Blackout makes it hard to report on Ethiopia’s civil war

It was nearly midnight on a Tuesday in Addis Ababa and Samuel Getachew, a freelance journalist, was at a friend’s birthday party. Suddenly his phone started buzzing. Nothing had been officially announced yet, but his sources alerted him to conflict in Tigray, a province in the north of the country.

“Almost all of my friends at the party are from Tigray. And what was supposed to have been a birthday became something else. We couldn’t go through with it. So we just cancelled it and headed home. We didn’t know yet if this was a civil war or if this was a minor incident,” he said.

A continent away, in Germany, Tsedale Lemma was fast asleep. She is the founder and editor-in-chief of the Addis Standard, one of Ethiopia’s most influential independent publications. It was about 2am Addis time on Wednesday, 4 November, when she was woken up by a call from Medihane Ekubamichael, a senior editor in Addis Ababa.

“Medihane was panicking. He said. ‘Did you see what the Prime Minister said?’ I said no, I’m sleeping.”

In the middle of the night, Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed had posted an extraordinary announcement on Facebook. In it, he said that militants aligned with Tigray’s regional government had attacked Ethiopian army positions in the region; and said that he was sending in the troops for a “military confrontation”.

He was, in effect, declaring war.

Medihane knew that tensions between the national government, based in Addis Ababa, and the regional government led by the Tigray People’s LIberation Front (TPLF) had been rising for months. But this was a dramatic escalation, and he wasn’t even sure if it was real. Maybe Abiy’s Facebook was hacked, he asked Tsedale. Is it too late to text the prime minister’s press officer?

Modern censorship

Abiy’s Facebook had not been hacked. Ethiopia really was going to war, which meant that journalists needed to get to work. Except they could not get any information out of Tigray because of a province-wide communications blackout imposed by the national government: no internet, no mobile phones, no landlines. Overnight, the region went silent and has remained so. (It is not only journalists who are affected; none of Getachew’s Tigrayan friends have yet been able to contact their relatives).

Nor are journalists allowed to travel to the conflict areas. The government said that special permits are required to go anywhere near the front lines, and they have not been issuing any of these permits. (Foreign correspondents have been told that the machine that prints press accreditation at the Ethiopian Broadcasting Authority has run out of ink).

“Nobody independently is having access to Tigray,” said a Addis Ababa-based foreign correspondent, who asked not to be named. “Then there is the total communications blackout in Tigray. What do we know about bombings in Mekelle or in Tigray in general? We know from what the Ethiopian government says. We do not know from journalists. The only people who have access to communication are the Ethipian troops and the militias.”

A small press trip organised by the Ethiopian government to Dansha, the military base allegedly attacked by Tigrayan forces on 3 November, ended in farce when journalists were denied access. They were told that the situation had deteriorated rapidly, and told to return to Addis immediately.

This means, said the foreign correspondent, that they were unable to even confirm the government’s own version of events, never mind probe any other. “I’m very, very frustrated,” said the foreign correspondent. “I would like to work and to report on what people are living through right now. And so far, it’s been very difficult. Some journalists are in trouble for just quoting the TPLF. What you have seen in the news is only scratching the surface.”

This is a throwback to the dark days of Ethiopian journalism, said Getachew. “Abiy allowed us to report on whatever we wanted for the first two years [of his administration]. And now we are going back. We were allowed to criticise him, and say whatever we wanted, and all of a sudden our social media is being supervised, and there is fear that whatever we say will come to haunt us in the future.”

‘Fifty 50 propaganda materials every day’

Last week, the Addis Standard issued a strongly worded statement urging the government to open channels of communication. “It was not a statement the government wanted to hear and we knew it. By doing so we are putting ourselves into the spotlight,” said Tsedale.

In Addis Ababa last Saturday, Medihane called an emergency meeting of the Addis Standard’s editorial team. He and Tsedale outlined basic safety protocols, and got everyone to update their emergency contact numbers. Just in case anyone was arrested, assaulted or disappeared, the team drafted letters to embassies, human rights groups and trade bodies such as Reporters Without Borders and the Committee to Protect Journalists. If anything happened, the letters would be ready to send immediately.

The letters were needed much sooner than expected. That afternoon, two police trucks pulled up outside Medihane’s home. They arrested the editor and initially took him to an undisclosed location. Later, he was transferred to a prison and then charged with “attempts to dismantle the Constitution through violence” and “outrage against the Constitution”.

After being released on Monday evening, Medihane was re-arrested on Tuesday, and he remains in custody. His absence is being felt in the newsroom. Medihane was in charge of day-to-day copy flow, and without him that publication has been forced to sharply reduce the amount of reporting they can do.

Tsedale is adamant that Addis Standard will not be used as a government mouthpiece. “They are releasing 50 propaganda materials every day, and we are not using more than 1% —  only the major announcements. We are not using announcements from the army generals. We will not publish a one-sided story,” she said.

But given the communications blackout and the restrictions on travel, first-hand reporting remains impossible. Besides, the journalist she would have sent to do that reporting is in jail. “Medihane would have been the perfect person to despatch to that area. He is Tigrayan. He speaks the language, he knows the area, he grew up there.” But this identity may also have been what got him into trouble. “I can’t separate whether he is being targeted for his identity as a Tigrayan, or for his coverage of the situation,” said Tsedale. “These are absolutely abnormal times. And scary.”

Scraps of information

Even if it is not the full picture, what has made it into the news provides a terrible glimpse into the severity of the conflict.

The African Union, headquartered in Addis Ababa, dismissed its own security chief after the Ethiopian government accused him of being “disloyal”. The United Nations has warned that food aid and medical supplies are being blocked from reaching Tigray. Thousands of displaced Tigrayans have fled into neighbouring Sudan. And at least four more journalists have been arrested: Haftu Gebregzhiaber, Tsegaye Hadush, Abreha Hagos and Udi Mussa.

According to a leaked document seen by Reuters, Ethiopian police demanded a list of ethnic Tigrayan staff from the UN World Food Programme in the neighbouring state of Amhara, raising fears of ethnic violence. The Ethiopian government said it launched air strikes on major cities in Tigray; the Tigrayan authorities said these airstrikes have killed civilians.

Most damning of all is an Amnesty International report released on Thursday, which detailed how people were stabbed or hacked to death in the Tigrayan town of Mai-Kadra. The victims appear to be mostly Amhara civilians; eyewitnesses told Amnesty that the perpetrators belonged to a militia group linked to the TPLF.

“We were lucky,” Fisseha Tekle, Amnesty’s Horn of Africa researcher. Mai-Kadra is on the south-western edge of Tigray, which meant that people could find a cell phone signal not too far from the town. They sent photos and videos showing streets lined with bodies, which were passed to the Amnesty team.

“We used forensic technology to authenticate some of the videos and photos coming from these areas. We verified that these photos have never been used previously. And based on the geographical and spatial view of the videos, we have confirmed they are really coming from the town,” said Tekle. Amnesty employed a consultant pathologist in Addis Ababa who was able to determine that many of the deaths were caused by sharp objects.

For now, these scraps of information are all we have about the tragedy that is undoubtedly unfolding in Tigray.

When contacted, the prime minister’s office referred The Continent to a press briefing about the media blackout, in which spokesperson Redwan Hussein blames the TPLF for the communications blackout. “The lack of information that everybody has is also true for the government. We cannot call, we cannot travel there. The only access we have is through our airport.”

The government does, however, have a track record of cutting communications during emergencies, such as during the 27 days of unrest which followed the killing of Oromo singer Hachalu Hundessa in June. 

The Continent was unable to make contact with the TPLF.

This story first appeared in The Continent, the weekly pan-African newspaper designed to be read and shared on WhatsApp. Download your free copy here.

Read more:

Abiy Ahmed won a Nobel peace prize. Now Ethiopia is on the brink of civil war

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