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Gloomy future for Ethiopia’s press freedom

The Committee to Protect Journalists says Ethiopia has detained a reporter for covering land evictions. The project which involves the construction of a huge hydroelectric dam had forced farmers and locals to relocate.
Ethiopian journalist Muluken Tesfahun of the privately owned weekly newspaper Ethio-Mehedar was arrested while reporting on the return of thousands of farmers who had been forced from their land near the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam. The government has admitted the March evictions were illegal, but so far no charges have been brought against the reporter. DW spoke to Mohammed Keita, Advocacy coordinator for sub-Saharan Africa at the Committee to Protect Journalists in New York.

DW: What is known about journalist Muluken Tesfahun and the circumstances that led to his arrest?
Mohammed Keita: Muluken Tesfahun had been sent by his newspaper to interview residents who had been forcefully evicted from their homes in mid-April. They were some allegations of violence and even unconfirmed reports of deaths. For months, the Ethiopian government maintained silence over the evictions until the Prime Minister in parliament finally condemned the evictions and invited the victims to return. Muluken had been sent to speak to people and collect their testimonies and also investigate their conditions, whether their return had been peaceful or not. In the midst of talking and interviewing people, he was arrested by police. He has been under police custody without charges and has not been taken to court which is a violation of his constitutional right. The Ethiopian constitution has set a limit of 48 hours for detention before being taken to a court.
Do you know where he has been detained?
He is currently being detained in Asosa, capital of the Benishangul-Gumuz region. He has been moved a couple of times, because he was actually arrested in a rural village while he was still speaking to farmers. These farmers had been forcefully displaced. To this day, local authorities have not given an explanation as to why these evictions were taking place.
He is not the first journalist to be detained while working on this story is he?
He is the first one that we have documented, there might have been others. Sometimes journalists do not report such things for fear of government reprisal.
Why are the Ethiopian authorities so anxious to keep this story under wraps?
This falls into a long standing pattern of the Ethiopian government suppressing any news that counters the official narrative and propaganda that is projected to the world. The Ethiopian government does not tolerate any criticism of any kind. It has been vindictive against journalists who have raised questions about its policies and sensitive topics like dam construction or human rights issues, political dissent or the conflict in the Ogaden. Many of these issues unfortunately are suppressed and we do not have enough information about these issues because reporters can not even carry out basic reporting on the ground. They are under surveillance, they are arrested as soon as they speak to people. Most people as well are afraid of speaking to reporters because they are harassed and persecuted for speaking truthfully to media. It’s a very closed environment where independent voices are stifled and civil society has been guided by laws similar to those in Russia. The government dominates the media and the political space at such a level that it has a free range to project its narrative unchallenged. This newspaper (Muluken Tesfahun’s) is one of the rare newspapers left. Over the last two decades, under the Ethiopian ruling party, at least 72 newspapers have been forced to shut under political pressure from the government.
Is there any chance that things might improve anytime soon?
Things are looking rather gloomy for press freedom in Ethiopia. The government has been on a repressive bent, especially since the contested elections in 2005. It has become increasingly authoritarian, it has been deepening ties with China’s communist party CCP, it has been leading Africa in censoring the internet, and prisons are filled with journalists and dissidents. Ethiopia only trails Eritrea among leading jailers of journalists. But still the government is a donor darling and western partner in counter-terrorism. Western powers have basically continued to look the other way.

Mohammed Keita is the Advocacy coordinator for sub-Saharan Africa at the Committee to Protect Journalists in New York.

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