B4: Do online journalists, commentators, and ordinary users practice self-censorship?
Media freedom and freedom of expression in Ethiopia were sharply constrained during the coverage period, with self-censorship common as the Ethiopian government and security forces targeted journalists reporting on the Tigray conflict. The online environment was rife with manipulation, misinformation, and targeted harassment (see B5, B7, and C7), further contributing to self-censorship on the internet.
Print and broadcast journalists reporting on the Tigray conflict were attacked, arrested, harassed on social media, and targeted by the Ethiopian government for their reporting, contributing to an environment of self-censorship on the internet. For instance, journalist Dawit Kebede Araya, who worked for the Tigray government-owned broadcaster Tigray TV, was killed by unknown attackers in Mekele on January 19, 2021 and Lucy Kassa, a prominent freelance journalist reporting on rights abuses in Tigray, was raided and intimidated by unidentified armed men in February. In March 2021, BBC reporter Girmay Gibru, local journalist Tamirat Yemane and Alula Akalu and Fitsum Brhane, two translators working for the Financial Times and AFP, were arrested in Tigray by Ethiopian security forces; they were detained for two days and later released.
The Ethiopian Broadcasting Authority (EBA)—formerly Ethiopia’s media regulator, until it was restructured as the Ethiopian Media Authority (EMA) following the enactment of an April 2021 law (see B6)—politicized licensing to retaliate against perceived unfair media coverage. In March 2021, the EBA’s deputy director-general warned that the authority would take measures against non-Ethiopian media organizations that were “disseminating misinformation and unbalanced reporting,” alleging that some of those outlets were coordinating with the TPLF. The EBA suspended the press licenses of Reuters journalist Giulia Paravicini in November 2020 and New York Times journalist Simon Marks in March 2021; Ethiopian authorities detained and deported Marks in May.
The Abiy government had eased state restrictions on the media in previous years, and citizens flocked to social media to participate in conversations about their country’s potential transition from authoritarianism and to hold the government accountable for promised reforms. While most bloggers and journalists who were released from prison returned to their professional activity, they began to report concerns again in September 2018 and April 2019 as rising ethnic tensions led to violence and displacement.
B5: Are online sources of information controlled or manipulated by the government or other powerful actors to advance a particular political interest?
The Ethiopian government and the TPLF both sought to shape the online information environment during the Tigray conflict. Social media accounts falsely claiming to represent diplomats, journalists, and other experts spread pro-government narratives online. The Ethiopian government also sought to label online critics as sources of disinformation. For instance, INSA reported that the TPLF was disseminating 25,000 tweets containing disinformation daily; researchers found this claim to be unsubstantiated. The Ethiopian government established an online fact-checker that spread partisan narratives in response to purported misinformation, further degrading trust in information shared on social media.
The Eritrean government may have also attempted to shape the online environment in Ethiopia. A report published in May 2021 that alleges a widespread TPLF-coordinated disinformation campaign by relying on falsified information may be linked to the Eritrean government’s global social media strategy; the report was promoted by Eritrean government accounts, Ethiopian government accounts, and social media users supportive of both governments.
In general, misinformation also proliferated during the Tigray conflict (see B7), exacerbated by the restriction of internet access in Tigray (see A3).
Despite low levels of internet access, the former Hailemariam government was known to employ an army of online trolls to distort the information landscape. Opposition groups, journalists, and dissidents used the contemptuous Amharic colloquial term “Kokas” to describe the progovernment commentators. Observers say the Kokas regularly discussed Ethiopia’s economic growth in favorable terms and posted negative comments about Ethiopian journalists and opposition groups on Facebook and Twitter. In return, they were known to receive benefits such as money, land, and employment promotions. It is uncertain whether the current Abiy government uses the same online manipulation tactics, but supporters of the former government have accused the current government of doing so. They scornfully refer to supporters of the current government as “Tekas.”
Some powerful nonstate actors also command large numbers of followers and trolls, especially on Facebook. There have been reports that online trolls pose as members of different ethnic groups to incite tensions between them. For instance, the TPLF has coordinated party loyalists in the “Digital Woyane” campaign, in which participants reportedly seek to create ethnic tension on social media. During the Tigray conflict, Ethiopian officials and progovernment social media users accused pro-Tigrayan accounts of being Digital Woyane members coordinated by the TPLF, without substantiation.
B6: Are there economic or regulatory constraints that negatively affect users’ ability to publish content online?
Lack of adequate funding is a significant challenge for independent online media in Ethiopia, as fear of government pressure dissuades local businesses from advertising with politically critical websites. A 2012 Advertising Proclamation also prohibits advertisements from firms “whose capital is shared by foreign nationals.” The process for launching a website on the country’s .et domain is expensive and demanding, requiring a business license from the Ministry of Trade and Industry and a permit from an authorized body.
In April 2021, the Media Proclamation, which reformed media laws in the country, entered into effect. The proclamation restructured the EBA into the EMA, established a mandate for the EMA to regulate all media outlets, including online media, and created a new self-regulatory mechanism for the media industry. The reform package also decriminalized defamation (see C1).
As of June 2021, after the coverage period, the EMA began licensing online media outlets and monitoring the 30 registered online outlets. In July 2021, the EMA recalled the certification of registration of Addis Standard, a prominent news site, causing the outlet to suspend operations; a government official cited content published by Addis Standard that advanced the agenda of the TPLF. After Addis Standard executives met with EMA leadership, the regulator returned the site’s registration certification. Addis Standard has contested the process by which the EMA withdrew its certification and committed to investigating the EMA’s allegation that the news site is advancing the TPLF’s agenda.