Fleeing prolonged media crackdown, Ethiopian journalists struggle in exile

By Committee to Protect Journalists - Africa
Ethiopia Dozens of Ethiopian journalists have fled since 2020 due to harassment and persecution. They include (clockwise from top left): Tesfa-Alem Tekle, Woldegiorgis Ghebrehiwet Teklay, Belete Kassa, Yayesew Shimelis, and Guyo Wariyo. (Photos: Courtesy Tesfa-Alem Tekle; YouTube screenshots from Yabele Media, Ethio News, Ethio Forum, Oromia Media Network)
Dozens of Ethiopian journalists have fled since 2020 due to harassment and persecution. They include (clockwise from top left): Tesfa-Alem Tekle, Woldegiorgis Ghebrehiwet Teklay, Belete Kassa, Yayesew Shimelis, and Guyo Wariyo. (Photos: Courtesy Tesfa-Alem Tekle; YouTube screenshots from Yabele Media, Ethio News, Ethio Forum, Oromia Media Network)

When Belete Kassa’s friend and news show co-host Belaye Manaye was arrested in November 2023 and taken to the remote Awash Arba military camp known as the “Guantanamo of the desert,” Belete feared that he might be next.

The two men co-founded the YouTube-based channel Ethio News in 2020, which had reported extensively on a conflict that broke out between federal forces and the Fano militia in the populous Amhara region in April 2023, a risky move in a country with a history of stifling independent reporting.

Belay was swept up in a crackdown against the press after the government declared a state of emergency in August 2023 in response to the conflict.

After months in hiding, Belete decided to flee when he heard from a relative that the government had issued a warrant for his arrest. CPJ was unable to confirm whether such an order was issued.

“Freedom of expression in Ethiopia has not only died; it has been buried,” Belete said in his March 15 farewell post on Facebook. “Leaving behind a colleague in a desert detention facility, as well as one’s family and country, to seek asylum, is immensely painful.” (Belaye and others have been released this month after the state of emergency expired.)

Belete’s path into exile is one that has been trod by dozens of other Ethiopian journalists who have been forced to flee harassment and persecution in a country where the government has long maintained a firm grip on the media. Over the decades, CPJ has documented waves of repression and exile tied to reporting on events like protests after the 2005 parliamentary election and censorship of independent media and bloggers ahead of the 2015 vote.

In 2018, the Ethiopian press enjoyed a short-lived honeymoon when all previously detained journalists were released and hundreds of websites unblocked after Abiy Ahmed became prime minister.

But with the 2020 to 2022 civil war between rebels from the Tigray region and the federal government, followed by the Amhara conflict in 2023, CPJ has documented a rapid return to a harsh media environment, characterized by arbitrary detentions and the expulsion of international journalists.

CPJ is aware of at least 54 Ethiopian journalists and media workers who have gone into exile since 2020, and has provided at least 30 of them with emergency assistance. Most of the journalists fled to neighboring African countries, while a few are in Europe and North America. In May and June 2024, CPJ spoke to some of these exiled journalists about their experiences. Most asked CPJ not to reveal how they escaped Ethiopia or their whereabouts and some spoke on condition of anonymity, citing fears for their safety or that of family left behind.

CPJ’s request for comment to government spokesperson Legesse Tulu via messaging app and an email to the office of the prime minister did not receive any response.

Under ‘house arrest’ due to death threats

Guyo Wariyo, a journalist with the satellite broadcaster Oromia Media Network was detained for several weeks in 2020 as the government sought to quell protests over the killing of ethnic Oromo singer Hachalu Hundessa. Authorities sought to link the musician’s assassination with Guyo’s interview with him the previous week, which included questions about the singer’s political opinions.

Following his release, Guyo wanted to get out of the country but leaving was not easy. Guyo said that the first three times he went to Addis Ababa’s Bole International Airport, National Intelligence and Security Service agents refused to let him board, saying his name was on a government list of individuals barred from leaving Ethiopia.

Guyo eventually left in late 2020. But, more than three years later, he still feels unsafe.

In exile, Guyo says he has received several death threats from individuals that he believes are affiliated with the Ethiopian government, via social media as well as local and international phone numbers. One of the callers even named the neighborhood where he lives.

“I can describe my situation as ‘house arrest,’” said Guyo, who rarely goes out or speaks to friends and family back home in case their conversations are monitored.

Transnational repression is a growing risk globally. Ethiopia has long reached across borders to seize refugees and asylum seekers in neighboring Kenya, Uganda, Somalia, and South Sudan, and targeted those further afield, including with spyware.

Journalists who spoke to CPJ said they fear transnational repression, citing the 2023 forcible return of The Voice of Amhara’s Gobeze Sisay from Djibouti to face terrorism charges. He remains in prison, awaiting trial and a potential death penalty.

“We know historically that Ethiopian intelligence have been active in East Africa and there is a history of fleeing people being attacked here in Kenya,” Nduko o’Matigere, Head of Africa Region at PEN International, the global writers’ association that advocates for freedom of expression, told CPJ.

Several of the journalists exiled in Africa told CPJ that they did not feel their host countries could protect them from Ethiopian security agents.

“The shadow of fear and threat is always present,” said one reporter, describing the brief period he lived in East Africa before resettling in the United States.

‘We became very scared’
Woldegiorgis Ghebrehiwet Teklay felt at risk in Kenya, after he fled there in December 2020 following the arrest of a colleague at the now-defunct Awlo Media Center.

As with Guyo, Woldegiorgis’s initial attempt to leave via Addis Ababa failed. Airport security personnel questioned him about his work and ethnicity and accused him of betraying his country with his journalism, before ordering him to return home, to wait for about a week amid investigations.

When Woldegiorgis finally reached the Kenyan capital, he partnered with other exiled Ethiopian journalists to set up Axumite Media. But between November 2021 and February 2022, Axumite was forced to slow down its operations, reducing the frequency of publication and visibility of its journalists as it was hit by financial and security concerns, especially after two men abducted an Ethiopian businessman from his car during Nairobi’s evening rush hour.

“It might be a coincidence but after that businessman was abducted on the street we became very scared,” said Woldegiorgis who moved to Germany the following year on a scholarship for at-risk academics and relaunched the outlet as Yabele Media.

‘An enemy of the state’
Tesfa-Alem Tekle was reporting for the Nairobi-based Nation Media Group when he had to flee in 2022, after being detained for nearly three months on suspicion of having links with Tigrayan rebels.

He kept contributing to the Nation Media Group’s The EastAfrican weekly newspaper in exile until 2023, when a death threat was slipped under his door.

“Stop disseminating in the media messages which humiliate and tarnish our country and our government’s image,” said the threat, written in Amharic, which CPJ reviewed. “If you continue being an enemy of the state, we warn you for the last time that a once-and-for-all action will be taken against you.”

Tesfa-Alem moved houses, reported the threat to the police, and hoped he would soon be offered safety in another country. But more than two years after going to exile, he remains in limbo, waiting to hear the outcome of his application for resettlement.

Last year, only 158,700 refugees worldwide were resettled in third countries, representing just a fraction of the need, according to the U.N. refugee agency UNHCR; that included 2,289 Ethiopians, said UNHCR global spokesperson Olga Sarrado Mur in an email to CPJ. The need is only growing: “UNHCR estimates that almost 3 million refugees will be in need of resettlement in 2025, including over 8,600 originating from Ethiopia,” Sarrado Mur said.

“Unfortunately, there are very limited resettlement places available worldwide, besides being a life-saving intervention for at-risk refugees,” said Sarrado Mur.

Without a stable source of income, Tesfa-Alem said he was living “in terrible conditions,” with months of overdue rent.

“Stress, lack of freedom of movement, and economic reasons: all these lead me to depression and even considering returning home to face the consequences,” he said, voicing a frustration shared by all of the journalists that spoke to CPJ about the complexities and delays they encountered navigating the asylum system.

‘No Ethiopian security services will knock on my door’

Most of the journalists who spoke to CPJ described great difficulties in returning to journalism. A lucky few have succeeded.

Yayesew Shimelis, founder of the YouTube channel Ethio Forum whose reporting was critical of the Ethiopian government, was arrested multiple times between 2019 and 2022.

In 2021, he was detained for 58 days, one of a dozen journalists and media workers held incommunicado at Awash Sebat, another remote military camp in Ethiopia’s Afar state. The following year, he was abducted by people who broke into his house, blindfolded him, and held him in an unknown location for 11 days.

“My only two options were living in my beloved country without working my beloved job; or leaving my beloved country and working my beloved job,” he told CPJ.

At Addis Ababa airport in 2023, he said he was interrogated for two hours about his destination and the purpose of his trip. He told officials he was attending a wedding and promised to be back in two weeks. When his flight took off, Yayesaw was overwhelmed with relief and sadness to be “suddenly losing my country.”

“I was crying, literally crying, when the plane took off,” he told CPJ. “People on the plane thought I was going to a funeral.”

In exile, Yayesew feels “free”. He continues to run Ethio Forum and even published a book about Prime Minister Abiy earlier this year.

“Now I am 100% sure that no Ethiopian security services will knock on my door the morning after I publish a critical report,” he said.

But for Belete, only three months on from his escape, such peace remains a distant dream.

He struggles to afford food and rent and worries who he can trust.

“When I left my country, although I was expecting challenges, I was not prepared for how tough it would be,” he told CPJ.

Belete says it’s difficult to report on Ethiopia from abroad and that sometimes he must choose between doing the work he loves and making a living.

“I find myself in a state of profound uncertainty about my future,” said Belete. “I am caught between the aspiration to pursue my journalism career and the necessity of leading an ordinary life to secure my livelihood”.

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Started: 02-07-2024 | Ends: 31-10-2024