Press Freedom: Ethiopian Journalists are not Terrorists

As we mark World Press Freedom Day, there is nothing much to celebrate when it comes to journalism in Ethiopia as working in this profession has become a daunting task.

Today is World Press Freedom Day, a day dedicated to honour sacrifices journalists make in their quest to tell truth to power and enlighten citizens on issues affecting them to help create a more equal, peaceful, and fair world. But in Ethiopia, there is nothing to celebrate.

The majority of my colleagues, some of the most daring Ethiopian journalists, have either left the profession or leveraged their privileged status to move out of the country. The rest are exiting the occupation for a quiet life, or a career in public relations.

The few who have remained fear being sent to prison as the profession is often compared to as an act of treason. Journalists have even been accused of terrorism, creating a very worrying trend.

Back to the Ethiopia of yore

As Ethiopia embraces an old image of itself – which is war, famine and the displacement of millions of its citizens – it is a pity we cannot use journalism to tell a truthful and objective story without fear of prosecution. This is becoming the reality of Ethiopian journalists.

I started my Ethiopian journalism career in 2016, joining one of the leading weekly newspapers, Addis Fortune, then left to work for the biggest newspaper in the nation, The Reporter. I would be paid about $100/month and had a budget of $2 a week to facilitate my work.

But the answer remains – Journalism in Ethiopia is worth the sacrifice, to help shine light on issues close to the hearts of ordinary citizens.

This amount did not matter to me: I was excited to be back to Ethiopia, a country I had left as a young person. I saw it as a patriotic contribution to my motherland. Within Ethiopia, there was an aura of excitement. A new prime minister was about to be sworn in, turning the page after an era where human rights were overlooked for development and journalism for public relations.

But that sunny outlook did not last long. Within a few years, the nation entered an era of war and somehow, I became a war journalist trying to tell some of the harrowing stories of the millions of victims. I would travel to Tigray, Amhara, and Afar as the conflict progressed into a civil war.

Trauma of covering a war

Some of the world’s best journalists would ask me to accompany them. It was exciting at first, but then it became a humbling experience. I would be on television telling the story of what I saw – not at its entirety but a glimpse of it. What I saw broke me and other journalists who experiences effects of the war up close.

With renowned journalist Lynsey Addario, we saw Tigray up close and candid, an experience that was disheartening.

We spoke to women who were raped and mothers offering their children to us so we could take them to Mekelle for safety. Under a tree, a father told us how all five of his children were killed as the youngest was forced to watch the horror.

In the company of a Finnish journalist, Liselott Lindstrom, we met with the then-Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF) executive member and spokesman Getachew Reda while the war was ongoing. With a bounty on his head at the time, we feared that drones might be dropped on us.

In Amhara, with Sky News and other news organisations, we met both the young and old, who echoed what we heard in Tigray. Young men intimated how they joined the FANO movement in order to fight against TPLF rebels. We met with members of the movement and local militias. We saw destroyed homes and infrastructure. We entered hospitals and clinics that had been looted.

In Afar, we met an Australian nurse, Valerie Browning, who enlightened us on what had transpired in her region. She would hold my hand, several times, as she told me about the neglected region. We went around the region with her, meeting many people with little or nothing in their possession in what is the most neglected part of Ethiopia.

I often broke down in tears and wondered what became of the Ethiopia that excited me a few years ago.

Quest for impartiality

In all my media engagements, I made an attempt to tell the story fully and candidly, but often failed. I wanted to be impartial, but I failed. The system did not allow that to happen.

Every group insulted me. Every group hated me. Every group felt that I was supporting the other side, a very discomforting experience.

Most Tigrayans were convinced that I was working with the Ethiopian government. Supporters of the Ethiopian government felt I was paid by the TPLF to tell their story.

Weighing the risk

In November 2021, I woke up to hundreds of insults and death threats by a gang of people who felt I was not on Ethiopia’s side.

The Ethiopian Media Authority, which told me a month ago that I did not need a license as a freelance journalist, had issued a communication that same month saying I was not accredited.

The lack of accreditation made me vulnerable. There was a news report on my status, or lack of it. Instead of reporting what had happened in Ethiopia, I became the news. Then someone posted my address on a WhatsApp group encouraging even more violence.

My life was turned upside down in a matter of hours; I was forced to leave my apartment and look for safety elsewhere. In the coming days, and as the war intensified, the threats increased.

That day changed my life. I remember having a conversation with a brilliant colleague, who worked with one of the international media outlets and who preferred not to rent a house. He instead paid for short-term accommodation, convinced he would be imprisoned for his journalism.

We would exchange numbers of our loved ones, thinking they would need to be informed if we were taken to prison. The question we ask ourselves at the time, and even now, is this: Is journalism in Ethiopia worth it?

But the answer remains – Journalism in Ethiopia is worth the sacrifice, to help shine light on issues close to the hearts of ordinary citizens.

Samuel Getachew is a writer, spoken word poet and journalist from Oakland, California.

Article first appeared in The Africa Report.

Photo by Numbercfoto via Iwaria.