WASHINGTON - When violence erupted in Ethiopia’s Tigray region between the federal government and the Tigray People's Liberation Front (TPLF) last month, those living in the global diaspora scrambled for information.
The Ethiopian army went into Tigray on Nov. 4, after the government accused local forces of attacking a military base there. TPLF leaders called the federal government’s response a war against the people of Tigray.
The search for verified, accurate news on the conflict was hampered by authorities preventing many international media organizations from accessing the conflict zone and disruptions to phone and internet connections that resulted in an information blackout. And Ethiopians from the country’s roughly 3 million diaspora found themselves looking to other, often unreliable sources of information found on social media.
For the country’s migrant population, the media void struck right at the moment they most wanted news of what was happening in their home country.
Most rely on messaging apps including Telegram, WhatsApp and Viber which provide a “lifeline” connecting the diaspora to people at home, Tewodros Workneh, an assistant professor of global communication at Kent State University in Ohio, said.
“It's incredibly difficult if you live in this country [in the diaspora] or in other parts of the world when there is a media blackout in the conflict region right now. It's really frustrating for diaspora communities,” Tewodros added.
In the information vacuum, people look to other, often unreliable sources of information.
“When you cannot hear from your relatives and your friends and family members, what you rely on are third parties,” said Tewodros, who studies media development, including in Ethiopia. “And often times this vacuum is filled by different political interest groups on social media platforms who have no knowledge about what's going on.”
Misinformation spread widely during the conflict. Images were shared on social media platforms of old airplane crashes alongside claims they had been downed Ethiopian fighter jets. An image showing a 2015 factory explosion in China was passed off as being from a missile strike by Tigrayan forces against neighboring Eritrea.
Ethiopia has a range of media outlets run from outside the country. But oftentimes these satellite television networks are politically or ethnically aligned, journalists and scholars said.
Befeqadu Hailu, executive director of the Center for Advancement of Rights and Democracy based in the capital, Addis Ababa, said that outlets abroad can play an important role but that bias sometimes influences the way they report on events.
“They have a positive contribution especially in times of repression by the government here [in Ethiopia]. They can be the voice of the silenced here,” Befeqadu said. But, he added, they can sometimes “aggravate” the conversation because of their allegiances, or through using sources or information that are less reliable.
“I think that the diaspora media is usually more divided than the media organizations that are here,” Befeqadu said. “The diaspora is more divided along ethnic lines, along ideological and political ideological lines, and they show their allegiance without fear.”
Reeyot Alemu, a journalist for the U.S.-based Ethiopian news website Ethio 360 Media, which reports primarily in Amharic, says some journalists do their due diligence and refrain from becoming swayed along ethnic or political lines.
“There are gaps created as a result of working from abroad but responsible journalists always verify information using all the means available,” Reeyot told VOA in Amharic. “But there is still a big gap when it comes to applying journalism principles not only caused by physical distance, but also taking sides.
The challenges of reporting from overseas have been exacerbated during the information blackout.
The government denied responsibility for the latest internet cuts. A tweet by the Ethiopia State of Emergency Fact Check, which says it provides the latest information on the state of emergency, shared a video on Twitter that it says shows unidentified individuals breaking into the northern region’s office of Ethio-Telecom, the country’s sole internet provider and then “intentionally” disconnecting the network.
Ethio Telecom's CCTV camera footage from the premises of the Mekelle Core Center. pic.twitter.com/dsNBg0h789— Ethiopia State of Emergency Fact Check (@SOEFactCheck) December 14, 2020
Internet blocks during times of conflict or unrest in Ethiopia aren’t new. Data from NetBlocks, which tracks cybersecurity and internet governance, shows other regions in the country were cut off during protests or violence following major events such as the killing of prominent Oromo artist Hachalu Hundessa in June. In that case, internet service was cut off for 23 days, the nonprofit organization said.
The government said at the time that social media were being used to exacerbate protests, during which at least 86 people were killed.
Befeqadu, of the Center for Advancement of Rights and Democracy, said journalists find themselves in a precarious position whenever there is conflict. “Since the military confrontation between the federal government and the Tigray region started, about seven journalists are detained and now in jail,” he said. “So, it is always tough when the government is under scrutiny. To be a reporter or a media affiliate in Ethiopia comes always with a risk.”
Reeyot, who covers her home country from more than 11,000 kilometers away in the United States, said the struggles are felt from afar.
“It is not just working from abroad, but the lack of access and internet blackout makes it difficult to follow the current situation, even for someone inside the country. Closing all access is problematic,” Reeyot said.
Reeyot knows firsthand the risks for journalists in Ethiopia. She served just over four years of a 14-year sentence for terrorism because of her critical reporting for the independent weekly Feteh, before her release in 2015.
In addition to these challenges, journalists working in the diaspora endure regular threats and accusations of bias. Reeyot says the harassment and intimidation comes from all sides but can be strong from the government.
Ethiopia had shown signs of reversing its poor press freedom record when Abiy Ahmed came to power in 2018. The country was hailed for releasing journalists and political dissidents and the new prime minister last year spoke of the need to open up the media space, while cautioning against the spread of hate speech and fake news.
But during points of conflict or unrest, including the Tigray fighting, Ethiopia has reverted to blocking access to information, detaining critical journalists or pressuring media who report critically on the government or appear more favorable to opposition, media rights groups say.
On Dec. 12, the deputy director general of the Information Network Security Agency, Kefyalew Tefera, accused the U.S.-based Oromia Media Network and Ethio 360 Media of collaborating with the TPLF.
Reeyot, who was imprisoned when the TPLF was in power, said that the accusation appears to be “simply because the media is deemed not to have a favorable view of the government.”
Accusations of supporting or working for the TPLF have led to an increase in the number of journalists jailed in Ethiopia since the fighting. Figures released by the New York-based Committee to Protect Journalists showed seven journalists jailed in Ethiopia on Dec. 1—nearly all of whom were arrested in November for coverage of the TPLF.