This week’s International Day to End Impunity for Crimes Against Journalists takes on renewed significance as threats to independent media in Ethiopia mount. As the world commemorates the International Day to End Impunity for Crimes Against Journalists this week from November 2 to 3, the state of media around the world continues to deteriorate at an alarming rate.
The situation in Ethiopia is particularly grim as state-sanctioned impunity strengthens its hold.
Samuel Aseffa knows all too well the risks of investigative reporting in the repressive environment.
One a sunny morning few months back, Samuel, reporter at Ethiopian Media Service (EMS) at the time, set out for reporting assignment in the Sheger city of surrounding Addis Ababa. Non-less than 100,000 houses are demolished, following government orders.
Armed with information obtained from displaced people and trusted source, Samuel headed to ‘Taffo’, a town at the outskirt of Addis, in Oromia regional state, to pursue a lead. However, Samuel was caught off-guard when he was abruptly arrested by security forces and subjected to nine days of imprisonment and physical harassment.
“I was abruptly arrested by security forces and subjected to nine days of imprisonment that enduring with physical harassment,” he said.
EMS was forced to cancel one of its programs on Balageru Television station, where audiences could directly express their ideas. The cancellation came after a warning letter from the Ethiopian Media Authority (EMA), the government regulatory body for media. The letter stated the television station was not operating in line with Ethiopia’s media laws, though no specific violations were mentioned.
The pressures on Ethiopia’s independent media show no signs of letting up.
Fikadu Matemework, publisher of the Ghion magazine, now faces the potential closure of his publication after five years due to the unjust pressure coming from an “non-identified authority” that hinders the rights of Freedom of Media.
The publisher and editor-in-chief of the magazine were illegally imprisoned last august, by government forces.
“I was held for 10 days with no justification given,” Fikadu said. “The law requires charges to be brought within 48 hours, but they ignored this.”
The magazine’s equipment and files remain seized as authorities refuse to provide clear reasoning or support from media regulators.
Number of journalists, including Dawit Begashaw, Tirita, still remain in custody, following government’s accusations for their journalistic works.
Robberies targeting major outlets like Ethiopia Insider and Ethio-251 have become another intimidation tactic. Unlawful detentions, harassment, torture and forced closures persist as the norms constricting Ethiopia’s media landscape.
While killings of journalists have not been reported recently, impunity for such abuses enables further repression.
The states of emergency declared in recent years have amplified the government’s policing overreach. In a country already experiencing conflict and instability, crackdowns on independent media have intensified to the brink of wiping out a sector battered by the previous regime.
Samuel and Fikadu’s ordeals illustrate the daily hardships faced by many Ethiopian journalists –struggling to support their families amid job losses while living under constant threats.
The Ethiopian Constitution, particularly Article 29, Section 4, enshrines the principle of freedom of expression. It emphasizes the importance of allowing diverse perspectives and the free flow of information, ideas, and opinions as essential components of a democratic society.
Multiple media outlets and journalists have endured extrajudicial detention, harassment, assaults and theft of equipment at the hands of security forces. Several journalists have even reportedly lost their lives covering conflicts.
Blocking publication distribution has made daily operations challenging. These crackdowns undermine the very spirit of the constitution and Ethiopia’s democratic aspirations.
As the UN’s “Safety of Journalists” initiative highlights, journalism plays a critical role in development, rights and democracy worldwide. However, a staggering 90 percent of journalist murders go unpunished according to UNESCO’s Observatory of Killed Journalists, with over 1,600 deaths globally since 1993.
Threats online and off continue rising, especially in conflict-scarred nations.
In Ethiopia, whether by security forces or protest participants, reporters have increasingly become targets without consequence for aggressors. This culture of impunity undermines press freedom, silences critical voices, and erodes the foundations of democracy.
Alarmed by the deteriorating situation for media freedoms, the Ethiopian Media Council emphasized on November 23, 2013 that even during a state of emergency, journalists and media outlets must be held accountable through legal processes. However, reports indicate that media outlets and journalists are being illegally detained and their publications banned.
In Ethiopia, journalists live with the harrowing reality of being deliberately targeted, attacked, and even killed without consequence, according to Deputy Council Chairperson Tamirat Haile.
He notes this alarming trend carries grave implications for the fundamental rights of both news outlets and journalists. “Fear and intimidation force them to resort to self-censorship, leading to less coverage of sensitive issues. This not only demoralizes journalists but also directly impacts the right to freedom of expression.”
These actions, according to Tamirat, undermine press freedom, transparency and ultimately cause journalists to leave the profession.
Regrettably, Samuel also expresses his frustration at being incarcerated, despite exercising his professional right to access information. He laments that even though he sought to uphold his rights, it proved futile in preventing the assault that resulted in his imprisonment.
“This is truly disheartening. A law enforcer breaking the very laws they are supposed to uphold and violating the fundamental human rights of individuals is a serious issue,” Samuel told The Reporter adding, “The Ethiopian Broadcasting Law, which was created to regulate media organizations, is not effectively protecting journalists from harm. As a result, the practice of journalism is at risk of collapsing, putting the country’s democracy and human rights at stake.”
According to the Council, perpetrators of crimes against journalists must be held accountable, a safe environment for journalists to carry out their work without fear of reprisals must be ensured, and legal frameworks that protect press freedom must be strengthened.
A media advocacy expert, wishing to remain anonymous, posited that the media landscape has improved since the political transition in 2018. They highlighted that there is now greater freedom of expression, media freedom, and revised media laws. However, the expert stated that stakeholders in the sector need to work collaboratively to ensure continued progress.
The expert also expressed concern about the safety of journalists, particularly in relation to government and unidentified security forces. He noted that such forces often use unjust measures against media practitioners. However, the expert says that the UN safety instruments are in place, which focus on protecting, preventing, and prosecuting individuals before any adverse incidents may occur.
To this end, the expert explained that, along with local and international organisations, their institution is working together to create a safe and conducive working environment for media practitioners, with emphasis of that the freedom of expression is a fundamental human right, but safety is equally important for media practitioners.
“The government views everything as a security and national interest issue due to ongoing conflicts in the country, leading to a perception that it is challenging to provide protection and safety for journalists,” The expert said, acknowledging that the rule of law and policy standards have improved since 2018, making it possible to provide better protection and safety in collaboration with regulatory bodies and other civil organisations.
Despite harbouring deep resentment and enduring lingering pain from losing his employment, Samuel ardently depicts his distressing experience as a potent call to arms, imploring an end to the prevailing culture of impunity surrounding crimes against journalists.
“I am unable to provide for my family due to lack of work, and even in the face of this financial hardship, the intimidation and threats persist,” Samuel said.
Mohammed Idris, director general of the Ethiopian Media Authority, and other officials refrained from commenting on this issue, after repeated requests from The Reporter went unanswered as of press time.