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Optimism of a More Open Ethiopia Fades, Expelled Journalist Says

Tom Gardner, a reporter for The Economist, is seen in a video posted by the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting in 2018.
Tom Gardner, a reporter for The Economist, is seen in a video posted by the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting in 2018.

Drawn by its natural beauty and cultural heritage, British journalist Tom Gardner covered Ethiopia for more than five and half years.

When he first arrived, Gardner said, there was “the feeling that it was on the brink of peaceful, epochal transformation.”

“There were obviously huge tensions [and protests], but in 2015/2016 it still seemed as though Ethiopia was progressing, and was the vanguard of east Asian-style industrialization in Africa,” he told VOA via email, before adding, “I'm much less optimistic now.”

Gardner covered infrastructure, housing projects and politics for British paper The Economist. And when violence erupted in the northern Tigray region in 2020, Gardner covered that too. In doing so, he said, he became an enemy in the eyes of the state.

The journalist was the subject of a campaign of online harassment denouncing his reporting. Then came a letter from the Ethiopia’s Media Authority on May 13, 2022, revoking his press accreditation and giving him just 48 hours to leave.

Expelled Journalists Say Reporting on Ethiopia Difficult for Foreign Press
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Gardner is not alone. Hostility toward media seen as biased or overly sympathetic to the Tigray People’s Liberation Front, or TPLF, the group the government is fighting, has increased since November 2020.

Foreign journalists like Gardner are subjected to online harassment and receive warnings over their reporting from the media regulator. In some cases, they are expelled. Gardner’s expulsion comes a year after Simon Marks, a freelance journalist who reported for The New York Times and Voice of America, was ordered to leave.

Foreign and local journalists reported on atrocities later corroborated by the United Nations, human rights groups and other international bodies, who concluded that war crimes and atrocities were carried out by all warring parties.

But Ethiopia’s federal government and its supporters have pushed back against criticism, denouncing it as false news.

Neither Ethiopia’s prime minister’s office nor the state media authority responded to VOA’s requests for comment.

In a speech to parliament in June, Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed said lines between activists, journalists and politicians are blurred, adding, “Let’s not designate individuals engaged in destroying national institutions as ‘activists’ and ‘journalists.’”

Protesters in support of the government have gathered in Washington and elsewhere in the world, carrying banners that read “fake news” along with names of news organizations to condemn what they perceive as interference in the country’s internal affairs or disregard for their sovereignty.

Media chill

The war marked a turning point for how journalists are viewed in Ethiopia.

Tom Gardner during a reporting trip to Ethiopia’s Somali region in 2021.
Tom Gardner during a reporting trip to Ethiopia’s Somali region in 2021.

“Certainly after the war began, it became far, far more difficult than it had been before. I was stopped from going to Tigray last year,” Gardner said. “There was always problems with police, local security forces.”

While on assignment in the Amhara region in July 2021, police stopped Gardner and his colleague, an Ethiopian journalist working as a translator. For security reasons, VOA has withheld the colleague’s name.

Officers forced the journalists into the back of their open top vehicle and drove them to a police station. On the way, Gardner said, police hit him with a rifle butt, but his Ethiopian colleague had it worse.

In an account written shortly after the attack, Gardner recalled seeing his friend’s mouth fill with blood from the beating while bystanders jeered.

Separately, Gardner was subjected to online harassment and attempts to discredit his reporting. He also received warnings from the media authority over coverage.

Finally, on May 13, Gardner received a letter from the media authority, revoking his license. He believes the social media campaign against him may have played a part.

“The government was incredibly vague in the letter they gave me revoking my license,” Gardner said. “They referred to sort of unspecified unprofessional behavior, a breach of ethics, mistaken approach to reporting.”

The media regulator letter said that The Economist was “welcome to assign an unbiased and independent journalist in [Gardner’s] place.”

In response, The Economist released a statement dismissing Ethiopia’s assessment of its correspondent, calling Gardner “an outstanding reporter.”

“His reporting from Ethiopia, including on the conflict in the northern region of Tigray, has been professional, unbiased and often courageous,” the statement read.

Foreign correspondents like Gardner, and Marks, who was expelled under similar circumstances in 2021, say the war changed how the journalists are viewed.

They and international media rights organizations say that local journalists are under greater pressure.

Marks said that Ethiopian journalists called him after he was expelled, telling him they fear for their safety if they continue reporting.

“The spillover effects from something like this, which are going to hurt in the end: the public’s right to know and [the ability to] hold their leaders accountable,” he told VOA shortly after he left.

Advocacy groups agree that such actions spread fear.

When Marks was expelled, Muthoki Mumo, the Committee to Protect Journalists’ sub-Saharan Africa representative, said such actions against established media not only restricts the flow of information, but put journalists on alert.

“What does that mean for the journalists operating already in Ethiopia, whether they be local or international? They must ask themselves the question if this can happen to him, what could potentially happen to me?” she said.

Marks believes the pressure and the climate of fear impacts local reporters.

“I think reporters, whether Tigray reporters or not, really fear the eye of the government on them,” he said. Ethiopia’s state media authority and its current leadership “haven’t hesitated to give warnings, [to] call reporters and tell them not to report on certain issues,” Marks told VOA.

For Ethiopian journalists, the risk of detention is high. The state-funded human rights organization put the number of media workers imprisoned or detained at 54 between July 2021 and May 2022.