Mass arrests of journalists and safety concerns raised as armed conflict breaks out in Tigray region
The political situation in Ethiopia deteriorated rapidly in the latter quarter of 2020. Since early November 2020, the government of Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed has been engaged in armed conflict with the leading party in the Tigray region, the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF). On 4th November 2020, a six month state of emergency was declared in Tigray. Claims emerged that the conflict was escalating towards a state of civil war, as thousands were killed and tens of thousands internally displaced or fled into neighbouring Sudan.
The international community spoke out against the fighting, and raised concerns about the knock-on effect it may have in the Horn of Africa sub-region. TPLF forces reportedly fired several rockets into neighbouring Eritrea,causing damage in the capital, Asmara, and at the international airport. On 29th November 2020, Prime Minister Ahmed declared that the army had taken full control of Tigray’s capital Mekele, after three weeks of fighting.
The situation deteriorated further, with the continuation of armed conflict and reports of ethnic cleansing and mass murders in Tigray and other areas. Much of the region, including the several refugee camps on the Sudanese and Eritrean borders, are on the brink of a humanitarian crisis. The UN has struggled to get teams on the ground in the more remote areas of the region, and emergency aid has been unable to reach two refugee camps on the Eritrean border.
By the end of 2020, the UN estimated that 1.3 million people needed emergency assistance as a result of the conflict, and over 50,000 people had fled to Sudan. In addition, reports emerged of attacks and abductions of Eritrean refugees, living in border camps, by Eritrean forces operating in Tigray.
In December 2020, the UN stated their intention to investigate alleged human rights violations on the ground, which could amount to war crimes. This announcement was made in the wake of other revelations on 23rd December that armed persons attacked Amhara, Oromo and Shinasha residents of villages in the Benishangul-Gumuz region, killing at least 100 people. The following day, a state-run news agency reported that five senior local officials were arrested in connection with the attack. On 13th January 2021, at least 80 people were killed by unidentified armed persons in the same region, in another ethnically driven massacre. Fighting between ethnic groups, largely related to disputes over land, has been ongoing and is worsening.
As the world ushered in the new year, the Tigray conflict and related violations continued unabated. In mid-January, multiple corroborated reports were received by aid workers and international media concerning a surge in sexual violence and assault in the Tigray region. In particular, allegations emerged of people being forced to rape others, or have sex in exchange for basic supplies. Later that month, on 25th January 2021, it was reported that around 750 people sheltering in a cathedral complex in Aksum, Tigray, had been killed in a massacre. The cathedral complex reputedly houses Christian and cultural artefacts, which may have also been destroyed in the attack.
In late January 2021, a joint letter form NGOs, including CIVICUS, was submitted to the UN Human Rights Council, calling for a Special Session on the deteriorating situation in Ethiopia. The letter drew attention to the widespread reports of serious violations of international human rights law and human rights violations and abuses.
In a separate incident, on 1st January 2021, the Ethiopian Human Rights Commission (EHRC) published a report stating that crimes against humanity were committed by individuals and groups who participated in violence following the death of Hachalu Hundessa, as previously reported in the Monitor. The EHRC reported that 76 deaths were attributable to the actions of security forces.
Meanwhile, on 30th October 2020, the national election board announced that general elections, which had been postponed from August, would be held in either late May or early June 2021.
"Civilians massacred. Journalists arrested. People starving to death. Ethiopia’s government is under growing pressure to allow the world to see firsthand what has occurred in" Tigray, but PM Abyi Ahmed resists, claiming “partisan interventions.” https://t.co/M06zrsK3BE pic.twitter.com/MLg2Ll6nnh— Kenneth Roth (@KenRoth) March 5, 2021
Several journalists were arrested during the armed conflict in the Tigray region, marking a significant blow to press and media freedom, which had previously improved under Prime Minister Ahmed. On 4th November 2020, broadcast journalist Bekalu Alamrew was arrested and accused of disseminating fake news. Alamrew was released on 20th November 2020 after being granted bail. On the same day, a former journalist with the privately owned Oromia Media Network was also arrested and detained.
On 7th November 2020, police arrested journalist Medihane Ekubamichael, an editor at the Addis Standard, and confiscated various documents and his laptop. Medihane has not been formally charged, but his arrest followed the Addis Standard’s reporting of the conflict in Tigray region. He was detained despite having tested positive for COVID-19 on 26th November.
On 10th November 2020, it was reported that three more journalists had been arrested from the Ethiopian Press Agency (EPA). Rights groups expressed their concern at the increasing targets on journalists and the conditions in which they were being held, as several were denied access to their lawyers or families.
On 30th November 2020, police arrested and detained Dawit Kebede, managing editor of the online news outlet Awramba Times. Kebede was presented before a court on 2nd December 2020, where he was accused of disseminating inaccurate information, inciting violence and attempting to violate the constitution.
On 24th December 2020, Kumerra Gemechu, a cameraman working for Reuters, was arrested at his home in Addis Ababa. Police confiscated Gemechu’s phone, a computer, flash drives and papers and gave no reason for his arrest at the time. His arrest sparked concerns of a wider crackdown on independent media in Ethiopia since the outbreak of armed conflict in the Tigray region. On 30th December, Gemechu’s lawyer stated that he had been held in solitary confinement for almost a week without charge. Gemechu was released on 5th January 2021, after being held without charge for 12 days.
On 21st January 2021, an Ethiopian journalist and his friend were shot dead by an unidentified person in the capital of Tigray region, Mekelle, while driving in the city. The journalist, Dawit Kebede (not the same Dawit Kebede who was detained), worked for Tigray regional state TV. The friend with him was identified as Bereket Berhe, the brother of Kebede’s colleague. The motive for the attack was not immediately clear.
In response to rising concern for the safety of journalists in Ethiopia, three leading US Democratic senators wrote to Prime Minister Ahmed expressing concern over the erosion of press freedom. The letters also referred to the arrest of 13 journalists in 2020.
Separately, in the lead up to, and throughout the conflict in Tigray region, phone and internet links have been shut down and access tightly controlled. Journalists have also been banned from travelling to the conflict areas – making information verification throughout the conflict extremely difficult. The widespread communication blackouts continued making it increasingly difficult for people in Ethiopia and the Ethiopian diaspora to obtain reliable information on what is happening. This has resulted in misinformation spreading widely during the conflict.
In late December 2020, a group of Ethiopian lawyers called on Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed to release Jawar Mohammed and the other opposition leaders ahead of the upcoming general election, scheduled for 5th June 2021. Weeks later, on 22nd January 2021, a Federal High court decided to drop six of the ten charges brought against opposition politicians including Jawar, Bekele Gerba, and 22 other individuals arrested in the wake of protests in June 2020, as previously reported on the Monitor. The court adjourned the hearing until 27th January 2021.
On 12th October 2020, one person was killed and another injured after police opened fire on a small protest by local youth in Oromio state. The youth had reportedly gathered to demand the release of political prisoners.
BREAKING NEWS: Ethiopian Government shuts down protests and deploys forces around civilians protesting against ethnic cleansing. The NAMA has called for protest against the constant ethnic cleansing against Amharas (1) #Ethiopia pic.twitter.com/zZFzAJQLBC— JusticeandPeace4Ethiopia (@JP4Ethiopia) October 28, 2020
Separately, authorities banned a protest that was set to take place on 28th October 2020, which was being organised by an opposition party (National Amhara Movement (NAMA)) to call for action against ethnically motivated killings. Police prevented NAMA members and others planning to join the protest from travelling to the planned locations. The protests were described as “illegal and unnecessary” by a government spokesperson.