It is sadly common for Ethiopians to wake up to reports of tragic human rights violations. The recent killing of two unidentified individuals in the viral video has shocked many. The video shows two men with their hands bound behind their backs being led to their deaths. They look helplessly at their executioners, hoping they will spare their lives. Such incidents are unfortunately all too familiar to the country. Related atrocities and extrajudicial killings have occurred with frequency, often committed by armed militants and security forces.
Typically, the video has been used to fuel tensions in various narratives. Some in the social media community criticize others using the gruesome murder. Others sensationalize the narrative by attributing ethnicity to the victims to promote political and ethnic agendas.
The reporting by Mereja TV and Zara Media Network on the video illustrates how sensationalized content has replaced factual reporting in Ethiopian media.
Mereja TV claimed – without evidence – that the victims were Amharas targeted by “Abiy Ahmed’s regime.” Meanwhile, Zara Media Network alleged the deceased were Oromos from Benishangul, also without substantiation.
Both outlets appear to have attributed ethnic identities to the victims based on their own agendas, rather than actual facts. In the process, they spread speculative narratives that risk inflaming ethnic tensions without meaningful insight into what actually occurred.
This type of divisive, sensationalist reporting shows how Ethiopian media has strayed from the impartial truth sought by ethical journalism. When facts fall victim to political agendas and ethnically aligned narratives, the public suffers.
Many comments show that ethnic issues have unfortunately become a primary motivator and assisted media organizations in shaping their daily reporting in a way that appeals to certain audiences.
Officials of the ruling government believe internet restriction would help it contain sensationalism, while critics say it is using it to silence dissent voices. The latest restriction, which forced citizens to rely on VPN to use an internet, put in place following a rift between the Ethiopian Orthodox Tewahido Church (EOTC).
Despite the ban, graphic media continued to circulate, fueling further public anger. Contrary to officials’ expectations, the ban failed to stop or limit access to the video showing the killing. Similar proliferation of graphic content occurred during the week-long demonstrations outside Anwar Mosque. Videos showed federal authorities using excessive force, protesters attacking the forces, and images of injured and dead individuals, stoking public outrage.
Some even used this as an opportunity to incite violence and call for joining an armed group purportedly advocating for the Muslim community. Videos of the killing, federal forces, and the Anwar Mosque demonstrations continued to spread widely, undeterred by the ban, causing anger and calls for violence among some members of the public.
The Ethiopian Media Authority regulates media through enforcing media laws and controlling hate speech, violence and inflammatory messaging. Officials say it communicates with platforms to minimize overly explicit posts.
According to an Ethiopian Media Authority official: “Whenever posts are too explicit to create anger within society, the authority reacts instantly and provides an immediate solution after consultations.” The Authority claims to have taken similar actions during the Tigray conflict, within the Orthodox Church, in Amhara region and recently with Muslim protesters and government forces, though many accuse the leadership of the authority of failing to be impartial and ensure freedom of expression.
There were high hopes when Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed took office in 2018 that Ethiopia’s media landscape would open up. Initially, his reforms liberalized the sector and new outlets sprang up.
However, the freedoms proved short-lived. Journalists and activists were detained while some outlets faced crackdowns, curtailing the reforms.
Mulatu Alemayehu, an Addis Ababa University professor, argues the failed transition to a free press fueled sensationalism and polarization in Ethiopian media.
He says: “Restrictions on free expression have worsened journalistic standards. Hate speech and inflammatory language have grown as many outlets align along ethnic lines.”
Experts say the two-year conflict in Tigray, fighting in Oromia and other political upheaval have exacerbated media sensationalism. While Ethiopia’s media law requires fairness, impartiality, accuracy and balance in reporting, journalists and outlets frequently ignore these conditions. Media owners rarely enforce ethical reporting standards.
Overall, the unrealized potential of Prime Minister Abiy’s early reforms – coupled with ongoing instability and restrictions on media freedom – have created an enabling environment for sensationalist, divisive reporting in Ethiopia.
Only by transitioning to truly free, ethical and independent media can Ethiopia’s journalists fulfill their democratic role of informing the public rather than inflaming tensions, according to Mulatu.
During the conflict, many Ethiopian media outlets abandoned impartial journalism in favor of fueling the fires of war. Both state-run and social media spread propaganda and misinformation that exacerbated tensions.
Since Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed’s 2018 reforms liberalized Ethiopia’s media sector, the proliferation of privately owned, ethnically aligned outlets has contributed to a more polarized media landscape.
News and issues are often framed in a way that favors the ethnic background of an outlet’s owners or audiences. Social media has exacerbated this polarization by enabling people to consume news that reinforces their existing beliefs within echo chambers. With just a click, audiences can retreat into media outlets that share and promote their ethnic perspective.
Befiqadu Hailu, a pro-democracy activist and blogger, criticized how Ethiopian media practiced during the conflict. He said despite their duty to report facts, many took partisan positions, compromising the truth.” Almost all media outlets chose sides, churning out exaggerated war narratives and spreading inaccurate information,” he told The Reporter.
According to Befiqadu, artificial narratives were spreading fast and media sensationalized stories for profit or propaganda. Outlets split along partisan lines over who was to blame for the conflict and ensuing atrocities. For Mulatu, a lack of timely information from government sources drives media sensationalism. In the absence of facts, outlets construct self-serving narratives that breed mistrust among the public.
He stressed that to earn trust, media must present verified facts, ensure credible sources and maintain balanced reporting.
For both Befiqadu and Mulatu, Ethiopian media had a duty during the conflict to act as impartial fire extinguishers – dampening rumors, providing full context and speaking truth with integrity.
Only by transforming from propaganda machines fueled by partisanship into beacons of reliable information could media rebuild the public’s eroded trust and become trustworthy sources of light in dark times, they agreed.
With sensational content going viral on social media due to its shocking, outrageous or emotionally charged nature, media outlets, especially digital outlets, tend to produce more sensational reporting in order to drive traffic and engagement on social platforms. All of these factors have contributed to the rise of sensationalized, often misleading reporting in Ethiopia and beyond.
While social media has enabled greater access to information, it has also disrupted traditional gatekeeping roles and allowed media environments to spiral into realms of outrage, misinformation, and sensationalism.
Overcoming these challenges will require major changes in journalistic practice, social media algorithms, and users’ media literacy. But the links between social media and sensational reporting make transparent, fact-based journalism more critical than ever.