UPDATE 13. February 2020: Freedom of Speech is Dead in Ethiopia. (see new article underneath). Despite international criticism and warnings, Ethiopia once again sinks into the darkness of oppression. The new law muzzles free speech and freedom of expression. Anything critical said about Ethiopia can now be construed to "disrupt public order" - a charge which will throw any author into the infamous Ethiopian dungeons with no hope to win a case due to the corrupt and regime-led judiciary of the state and the sophisticated surveillance system targeting the internet at the hands of the Ethiopian ruler, who also has an internet kill-switch at his fingertips. Foreign and local journalists, bloggers and witnesses can no longer report about the many atrocities that happen especially in Oromiya state, where the Oromo people are under constant siege, and in the Southern Nations state, where minorities are driven off their land to benefit foreign, land-grabbing investors. (See and Sign on: Defend the Oppressed Peoples in Ethiopia )
Press freedom under siege again in the new Ethiopia
By DW - 16. November 2019
Ethiopian press freedom gained a much-needed push thanks to reforms by prime minister Abiy Ahmed. But already the push back is occurring.
In a small barely furnished office with some of the electric wiring still showing in half-completed walls, Habtamu Mekonnen sits at his laptop putting the finishing touches to tomorrow's Berbera newspaper edition.
Just over a year old, the fledging newspaper is one of a plethora of new publications that sprang to life following the whirlwind of reforms that helped garner Abiy Ahmed the Nobel Peace Prize in October 2019.
The Nobel committee cited the prime minister "discontinuing media censorship" as one of Abiy Ahmed's many achievements in paving the way to establish a new and better democracy in Ethiopia.
Ethnic tensions, journalism and activism
But the bonanza of media activity that followed is now generating increasing concerns that new media freedoms are being abused to stoke ethnic tensions.
Media are being accused of abetting groups seeking to leverage identity politics to destabilise the country for their own ends.
At the same time, the government is now facing criticism for repeating the authoritarian ways of previous Ethiopian governments toward media and attempting to put the lid back on what it opened.
Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed was not only awarded the Nobel Peace Prize this year - Ethiopia also hosted the 2019 World Press Freedom Day
"This paper exists because of Abiy's reforms," says Berihun Adane, an Addis Ababa-based journalist who has been published internationally and who helps mentor reporters at Berera. "But now we are witnessing the same thing that has happened after every regime change: first there are lots of new magazines and newspapers, then the government starts to crack down on them."
Back in 2018, reforms that opened up Ethiopia's previously restricted media space included the freeing of detained journalists and bloggers, along with an end to the blocking of more than 260 websites and the restoration of access to media outlets which had been been forced to work in exile.
Hence in the 2019 World Press Freedom Index compiled by Reporters Without Borders, Ethiopia jumped 40 places from number 150 to 110 out of 180 countries — the biggest improvement by any country.
But Berihun has experienced the other side of this, having recently been released from three months in prison due to charges of inciting "terrorism" through his journalism.
"I had the impression Abiy was friendly to media," Berihun says about an interview he conducted with the prime minister. "Now Abiy seems to hold a view that categorizes media as either hate- and ethnic-based or as mainstream. But it should be up to professional institutions to judge media conduct."
The prime minister's concerns over ethnic tension are not without reason. Ethnic-related conflict has displaced millions, and most recently resulted in about 80 deaths at the end of October.
"Many individuals are mixing up the roles of activist and media when they shouldn't go together," says Abel Wabella, managing editor of the Addis Ababa-based newspaper Addis Zebye. "You have people running media who are calling for protests — it's totally absurd."
The political activist and media mogul Jawar Mohammed, who founded the Oromia Media Network, has come under significant criticism for making incendiary comments on social media.
The violence at the end of October erupted after Jawar Mohammed alleged that police tried to remove his security guards, which had initially been assigned by the government. His supporters argue he played no direct role in demonstrations that were a spontaneous response to the government's actions.
Abiy even addressed parliament to discuss media "fomenting unrest," focusing on the role of Ethiopian diaspora figures like Jawar Mohammed, who started his International Oromo Youth Association (IOYA) while studying in the United States.
"Using their second nationality and foreign passports as an advantage, these media owners are likely to run away to their safe havens after inciting conflicts and leading the country into chaos," Abiy said.
Protesters gather in support of activist and media owner Jawar Mohammed
New laws in the making
Part of the problem for Ethiopia's new media landscape, says Berihun and other seasoned journalists, is that after decades of suppression it remains institutionally weak.
Hence many Ethiopians rely on social media and foreign-based media for news, increasing the chances of misinformation and manipulation permeating the news cycle.
To address this, the government says it is seeking to improve both the capacity of and regulation of local media.
"The Ethiopian Broadcast Authority is in the process of reorienting its institutional form to better regulate," says Billene Seyoum, a spokesperson for the prime minister's office. "The appointment of experienced professionals to such institutions is a commitment by the Government to undo the repressive tendencies of such institutions in their prior form."
At the same time, Billene notes, the government is developing a new media law and an anti-hate speech law.
But some in the media industry are concerned such laws could be used to further stifle their new-found freedoms.
Amnesty International has condemned the government for using anti-terrorism measures to conduct a "surge in the number of arrests” since June.
"The use of Ethiopia's anti-terrorism proclamation to arbitrarily arrest journalists is completely out of step with reforms witnessed in the country,” said Seif Magango, Amnesty International's deputy director for East Africa, the Horn and the Great Lakes. "This law must be revised to align with international standards and must no longer be used to harass journalists.”
Members of the press debate media freedom in Addis Ababa
'Journalism not possible in this environment'
The shifting and strained media climate makes self-censorship by journalists more likely. Berihune says that as the case against him remains open, he is wary of what he writes and he avoids Twitter entirely in case his posts be used against him.
"In this environment, whereby the government says you are either with us or against us, journalism is not possible," says Eskinder Nega, a prominent Ethiopian journalist and blogger who was released from prison under Abiy Ahmed's reforms in early 2018.
Another problem for media organisations is the challenge of remaining viable financially.
"We have no profit, we can't get any revenue from advertising," says Rekike Tesera, Berera's 22-year-old editor, who earns about 6,000 birr (€181 or $200) a month.
"Organisations and businesses are afraid to advertise with media because of how the government might react, as media are being viewed as ethnically biased. We are viewed as being for the Amhara region, but we cover issues concerning the whole country," Tesera explained.
There is perhaps one upside to the current situation for struggling media. Berihun notes how the Berera readership has increased from around 2,500 a month to about 5,000 due to Ethiopia's volatile situation.
"When the political environment is good, you tend to see a decline in readership," Berihun says. "People are reading a lot at the moment."
- The government says the law is needed to prevent violence ahead of elections, but the United Nations says it will stifle free speech.
- The new law permits fines of up to 100,000 Ethiopian birr ($3,000) and imprisonment for up to five years for anyone who shares or creates social media posts that are deemed to result in violence or disturbance of public order.
- Some 297 lawmakers who were present in the chamber voted in favour of the bill while just 23 were opposed.
Ethiopia’s Parliament passed a law on Thursday imposing jail terms for people whose internet posts stir unrest, a move the government says is needed to prevent violence ahead of elections but which the United Nations says will stifle free speech.
Ethiopia, for decades one of the most tightly controlled states in Africa, has undergone huge political change since reformist Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed took office two years ago.
But even as Abiy has freed political prisoners and journalists and lifted a ban on opposition parties, the authorities have struggled to contain a surge in ethnic violence. An election this year is seen as the biggest test yet of whether his ambitious political reforms can stick.
The new law permits fines of up to 100,000 Ethiopian birr ($3,000) and imprisonment for up to five years for anyone who shares or creates social media posts that are deemed to result in violence or disturbance of public order.
Some 297 lawmakers who were present in the chamber voted in favour of the bill while just 23 were opposed.
“Ethiopia has become a victim of disinformation,” lawmaker Abebe Godebo said. “The country is a land of diversity and this bill will help to balance those diversities.”
Several of the lawmakers who opposed the bill said it violates a constitutional guarantee of free speech.
Abiy, who won the Nobel Peace Prize last year for his reconciliation with Ethiopia’s neighbour and long-time foe Eritrea, has pledged that this year’s election will be free and fair. The nation of 108 million people has regularly held elections since 1995, but only one, in 2005, was competitive.
The law was first endorsed by Abiy’s Cabinet in November. At the time, the UN’s special rapporteur on freedom of expression urged authorities to reconsider it, warning it would worsen already high ethnic tensions and possibly fuel further violence.
International rights groups say it creates a legal means for the government to muzzle opponents.
“Politicians or activists or others will be forced to be cautious, afraid that their speech might fall into the definition of hate speech or can be considered as false information,” said Amnesty International’s Ethiopia researcher Fisseha Tekle.
Nobel Peace Prize for Abiy Ahmed a misguided decision
The Ethiopian laureate is surely a reformer, but he predominantly garners recognition beyond his country's borders. Despite the Nobel committee's well-meaning intentions, it is the wrong choice, writes Ludger Schadomsky.
Ethiopia's PM Abiy Ahmed signed the peace treaty with neighboring Eritrea on September 16, 2018 — after which progress ground to a standstill
Despite a number of somewhat questionable recipients — such as former US President Barack Obama, or the European Union — the Nobel Peace Prize continues to carry considerable symbolic meaning. For precisely this reason, awarding it to the young reformer hailing from Addis Ababa despite the stalled progress on his peace initiative is also the wrong choice.
Peace with Eritrea? Or dead silence?
Abiy Ahmed took office in April 2018, becoming PM of Africa's second-most populous nation, which also holds tremendous geostrategic importance. Let there be no misunderstanding: Since taking office he has pushed for reforms , the importance of which are impossible to overestimate. He unlocked the torture chambers and took the muzzle away from the media. All of this deserves unqualified respect, even if, in the meantime, the initial euphoria has waned a little.
Of course, Abiy was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize to a lesser extent because of his "important reforms" in the domestic domain but explicitly because of his efforts regarding a lasting peace with Ethiopia's archrival Eritrea — the two countries were involved in a border war from 1998 to 2000, which led to heavy losses on both sides. And wasn't it a very moving scene indeed in July 2018 when, Abiy made it possible for family members separated for two decades to embrace each other again?
Those peace efforts, however, have come to a standstill; they may even have stopped completely. True, family members and businesspeople are now able to commute via 50-minute flights between the two respective capitals, Addis Ababa and Asmara. But this is the privilege of only a small elite. Border crossings such as Zalambessa, which are much more important when it comes to public transportation and movement of goods and which were opened with a lot of fanfare, have all been closed again in the meantime — at Eritrea's instigation, Ethiopia was quick to point out. The initial shuttle diplomacy pursued by Abiy and Eritrea's autocratic ruler Isaias Afewerki has come to a halt. The Eritrean embassy in Addis Ababa continues to remain boarded up while grandiose business contracts that were signed have never been brought to life. By now, both countries have rather resorted to forging unholy strategic alliances with countries located beyond the Red Sea, in accordance with that age-old motto that Horn of Africa nations ascribe to: "The enemy of my enemy is my friend."
Will the Prize eventually endanger peace efforts?
So Abiy has received the most prestigious peace prize for a peace that exists, predominantly, only on paper. Worse still: the award could, eventually, even torpedo those peace efforts, if the Eritrean leadership felt put under pressure to an even greater extent than before. The grumpy autocrat from Asmara, who ruthlessly keeps his own people in chains so he can remain in power, is unlikely to enjoy being snubbed under the eyes of the world by a charismatic politician half his age.
Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed wins Nobel Peace Prize
Everybody's darling on the world stage, vociferous criticism at home
On the domestic politics level, the award provides ammunition to those critics who have slammed the young and dynamic Prime Minister's approach to politics as detached from reality and insubstantial. In an Ethiopia that is socially conservative to the core, the prime minister's PR-guided demeanor — accompanied by an unprecedented "Abiymania" — has sparked some resentful allegations that the former secret service agent is engaged in questionable activities benefitting his ethnic group, the Oromo.
But it's not just his fellow Ethiopians who view him with criticism — his development policy partners also view with concern the young PM's personality cult and style of government – which is sometimes rather erratic and lacking in communication.
Is Abiy's reconciliation policy sustainable?
Unfortunately, Abiy's award is evocative of the one given in 2000 to former South Korean President Kim Dae-jung, who had been in office for only two years before he received the Nobel Peace Prize for his efforts to reunite the divided Korean nation. North and South Korea, however, are divided to this day.
Currently, there's a lot of talk about "Medemer," Abiy's programmatic policy of reconciliation. One day before he was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize, Abiy had invited heads of state and government from all over the region to take part in a huge "Medemer" celebration. Sudan, Somalia and Uganda all sent their representatives while only one distinguished guest was absent — Eritrean President Afewerki, Abiy's partner in the "reconciliation" process. It is likely that the award of the Nobel Peace Prize has raised the bar for Abiy instead of lowering it.
Ludger Schadomsky is the head of DW's Amharic desk
Ethiopia's ethnic violence shows Abiy's vulnerability
Ethiopia's Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed looks increasingly vulnerable as he faces deep divisions in the ruling coalition, simmering ethnic conflicts and millions of internally displaced people.
When Isso recently returned to his village in the Gedeo zone of southern Ethiopia, he found everything destroyed.
Isso, along with hundreds of thousands of people of the Gedeo ethnic minority, had run from violent clashes between Gedeos and neighboring Oromos, Ethiopia's largest ethnic group.
The looting and killing was triggered by long-simmering conflict over land. The verdant rolling hills of this region – where some of the world's best coffee is grown – has long been facing a critical shortage of arable land. A growing population and rising unemployment further fuel the tension. According to the Organization for Migration, approximately 820,000 people were uprooted in Gedeo district and 150,000 in the bordering West Guji zone of Oromia when the violence flared a year ago.
Isso has now come back because the government insists that it's safe to return. But he's too terrified to visit his fields which lie a few kilometers outside of his village.
"Our lives were good before. We had animals, and our house was furnished. We drank milk and ate chicken and mutton," Isso said.
Isso hails from a tiny village on the border of two regions: the ethnically diverse Southern Nations, Nationalities and People's region; and the Oromia region, mainly inhabited by Oromo people.
Liberalization ignites old conflicts
Ethiopia – which has more than 80 ethno-linguistic groups – is divided under the constitution into nine ethnic federal states. Since Abiy Ahmed was inaugurated as Prime Minister in April 2018, the borders between these ethnic regions have experienced multiple deadly clashes.
By December 2018, some 2.9 million had fled their homes to escape violence within the nation – giving Ethiopia the unenviable distinction of having the highest number of internally displaced people worldwide.
This inter-ethnic violence is the biggest stain on the record of Abiy, who has positioned himself as an open and reform-oriented leader and is feted internationally as a source of hope.
In the weeks after he took office, he freed hundreds of political prisoners and activists, lifted bans on political parties countrywide and ended a 20-year border war with Eritrea.
However, this liberal stance is now allowing the eruption of historical hostilities that had been suppressed by the authoritarian security apparatus of previous leaders. Questions of borders between regions are suddenly under debate again – and the topic of political representation is beset with tension ahead of national elections slated for May 2020.
Ethiopia has been a de facto one-party state having been ruled by the Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front since 1991.
The old guard – mainly ethnic Tigrayans – view Abiy and his moves to make Ethiopia a democracy as a threat.
Since he was elected, dozens of former Tigrayan officials have been prosecuted for corruption and human rights abuses. But such actions have provoked resistance to Abiy's reform process.
Crucial moment for Ethiopia
The precariousness of Ethiopia's political landscape was evident on June 23, 2019, when attacks that authorities described as an attempted coup in the northern Amhara Region claimed several lives.
These included Amhara governor Ambachew Mekonnen, his top adviser and the state’s attorney general, who were shot at a meeting in the state capital of Bahir Dar.
A few hours later in the capital Addis Ababa, Ethiopia's army chief, General Seare Mekonnen, was shot dead by his body guard in a killing that the government says was linked to the Amhara assassinations.
Ethiopian soldiers weeped during at the army chief's funeral on 25 June 2019
Authorities subsequently arrested hundreds of people suspected of supporting those responsible for the attacks.
It also cut off the internet for six days.
"It's a very critical juncture," said Felix Home, an Ethiopia expert at Human Rights Watch, referring to the the breakdown in law and order and the insecurity in Ethiopia.
The government's response to the ethnic violence and millions of internally displaced people has been "one of almost indifference," he told DW.
However, Abiy's government can't afford to underestimate the destabilizing effects of regional ethnic militants, Home warned.
"One of the manifestations of this rise in insecurity and breakdown of law and order is the rise of local armed groups. … At the same time there's a proliferation of weapons in many parts of the country," he said.
In addition, many Ethiopians are disgruntled about the present and nervous about the future.
The government isn't paying enough attention to this "toxic combination", Home said.
Ethiopia’s crisis of internally displaced persons
Authorities declare refugee crisis over
In the past months, the government has begun pressuring Gedeo refugees like Isso to go back to their homes in the Gedeo and Guji zones – they have limited the distribution of food aid and other humanitarian assistance and threatened to raze temporary shelters giving many little choice but to return.
Authorities insist the tension between the Oromos and Gedeos has calmed down.
"There is not much of a security problem in our zone,"Aberra Buno, the chief of administration in West Guji. "When displaced people return to their homes, we bring them together with the Oromos so that they can talk," he told DW.
West Guji administrator Aberra Buno downplays the fears Gedeo returnees have of more violence
However, humanitarian organizations have criticized forcing returns. They say the government's plans, lack of transparency and details and forcing people home will only add to the hunger and suffering.
As for the Gedeos, many are still fearful.
Together with her four children, Dingete returned to West Guji a few weeks ago.
"We are happy to be here but I am worried," she told DW. She has heard that the armed groups responsible for the attack on her home are still at large.
"My land is far from here and that's why I am afraid of going there," she said.
Many other returnees also also too scared to work their fields, leaving them unable to cultivate their food and lacking a source of income. Authorities have promised deliveries of seeds but it's not clear when this will happened.
As Abiy's reforms continue to dazzle the international community, the growing displacement crisis in Ethiopia remains largely hidden from view. And his failure to contain hostilities are a sign of his vulnerability.
Shewangizaw Wegayehu contributed to this article.