Exclusive. Does the end of the war in Tigray mean the return of freedom of the press ?
After two years of tug-of-war between the government of Abiy Ahmed and the Liberation Front of Tigray (TPLF), the conflict seems to have arrived at its end. The exact number of victims as well as the precise unfolding of events however remain to be determined, the Tigray region had been closed to journalists since 2021. With peace, is the return to the press possible in the region?
The MDJ had the opportunity to contact journalists and defenders of media based in Ethiopia to inquire about the situation. If the violence in Tigray ended up stopping, the neighboring regions of Afar and Amhara are the new theater of human cruelty. Moreover, massacres are often still reported in the war-torn region by the war, the population fearful that this one will not know a short truce.
Tens of thousands of deaths in two years
The conflict started in November 2020, when the Ethiopian prime minister Abiy Ahmed attempted to organize elections in the Tigray region in the north of the country, in which a part of the inhabitants claimed independence. The regional authorities had defied the power for some months already and the prime minister Ahmed no longer intended to be silent. Accusing the TPLF of having attacked the military bases, the prime minister had then sent his army to Tigray. But the armed rebels would not let the military reach the capital region Mekele, repelling them from day one.
The rebels of the TPLF had then won all of Tigray to “liberate” it from Abiy Ahmed’s government. Numerous testimonies denouncing hundreds of abuses by the army and the rebels, provoking the death of tens of thousands of people, implying thousands of rapes and pushing two millions Tigrayans into exile. For two months, the famine threatens the 13 millions of Tigrayans traumatized by the war, while the destruction of infrastructures leads to grave problems with water supply for numerous cities.
The situation is such that Doctors Without Borders announced in July 2021 to stop their activities in the region, following the death of three members of their staff on June 24. Hundreds of sexual abuses had equally traumatized the population, committed as much by the separatist rebels as the Abiy Ahmed regime, however without any media coverage. As the freedom of the press was already restrained, the Ethiopian journalists and localized foreigners in Tigray were forced out in November 2021, i.e. one year since the start of the war.
Despite the peace, the press is always muzzled
Abiy Ahmed’s government banned the coverage of military operations in Tigray, Afar and Amara and imprisoned journalists during their reporting, according to NGOs and several reporters. We contacted the African branch of the Committee of Journalists Protection, an international NGO, that indicated to us, “there isn’t any assurance on a return of journalist security in Tigray or the opening of possible investigations on crimes that they would have suffered.” They also informed us of the liberation of three journalists of the channel Tigray TV, “but two others are still in detention,” according to Mythoko Mumo, responsible for the Sub Saharan branch of the CPJ.
The peace treaty between the Ethiopian federal authority and the Tigrayan rebels was signed on November 2, 2022, formalizing the disarmament of the TPLF. The federal authorities are now working on the reestablishment of the electric current, to deliver humanitarian aid in famine stricken areas, and to retrieve the heavy arms used by the TPLF. The federal army and the foreign forces (Erythrée) were also invited to withdraw from the country under the peace agreement.
An apparent return to normal, because many interrogations remain in suspense without the work of media actors. Certain men and women nevertheless tried to bring some information to Ethiopia and the international community.
Amongst the whistleblowers, Solomon Weldegerima and Isaac Welday, two investigative journalists revealed the names of prisoners to the general public, although the communication services in Tigray are only partially restored.
Solomon Weldegerima is a Tigranyan journalist who worked in a regional media before the war. He fled his house during the repeated assaults not far from his home, being a prime target as a journalist. For him, his colleagues and himself would soon have new access to Tigray, in the controlled zones by the federal government and international forces. “On the other hand, they will not access the zones under the yoke of the TPLF.” Solomon explains, “to battle for the truth,” and to have no fear of belligerents. For him, “peace cannot return as long as the TPLF,” which he did not hesitate to label, “a terrorist group,” stays in power.
Solomon has not lived in Tigray for two years, but at the border of the region where he reached during this period to obtain information on the war from the inside. The reporter only has one goal: to show the atrocities committed by the army and the TPLF, as well as to combat the “the propaganda” of the rebels in the region. His last excursion, of which he does not wish to communicate the exact date, lasted two days. He obtained information from locals who still have an internet connection, although it is very unreliable, “mainly workers for NGOs or humanitarian associations. I include people supporting the governmental action and those considering that the TPLF is at the origin of the war. Some anti-TPLF fighters spoke to me also. Many of them were only able to interact with me with the restoration of government communication services.”
Not a word on the abuses of the army of Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed, who according to numerous external observers had participated in murderous raids and campaigns of mass rapes, as well as blocked the delivery of humanitarian aid.
“The TPLF was the first in declaring the war during a blitz fomented by the leader Seque Turea. They should be held entirely responsible for the war. However, abuses have been committed by the two camps, and all the individuals that had participated should be arrested and judged.”
“I could not move freely, I was terrorized by the rebels. They threatened anyone not supporting their version of the facts and considered them as enemies to Tigray to be destroyed.”
He says he was blackmailed by the TPLF for doing his job as a journalist, including the leaking of his personal information. That does not stop him though: “an ethiopian proverb says: hilmi ferihka leydekeska aytihedry, you cannot sleep without being frightened by a dream. Mine is to expose the truth. I know that the TPLF is dangerous but as long as I fight for my people, the risk is worth it.”
The journalist affirms that some journalists “governmental and independent” will soon be able to have the right to go to Tigray again, “notably in the regions under the control of the ENDF, the ethiopian army: Welkayt, Shre, Adwa, Aksum. Raya remains accessible.”
He also confirms, “the atrocities committed by the rebels: the mass rapes, robberies, and destruction,” have been commonplace in Tigray for two years now, “but also in the neighboring regions of Afar and Amhara.”
Propaganda, the number one enemy of the press
Solomon repeats it on multiple occasions throughout our interview, the intense propaganda of the TPLF interferes with the understanding of events within the region, further dividing the population. For two years, “I struggle against the rebels through the debunking of fake news, in order to allow my people and the international community to shed light on the war. We should realize the gravity of the danger that the TPLF represents.” He hopes that he will soon be able to return home freely. Moreover, he decided to launch his media in order to distribute his own information.
Isaac Welday, another independent journalist, had reported in the media on the arrests of five Tigrayan journalists in May and July of 2022 by the federal authorities for covering events in the region. He tells us he had worked for the interim government, a little before the start of the war.
He subsequently left his job to concentrate entirely on his vocation as a journalist. “I want to re-establish the truth, I am not on anyone’s side,” he assured over the phone. “On three occasions, I was arrested by the federal government and placed in custody.” For him, the rebels, like the government, “are torturers. They are anti-journalists and against all the actors of peace,” civil or not.
For the director of the African office of Reporters Without Borders, Sadibou Marong, the speech is not so clear-cut. “The peace agreement is a good sign for the future, notably for a better circulation of information and journalists in the country. But there is always the fear of retaliation and numerous journalists prefer to stay safe abroad. It is up to the authorities to work on their return and give them guarantees.” According to him, the bigger problem resides “in the control of the narrative of the war, i.e. the propaganda and misinformation on social networks that has been picked up by the media.”
The NGO has struggled since the start of the war against this propaganda, “that we find as much within the TPLF and the federal government. The authorities spoke of a security operation but it was really a war,” he stated. “The TPLF and the central power are guilty of abuses and arbitrary detentions. When the war broke out we helped to assassinate and detain journalists. Certain people were accused of promoting terrorism and were sentenced to death. Others were persecuted by the federal authorities and had to go into exile abroad or seek assistance.”
The peace has been signed between the parties since November 2, 2022 only, highlighting its fragility. Despite the violence that endures in the neighboring regions of Afar and Amhara, the african and european Unions try to endorse the peace agreement, like the head of foreign diplomacy Catherin Colonna on January 12 and 13. She was accompanied by her counterpart, Annalena Baerbock, and president of the African Commission, Moussa Faki. The total balance of victims remains unknown, due to poor documentation despite the efforts of several journalists who remained in place. The repatriation of the exiled, the counting and judicial processing of crimes during these two years, the future of the TPLF and Tigray remains a problem without solutions that multiple parties have yet to discuss.
Written by Maud Baheng Daizey, translated by Amelia Seepersaud.