“Journalism is not a crime” has to be more than a hashtag aspiration. In Ethiopia when Prime Minister Dr Abiy Ahmed came to power in 2018 he signalled his commitment to media freedom by opening up the airwaves, releasing media professionals and those unjustly incarcerated for political and human rights activities. His efforts as peace maker with his neighbouring Eritrea and other African nations was recognised by the award of the Nobel Peace Prize in 2019. However in recent months the world’s attention has returned to Ethiopia, not to celebrate his achievements, but to witness the tight-rope navigation between maintaining a path to democracy and avoiding falling into civil war. One of the recent casualties of this balancing act has been the crack down on media freedom.
On Christmas Eve in the Ethiopian capital of Addis Ababa, Reuters cameraman Kumerra Gemechu was arrested at home in front of his three children and wife. Following a Christmas day court appearance, without a lawyer, he was remanded in custody for 14 days to allow authorities to investigate allegations but no charges have been made public.
Reuters Editor-in-Chief Stephen J. Adler said in a statement on 28 Dec,
“We strongly condemn the arrest of Reuters journalist Kumerra Gemechu in Ethiopia. Kumerra is part of a Reuters team that reports from Ethiopia in a fair, independent and unbiased way. Kumerra’s work demonstrates his professionalism and impartiality, and we are aware of no basis for his detention.”
Recently, the Ethiopian Broadcasting Authority condemned the coverage of the conflict in Tigray by international media organisations, including Reuters, which it considers “false and unbalanced”. Kumerra Gemechu was part of a team who covered the conflict on the ground in Tigray for the international news agency.
Kumerra’s arrest follows the beating of Reuters photographer, Tiksa Negeri by two Ethiopian federal police officers on December 16 and the recent detention of other media individuals including Haftu Gebreegziabher and Tsegaye Hadush – and the Oromia Media Network’s Udi Mussa have been held for the past six weeks according to Reporters Without Borders.
Mr. Gemechu has been working as a cameraman for international news agency Reuters for the past ten years. Last year, he also worked for the International Observatory of Human Rights’ digital video channel, IOHR TV, filming UNESCO’s event World Press Freedom Day as well as stories related to climate change and poverty in the country.
Margherita Cargasacchi, Journalist and producer for IOHR TV, spoke of her experience of working with Kumerra Gemechu.
“As a journalist and a former colleague of Kumerra, his arrest saddens me very much. I had the great opportunity of working with him to film UNESCO World Press Freedom Day in Ethiopia in May 2019. Kumerra also filmed the amazing Oxfam project on bee keeping with us in the Tigray region as part of a series on climate change, tackling poverty and press freedom. I was able to discover not only Kumerra’s excellent technical skills but his strict adherence to journalism ethics and his in-depth knowledge of media regulations in Ethiopia. I, like all media professionals who have worked in the region, condemn his arrest and hope that he is released now without charges”.
Background to reporting on the conflict in Tigray
The Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF) ruled Ethiopia with an iron first from 1991 until they were overthrown by popular vote for Dr. Abiy Ahmed in 2018. They have sought to maintain power in the Tigray region and stand in opposition to new reform. The TPLF leaders were quickly side-lined and, in some cases, prosecuted for corruption and human rights abuses that happened while they were in power.
During the Coronavirus pandemic this summer, the Ethiopian election was put on hold until voting could be undertaken safely for the population of over a hundred million people. However in September, in a flagrant disregard for the authority of the federal government, the TPLF announced they would be holding a separate election.
By October the Ethiopian government responded to quell this aggressive action and sought to quickly put down this power grab using neighbouring militia and the Ethiopian army. Tigray launched rockets at two airports in neighbouring Amhara Province, destroyed the runway in Mekele and fired rockets at the main airport of neighbouring Eritrea; accusing them of supporting Dr Abiy.
A rapid escalation of violence and retaliation exacerbated ethnic divisions driving thousands of refugees to seek safety away from the fighting. Both sides have been accused of human rights violations and ethnic cleansing with Pramila Patten, the United Nations’ acting special adviser for the prevention of genocide, and Karen Smith, the special adviser on protecting civilians saying in a joint statement in November that,
“The risk of atrocity crimes in Ethiopia remains high”.
The UN called for independent access as the Ethiopian government clamped down on media reporting and cut the internet, allegedly to stop more violence from the spread of fake news. International outcry was swift with even the Nobel committee issuing a statement,
“The Norwegian Nobel committee follows the developments in Ethiopia closely, and is deeply concerned.” It called on all parties, “to end the escalating violence and to solve disagreements and conflicts by peaceful means”.
Sacrificing media freedom to maintain control may save lives in the short term but ultimately it risks undermining all of the previous efforts to show that Ethiopia can escape its authoritarian past and strive for democracy. The arrest of Kumerra Gemechu for doing his job must be redressed and his freedom granted along with those of his colleagues.
Margherita Cargasacchi reflected that
“Having worked with Kumerra and seen first hand his professionalism, I have no doubts that Kumerra’s work fully adheres to high-standard and ethical journalism practices. This is the time for the government to embrace and support journalists fairly reporting and to ensure media freedom flourishes”.