of denunciation is coupled with vocal disagreement from members of the Ethiopian diaspora. Ethiopian immigrants continually raise questions in regards to the validity of human rights reports along with Western response to Ahmed’s administration. While the greater West continually clarifies its stance in relation to the Tigray people, members of the diaspora have publicly expressed concern and disdain for lack of “accurate and reliable” coverage of the conflict. The lack of concurrence on these fundamental certainties raises concerns not only limited to the conflict itself but the implications of the war on accessibility to media and proper media coverage, both in Eastern Africa and in Ethiopia.

It is not uncommon for African states to have state-controlled access to media and the internet. Burundi, Tanzania, and Uganda are just a few of the states who continue to control their citizens' access to media, especially during elections. Ethiopia, through its muddled history, ethnic tension, and recent regime changes, has undergone similar issues related to accessibility, specifically in relation to social media such as WhatsApp— the primary mode of communication by most Ethiopians— along with the internet holistically. With this overwhelming control, the Ahmed government and provincial leaders such as Tigray’s TPLF (Tigray People’s Liberation Front) have been able to tighten their grip around the flow of information both in and out of the state. While it has quickly become a normalized aspect of life, the current conflict in Tigray has further exacerbated the issue.

In June 2021, Abiy’s government extended this control of information to Western journalists who had come into the state to report on the alleged human rights atrocities committed by the regime against the people of Tigray. While the administration was continually pressed as to their official justifications for censorship and suppression, an official comment regarding the matter was evaded and never given. At least 10 journalists have since been detained and, while the number may not seem astounding, it signifies a severe restraint in the circulation of the happenings within the conflict.

These detainments also came as a shock to many who watched the Abiy administration drastically “improve media conditions” and coverage— a key component to uniting the country before winning the Peace Prize in 2019.

Like many other neighboring states, journalists reporting on the conflict have come forward highlighting the newly imposed “self-censorship” needed to survive within their industry and within the state. While it may not be a direct or shockingly drastic implementation of restrictive measures, the environment fostered by the Abiy administration has paved the way for media and informational accessibility that can be deemed questionable at its best and dangerous at worst.

In a broader sense, this aforementioned self-censorship triggered during times of conflict extends beyond the conflict within the Tigray region and has become a prominent predicament facing many other surrounding states. The Rwandan Genocide, for example, was a breeding ground for indirect journalistic suppression, with its government never taking official responsibility for the blatant mechanisms used to indirectly censor its journalists. Similar to the Abiy administration, so-called enemies of the respective regimes would be met with the likes of plainclothes officers or other mercenaries to potentially scare reporters into hiding, erase their bylines, or worse. Yet, even with proactive measures taken by external sources, including NGOs, human rights groups, and other international governing bodies, the ability of states to indirectly limit the obstructive coverage of their regimes continues to steadily rise, as seen here in Horn of Africa.

Low media accessibility in combination with this sustained increase in self-censorship continues to plague the citizens of many of these countries, and the future for uninterrupted, free-flowing information remains unclear.

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