Even after her third arrest, Ethiopian journalist Meaza Mohammed refused to stop reporting.
The co-founder and chief editor of Roha TV says that despite the harassment and threats related to the coverage on her YouTube-based news channel, she is committed to being a voice for the women affected by Ethiopia's recently-ended civil war in the northern part of the country.
The war between the federal government and Tigrayan forces ended with a cease-fire in November 2022.
When the conflict in Tigray spread into neighboring Amhara and Afar regions, Meaza reported on how armed groups used rape and sexual violence against the women in those areas.
She also worked directly with survivors of assaults to help them find treatment and other resources.
Meaza’s commitment to advocating for victims of gender-based violence and her push for accountability earned her recognition by the U.S. as one of its 2023 International Women of Courage.
“A very, very large number of women and children were war victims like the rest of the society. But on top of that they were vulnerable to sexual violence,” Meaza told VOA during a one-on-one interview at the State Department earlier in March.
“Women were retaliated against for a defeat in the war. Because of that I found a lot of women raped, exposed [to] HIV and other sexually transmitted diseases. So, I put all my focus and thought on helping them. Not only for the world to hear them, but also to help them get the medical and psychological support they need.”
Meaza is one of 11 women recognized by the United States for the significant impact they have made to the communities in which they live.
“It takes courage to speak when those in power want you to stay silent,” said White House press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre, as she introduced Meaza and three other recipients of the award. “These groups of journalists, broadcasters, and war correspondents spread truth, courage and empower other women and girls to use their voices for democracy, freedom and justice.”
Journalism is difficult in Ethiopia. The country dropped 13 places on the Reporters Without Borders, or RSF, press freedom rankings in 2022. It currently ranks 114 out of 180 countries, where No. 1 shows the best media environment.
The media watchdog says that gains in press freedom in the country were wiped out as “Ethiopia became embroiled in ethnic conflicts and a civil war.”
Meaza told VOA that when the conflict started, “Ethiopian media deteriorated all at once.”
“Government started shutting down the media. Even YouTube channels are controlled by [the] broadcast authority,” Meaza said. “Whenever something happens, the internet is shut down, journalists are arrested. We know that if something happens in the country, we could be arrested, we could be prosecuted or we could vanish.”
Covering the war too was difficult, with watchdogs documenting how media were denied access to conflict areas, and journalists were harassed or detained for coverage.
According to the Committee to Protect Journalists, or CPJ, Ethiopia has detained at least 60 journalists for varying periods since fighting broke out in 2020.
VOA’s attempts to reach the Ethiopian government communication department for comment were not successful.
For Meaza, her focus was how the war impacted women and children. She traveled to parts of the Amhara and Afar regions and spoke with women who said they were attacked by Tigrayan forces. The women describe rapes at gunpoint and how they were subjected to attacks in retaliation for army losses.
An investigation by the United Nations last year found all sides in the conflict had carried out atrocities, including sexual violence.
The Tigrayan forces have rejected allegations of rape and attack in Amhara and Afar and called for an independent investigation.
Meaza’s coverage has also highlighted the 2019 abduction of Amhara students who attended the Dembi Dollo University in the western Oromia region.
Families of the missing students had told VOA that armed men abducted the students. The government said it would form a task force to ensure their safe return, but the students are still missing, according to the advocacy group Amnesty International.
Despite her international recognition, Meaza’s reporting wasn’t welcomed by everyone.
Ethiopian security forces detained Meaza and accused her of spreading rumor, having links with the Tigray People’s Liberation Front or TPLF, and disclosing the national army’s locations.
And at a time when ethnic division created heightened tensions, critics have accused Meaza of being both “pro-Amhara” and “pro-TPLF.” The journalist, however, said she focuses on those regions because those are the areas where she had access to sources.
Her news channel on YouTube has close to 95,000 followers.
While social media platforms have in some ways become a battleground for opposing parties in the conflict, Meaza said that in a country with shrinking media freedom, the platforms provide a place for Ethiopians to turn to for information.
“Ethiopia has been volatile in the last five years. People die and get displaced for all sorts of reasons including religion, history and language. How a community in this situation uses social media could be difficult. But the solution is not closing them. This can only be fixed by creating social awareness,” she said.
Speaking about her State Department award, Meaza said it has given her a wider platform to highlight violence, abuse and torture that women endured during the war. She said she plans to use her media platform to call for accountability and justice.
This story originated in VOA’s Horn of Africa Amharic service.