Ethiopia targets foreign media amid Tigray conflict

A man scrolls down his cell phone for social media newsfeed about Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed winning the Nobel Peace Prize in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia. REUTERS/Maheder Haileselassie

NAIROBI, Kenya - The Ethiopian government has now shifted its attention to the foreign media, which it accuses of spreading hatred and misinformation, amid the ongoing conflict in the Tigray region, where the federal army carried an operation targeting the Tigray defense forces [TDF].

Media regulators accused unnamed foreign media houses of allegedly mischaracterizing the country's war-torn Tigray region, which has been getting sympathies from the international community in recent months.

“In reviewing and monitoring the news reports, the Ethiopian Media Authority [EMA] has found that some foreign media are repeatedly characterizing [the Tigray People’s Liberation Front - TPLF] as a national army by calling it the Tigray Defense Force or TDF,” said an official statement issued on agency letterhead Friday that was sent to VOA.

Already, the regulator has warned two media houses, including the deportation of New York Times reporter Simon Mark in May, who was accused of exaggerating the situation in the Tigray region.

The statement sent to VOA, signed by agency chief Yonatan Tesfaye Regassa, comes one day after the EMA revoked the license of the Addis Standard’s publisher, accusing the monthly magazine and news website of advancing the agenda of a “terrorist group,” without providing more specifics.

Addis Ababa Standard is one of the independent media houses in Ethiopia, and its license was revoked following claims that it's been favoring the Tigray Defense Forces. The news site has also received sympathies from the international community, which accused Ethiopia of gagging the media.

That “terrorist group” was thought to be the TPLF, which Addis Ababa has been battling in Ethiopia’s north since November, Reuters has reported. The TPLF is a former member of the coalition that ruled Ethiopia for more than 30 years. In May, Ethiopia designated the group a terrorist organization.

EMA officials on Thursday said they revoked the license over complaints that the Addis Standard was advancing “the terrorist group’s agency,” including by “legitimizing a terrorist group as a ‘Defense Force.’” The suspension drew outrage from global press freedom watchdogs, who’ve accused the government of Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed of taking an increasingly hard line against domestic news outlets covering the conflict.

Friday’s warning directed at foreign outlets appeared to escalate TPLF coverage restrictions.

“Bearing in mind that Tigray is one of the federation units of Ethiopia that cannot have a force with that nomenclature [such as ‘Defense Force’] and as the country’s parliament has labeled TPLF a terrorist organization, the [EMA hereby] informs that use of such terminology violates Ethiopia’s territorial integrity, national interest, and security,” Friday’s statement said.

Warning all foreign media against "using such characterization," the statement said, “further use of the same terminology by any foreign media will be a grave violation of Ethiopian law, which will lead to stringent measures.”

When Prime Minister Ahmed came to power in 2018, it appeared that Ethiopia would shake off its reputation as having a repressive media environment, but conditions for journalists have worsened in the face of new political challenges, according to reports by multiple press freedom advocates.

Friday’s new coverage guidelines for the Tigray conflict come two weeks after police in the capital arrested about 20 journalists and staff from the independent broadcaster Awlo Media Center and YouTube-based broadcaster Ethio-Forum, both of which have been critical of the government.


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