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Journalists in Ethiopia Say Press Freedom is at 'Crossroads'

FILE - A man points to a newspaper among the stacks of offerings, in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, June 24, 2019.

When Ethiopia's Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed took office four years ago, Reporters Without Borders, 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, 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," Elias 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, or EBC, thinks press freedom has improved in recent years. In 2018, the prime minister released all journalists from prison, However, that progress has since been reversed according to Ethiopian journalists, who documented that 46 journalists were detained in the country in 2021, making Ethiopia one of the worst jailers of journalists in Africa.

The state-backed 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.

FILE - Freelance video journalist Amir Aman Kiyaro, who is accredited to The Associated Press, is pictured in Ethiopia, Oct. 17, 2021.
FILE - Freelance video journalist Amir Aman Kiyaro, who is accredited to The Associated Press, is pictured in Ethiopia, Oct. 17, 2021.

Another journalist, Amir Aman Kiyaro, and his colleague Thomas Engida were arrested in November and released in March. But they 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 Assegid said he sees improvement.

Under the pre-2018 government where the Tigray People's Liberation Front political party dominated, 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."

Sisay 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.

Editor's note: The story has been updated with additional information about the arrests of journalists.