Freelance journalist Lucy Kassa was working on a story at her home in Ethiopia's capital, Addis Ababa, on Monday morning when she heard a knock at the door.
"I opened and there were three men. They knocked me down and they entered the home," Lucy told VOA. "They didn't introduce themselves, they didn't show me any kind of I.D., they didn't show me any kind of search warrant and they began to search my house."
Dressed in civilian clothes and armed, the men started to question Lucy, asking if she had a connection with the Tigray People's Liberation Front (TPLF), the regional armed group accused of attacking the federal army in Ethiopia's Tigray region.
"At first I wasn't sure what they were looking for in my house because they made a big mess," she said. "They tried to interrogate me if I have some sort of relationship with the 'TPLF junta.'"
The men didn't say why they were questioning Lucy, but the journalist thinks it could be related to her recent coverage for international media.
The raid came the same week that she published a piece in the Los Angeles Times newspaper about violent gang rapes allegedly carried out by Eritrean soldiers in Tigray, the northernmost part of Ethiopia that has been the scene of fighting between troops and the TPLF since November.
Lucy says she thinks the article made her a target because she had been collecting evidence that appeared to show Eritrean forces were operating in Tigray.
"They were looking for evidence. I actually submitted the story on Saturday but I was looking for more evidence," Lucy said. "And in the process, I managed to get pictures of Eritrean soldiers from my source."
The pictures, she said, were taken in the outskirts of Adigirat and rural places. She had plans to go to those areas to follow up on allegations of human rights abuses and mass killings.
A spokesperson for Ethiopia's Ministry of Foreign Affairs said last month that the ministry was aware of reports that Eritreans had entered the country but did not confirm it. The spokesperson denied that Ethiopia had solicited any outside support.
Climate of fear
The men who raided Lucy's home took her computer and the pictures, and have left her in fear. "I am traumatized. I am not sure if I am safe because these people might come again and threaten me again," she said.
International organizations and media groups condemned the attack on Lucy, who also contributes to Al Jazeera and a news website Bistandsaktuelt, a Norwegian publication that focuses on countries receiving aid from Norway.
Gunnar Zachrisen, editor-in-chief of Bistandsaktuelt, said he has worked with Lucy closely and she was doing important work, reporting all sides of the dispute.
"She is a very hardworking, bright, young woman," he told VOA. "She's still only 29 years old, but definitely a big journalistic talent, not afraid of criticizing different stakeholders in her home country."
The raid came alongside other cases of journalists being harassed over coverage of the conflict. Several have been arrested or harassed since November. Others were questioned for their reporting.
In January, Dawit Kebede Araya, a journalist affiliated with the regional outlet Tigray TV, was shot dead. Earlier that month, police had detained Dawit and questioned him about his coverage of the conflict. Media rights groups, including the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ), have called on authorities to investigate the circumstances of his death.
Arnaud Froger, head of the Africa desk at media monitoring group Reporters Without Borders (RSF), said the restrictions and intimidation have had a tremendous impact on the ability of journalists to cover the unrest.
"Journalists have been prevented first from accessing the region. The Tigray region has been mostly in total internet shutdown since it all began in November," he told VOA. "No access to information, no possibility to communicate with your sources on the ground, and RSF has recorded at least seven arbitrary arrests of journalists.
"Some of them were taken behind bars, never officially charged without any access to their lawyer and family, and then released after a few days and sometimes a few weeks without really knowing why they were arrested in the first place," Froger said. "And the pressure is rising now to a point that we can say may no longer be safe to be a journalist in Ethiopia."
Ethiopia appears to be on a trajectory where intimidation and arrests of journalists is on the rise, Froger said. The country ranks 99 out of 180 countries, where 1 is the most free, according to RSF's annual press freedom index.
When asked about Lucy's case and other incidents involving the media, Fekadu Tsega, director at Ethiopia's Office of the Attorney General, said he was unable to comment on specific cases. He told VOA in Amharic, "individuals can be questioned based on different issues" and added that being a journalist is not a protection "if a crime is committed."
The Ethiopia State of Emergency Fact Check, a government initiative set up to counter what officials deem to be disinformation on the conflict, said that "all individuals need to be free from any form of harm" but that RSF was incorrect in describing Lucy as working for foreign outlets because she did not have the necessary press pass.
The statement was condemned as "disgraceful" by the press freedom organization CPJ. "Instead of identifying these attackers and holding them to account, authorities have instead sought to discredit Lucy Kassa by saying she's not a legally registered journalist, exposing growing hostility to the [press]," CPJ said by social media.
It is disgraceful that instead of identifying these attackers and holding them to account, authorities have instead sought to discredit Lucy Kassa by saying she's not a legally registered journalist, exposing growing hostility to the #FreePress in #Ethiopia. pic.twitter.com/VnrDC7Xzjb— CPJ Africa (@CPJAfrica) February 11, 2021
For now, Lucy is in hiding while she recovers from the attack.
"They tried to relate my ethnicity with the pieces that I worked on," said Lucy, who is Tigrayan. "They asked me if the reason that I am investigating the situation in Tigray is that I belong to the Tigrayan ethnicity and because I support the TPLF junta. I told them I am just a journalist, even if I am ethnic Tigrayan, I was just doing my job."
She added that the climate for independent journalists in the country has taken a major step backward.
"There were hopes when Abiy Ahmed came to power, there were hopes that there would be freedom of expression," Lucy said. "But then after years, the government was turning to become repressive. Now, it reached a point where it is even difficult to report."