Most of the recent press freedom gains have been lost since Ethiopia became embroiled in ethnic conflicts and a civil war. Although a peace accord was signed in November 2022, journalists still fear reprisals.
The media landscape under Abiy Ahmed, prime minister since 2018, remains very polarised and is characterised by opinion journalism to the detriment of reporting and fact-checking. It is, however, more open and pluralistic than under the previous government, and more than 200 once-banned media outlets are now allowed. Radio remains the most popular medium. Fana FM, Sheger FM and many regional radio stations have big audiences. The best-known privately owned TV channels are Kana, EBS and Fana BC. The few newspapers that appear in print are mostly read by urban elites. The Reporter is the most respected independent weekly.
Both the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF) and federal government have used propaganda in an attempt to control the narrative about the civil war, creating disinformation on social media that is picked up by the media. The government’s determined efforts to take control of the narrative have included creating a “fact-checking” platform. Made to look like a media outlet, it is actually used as a conduit to relay the government’s message, and uses unverified facts and disinformation to discredit dissenting voices. Meanwhile, the Media Regulatory Authority (EBA) is a government tool that does nothing to promote quality independent journalism.
A new media law adopted in 2021 offers a more liberal and protective legal framework for journalists. Defamation has been decriminalised and the confidentiality of journalists’ sources is protected. In practice, however, this new law is usually circumvented and does not prevent arrests of journalists. Around 15 journalists fell victim to a wave of arbitrary arrests in May 2022. Ethiopia’s terrorism law and its more recent law on hate speech contain very vaguely worded provisions that include heavy prison sentences and that can be used against outspoken journalists.
Very low salaries, inflation and corruption put the professional integrity of journalists to the test. A handful of businessmen own most of the leading media outlets, which poses problems for media independence, while the cost of creating a new media outlet, especially a radio or TV station, is a significant deterrent.
Ethnic, regionalist and political considerations are a major concern at many Ethiopian media outlets to the detriment of independent, pluralistic and balanced journalism. Many Ethiopians censor themselves, including journalists.
The surge in abuses against journalists seen since the start of the war in Tigray in November 2020 is not abating. Several journalists have been killed under unclear circumstances. Many reporters, whose coverage did not toe the government line, have been detained on serious charges such as “promoting terrorism”. Some were sentenced to death. Others, persecuted by the federal authorities, were forced to flee the country or seek assistance. The New York Times correspondent was expelled from the country. Some media outlets, such as the monthly Addis Standard, have been arbitrarily suspended, and the Awlo Media Center website announced that it was ceasing operations because of threats and harassment. Hostility towards foreign media was seen again in early 2023, when the authorities suspended around 15 foreign TV channels for allegedly operating without a licence.