The Ethiopian regime is by far the biggest source of a concerted and well-financed disinformation campaign. The war in Tigray heightened the stakes and made Abiy’s tactics more visible to international onlookers, but the pattern of disinformation, intolerance, and repression we observe today has characterized Abiy’s time in office.
On November 28, 2020, the Ethiopian government issued arrest warrants for prominent scholars and activists based in Western countries. This action marked a significant escalation in a vicious intimidation campaign against independent voices, particularly critics of Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed. Among the accused are Ezekiel Gebissa, professor of History at Kettering University in the United States, and Dr. Awol Allo, Senior Lecturer in Law at Keele University in the United Kingdom.
The Federal Police Commission told the state-run Ethiopian Broadcasting Corporation that it had issued warrants for eight individuals accused of using “various media platforms to disintegrate the Ethiopian state” and 27 military officers accused of “embezzlement and unlawful enrichment.”
The use of the legal system to silence critical voices and eliminate political adversaries by the Abiy administration is not new. Over the last year, authorities locked up every prominent opponent of the prime minister, subjecting leaders of political parties, journalists, and other dissenting voices to prolonged detention without charges and politically motivated show trials.
However, the profile of individuals included in the latest series of politicised prosecutions shows the government has escalated intolerance to dissent and opposition. It also indicates a sinister political agenda that aims to discredit publicly, slander, and vilify individuals with significant voice and authority.
Four of the eight individuals accused of “destroying Ethiopia”–Ezekiel Gebissa, Awol Allo, Etana Habte, and Tsegaye Ararssa–are Oromo academics based in the West who have played an active part in supporting the Oromo protests of 2014-2018. This pro-democracy social movement played the single most critical role in ushering Abiy to power. The other four named–Daniel Birhane, Fitsum Birhane, Alula Solomon, and Senait Mebrahtu–are Tigrayan activists and TPLF supporters. During the Oromo protests and before Abiy’s rise to power, these two groups stood for contrasting causes. Nevertheless, their opposition to the war in Tigray has made both sides “enemies” of the Abiy administration.
The Oromo academics included in this indictment saw the war in Tigray as a continuation of the same kind of violent repression and crackdown carried out by Abiy in the Oromia region since late 2018. Although expressed with different tones, this group opposed the war because the differences between the two sides are political, and there is no justification to take the country to war to resolve a political dispute.
For example, in several interviews with the BBC, Al Jazeera, and other international media outlets and opinion pieces, including one for the Awash Post, Dr. Allo expressed that there can be no military solution to an ideological and political problem. And he urged the two sides to seek a peaceful and amicable political resolution. An independent voice who first supported Abiy’s reforms and famously nominated him for the Nobel Peace Prize, Allo became one of the premier’s most outspoken critics as Abiy turned increasingly authoritarian and walked back on his original promises of reform and democratic transition.
While it is not yet clear what evidence the government has against the academics and activists it is seeking to arrest, the crime they are accused of – “disintegrating a country using the media” – is a spurious allegation designed to criminalise dissent and opposition. By reframing their opposition to the war against Tigray as synonymous with support for the TPLF, a political party that governed Ethiopia ruthlessly for nearly three decades and is widely despised for its egregiously unjust rule, the allegation is designed to portray the accused as ideologically deviant and morally odious.
These accusations are not concerned with past acts or with an assessment of guilt and innocence. Authorities are trying to discredit and delegitimize these scholars and activists in order to silence and coerce them into capitulation.
An Orwellian nightmare
Ethiopia has a long history of indoctrination, surveillance, and censorship as primary means of social control. The TPLF-dominated Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF), which ruled Ethiopia from 1991-2019, relied on widespread political surveillance and a nationwide indoctrination program. The government’s one-to-five security structure was so extensive and ubiquitous that it permeated the entire society, down to the village and household level.
The EPRDF regime targeted critics and opposition activists who spoke out against its repressive rule with arrest, detention, and torture. The Information Network Security Agency, which Abiy founded and led, targeted diaspora-based dissidents with sophisticated intrusion and surveillance software. Authorities charged journalists, media houses, opposition politicians, and activists in absentia with serious crimes such as “treason” and “terrorism.”
In 2014, the Guardian described the Ethiopian surveillance state in these chilling terms:
Activists and journalists describe an Orwellian surveillance state, breath-taking in scale and scope, in which phone conversations are recorded and emails monitored by thousands of bureaucrats reminiscent of the Stasi in East Berlin. The few who dare to take to the streets in protest are crushed with deadly force. Amnesty International has called it an “onslaught on dissent” in the run-up to elections next year.
The near-total control over the population allowed the government to win 99.6 percent and 100 percent of parliamentary seats in the 2010 and 2015 elections. When Abiy came to power in 2018, he pledged a clean break with these practices and promised a new democratic future based on the rule of law. In his first few months in office, Abiy denounced the previous practices of the EPRDF regime, in which he was a core member, as ghastly, going as far as admitting that his government used a terrorist method to stay in power.
As evidence of change, Abiy quickly initiated legislative reforms and restructured existing institutions. He established a new ministry responsible for the country’s law-enforcement and security agencies and called it the Ministry of Peace. He also established a Peace and Reconciliation Commission tasked with promoting national consensus, healing, and restorative justice. He appointed a gender-balanced cabinet, drawing significant international acclaim.
The events of last year and a half make it clear that Abiy was never committed to these values and ideals. For him, these were merely strategic moves to refashion himself as “progressive” and “democratic” and to garner support for his fledgling government at home while hoodwinking donors abroad. And it worked.
His denunciation of the former regime and his tactical embrace of the liberal democratic language of human rights, democracy, the rule of law, constitutionalism, peace, reconciliation, and justice instantly turned a man who grew up in EPRDF’s repressive security and military apparatus into a centrist liberal democrat palatable to the West and Ethiopia’s metropolitan elite.
His gospel of prosperity, urban renewal projects, and repeated claims of “finishing what we started” were all aimed at convincing the public of the coming prosperity reminiscent of the Ministry of Plenty in George Orwell’s Oceania.
Reaching for the kill switch
In the first six months under Abiy, the Ethiopian government also adopted a relatively liberal, hands-off approach to both mainstream media and online activities. That began to change in the latter part of 2019 as Abiy’s government consolidated power ahead of elections scheduled for May 2020.
Today, the crackdown, repression, and surveillance unfolding in Ethiopia are considerably worse than those in the pre-Abiy era. The same repressive state apparatus now perpetuates violence in the name of a new and dangerous “Ethiopia First” ideology and under a new leader who believes to have been given a “Mandate from Heaven.”
The ongoing campaigns of oppression, intimidation, and surveillance over online and offline speech represent the greatest threat to democratic progress in Ethiopia and, ultimately, the continuity of the Ethiopian state as a united sovereign entity. Already, the government completely controls the country’s access to the internet and all online activity. It frequently shuts down the internet in part or in full during or in anticipation of large-scale protests. The Ethiopian state or individuals close to the government control nearly all major media networks in the country.
Since Abiy took office, the Ethiopian government has repeatedly imposed national and regional internet shutdowns lasting months. For instance, in early 2020, authorities cut mobile phone networks, landlines, and internet services in western Oromia for more than three months. This move coincided with the establishment of an illegal military Command Post and the launch of a counter-insurgency campaign against rebels.
The government imposed a three-week nationwide blackout in July during a brutal crackdown on the opposition following the killing of Haacaaluu Hundeessa. By the time access was restored, the government had arrested Jawar Mohammed, Bekele Gerba, Lidetu Ayalew, Eskinder Nega, and at least 10,000 people, mostly opposition party members, and activists. Many of them were held in schools converted into overcrowded prisons in the midst of a deadly pandemic. Targeted blackouts have been imposed in Hawassa and the Sidama zone during protests in 2019. In short, the Abiy administration has reached for the “kill switch” every time it faced serious resistance or to conduct a crackdown campaign.
The Tigray war and official disinformation
Today, Abiy’s government is by far the biggest source of a concerted and well-financed disinformation campaign. The war in Tigray heightened the stakes and made Abiy’s tactics more visible to international onlookers, but the pattern of disinformation, intolerance, and repression we observe today has characterized Abiy’s time in office.
His relationship to facts and truth is a unique aspect of Abiy’s leadership and government that has not been scrutinized so far. When Abiy launched the military campaign in Tigray, he described the war as a “rule of law” operation. Only his government and supporters believed the events between 04-28 November constituted a rule of law operation. As soon as the war began, Abiy imposed a complete communication blackout on Tigray to control the flow of information. Authorities continue to deny independent media and humanitarian agencies access to the conflict zone.
In contrast, journalists from the state-run media are embedded with the military to churn out official disinformation. Even worse, the government has co-opted the term “fact-check” by launching a social media page it is calling, “State of Emergency Fact Check.” Peter Cunliffe-Jones, the founder of Africa Factcheck and Senior Advisor at the International Fact-Checking Network, notes, “a government-sponsored page- in a conflict in particular…undermines the integrity of the concept of fact-checking and trust.”
The communications blackout and the partisan fact-checking of the media and opposing viewpoints have made it impossible to verify the information and distinguish between facts and propaganda. For example, a week after the purported fall of Mekelle, we are yet to get an independent report on the triumphant claims made by Abiy and his party. TPLF leaders still control the Tigrai TV, which remains on the air, and allege that the fighting is still ongoing. Journalists, humanitarian workers, and analysts are not able independently to verify the dueling claims.
Meanwhile, as the space for freedom of expression tightens, Abiy and his administration continue to mislead the international community by creating “alternative facts,” as the prime minister himself did in a four-hour marathon parliamentary session on Monday. After his triumphalist announcement of Tigray’s “liberation,” Abiy falsely claimed that no civilian was killed in the four weeks war in Tigray. The claim has been disproven. He also falsely asserted that there were no women and children among the refugees who fled to Sudan when, in fact, 45 percent of the arrivals are children (0-17 years) and 43 percent female, according to UNHCR.
Along with the intimidation and disinformation campaign, authorities have also stepped up the crackdown on the media. Last July, police forced the closure of several independent networks, including the Oromia Media Network, one of the only independent outlets that broadcast in multiple local languages. Several journalists, including from the Addis Standard, have been arrested in recent weeks and are being dragged before courts based on vexatious allegations. “I have a ton of friends who form part of Ethiopia’s local press scene,” journalist Zecharias Zelalem wrote on Twitter last week. “Nearly all have expressed to me fears for their safety after having received death threats or been targeted by mass slander campaigns. Some have changed addresses…others have stopped reporting completely.”
The intimidation campaign by the Abiy administration extends to western journalists, analysts, and international organizations, too. On November 22, Ethiopia expelled a senior researcher with the International Crisis Group. Days after Ethiopia deported Davison, Robert Malley, President of the Group, suggested that the organization’s analysis was not accurate, after coming under considerable pressure from the Ethiopian government, including from Abiy’s predecessor Hailemariam Desalegn. In a blog post, Malley suggested the bloodbath and a humanitarian disaster that the Crisis Group and others predicted did not occur, though there is very little information on what happened in Tigray during the four-week war and a more grim picture appears to be emerging as international media reach the Sudanese camps hosting Tigrayan refugees.
Ethiopia also revoked the Reuters news agency’s license and gave a “warning” to the BBC. Social media trolls have targeted foreign correspondents covering the crisis. “It is pretty clear that there is a massive coordinated online campaign of slander and vile threats designed to stop journalists from reporting the crisis objectively,” Will Brown, Africa Correspondent for the Telegraph, who has been subjected to online harassment for his reporting, wrote on Twitter recently. Media organizations have been urged to disinvite analysts. Government spokespersons have refused to appear alongside its critics to discourage or silence those voices.
A social media troll army
To amplify the government’s message, the ruling Prosperity Party (PP) has unleashed a social media troll army to harass activists and critics of the government. There is evidence that PP employs dozens of paid propagandists and trolls who push misinformation, slander and silence critics, or drown out alternative viewpoints. Evidence shows that there are dedicated centers in Addis Ababa that produce syndicated posts, which are then disseminated via various Facebook and Twitter accounts. These paid social media warriors are embedded within the party office, most likely with the prime minister’s knowledge.
The intimidation and silencing tactics vary. Paid government agents and their diaspora activists have joined forces to harass and intimidate Abiy’s critics by tagging their employers on social media. Another vital aspect of this disinformation campaign is to send malicious emails to employers of people with significant following and authority whose views do not align with those of the Ethiopian government. These emails, sometimes openly solicited on social media, accuse academics and activists of severe but wild allegations, including inciting “genocide,” or advocating for “ethnic cleansing.”
These same trolls also flood social media posts of universities and employers of Ethiopian government critics, accusing these individuals of some of the most horrific crimes imaginable. The strategy is to make the organization uncomfortable so that they either pressure the employee to be quiet or conclude that their association with that employee is a nuisance that is not worth their time and resources.
Abiy’s ideological alignment with far-right ultranationalists has earned him support from a vocal diaspora. These ideological soulmates of PP, in turn, amplify the sleek propaganda and go after any and all critical voices on and offline, including western media and international humanitarian organizations. One notable example is the recent statement by Neamin Zeleke, former leader of the Patriotic-Ginbot 7, an armed group that sought to unseat an elected government by force, who accused the United Nations of “exaggerating” the humanitarian crisis in the Tigray region in an appearance on the Turkish television network, A News. Both Twitter and Facebook removed Mr. Zeleke’s interview from their platforms, noting that “it was misleading.” Another staunch Abiy supporter and adviser, Alemayehu G. Mariam, has tried to silence Al Jazeera and Amnesty International, among others.
Even more tragic, the government has found an unlikely ally in social media giants. In recent years, social media networks have come under fire for failing to sufficiently police hate speech and disinformation on their platforms. Policymakers have urged them to improve their community standards. Using increased vigilance at these networks, paid government agents, Abiy’s spokespeople, and diaspora activists have formed an axis to report users en masse to Facebook, YouTube, and Twitter. Both Facebook and YouTube have taken down videos and accounts that are critical of the Ethiopian government.
The US-based KELLO Media team was harassed this week. Facebook disabled the accounts of all Kello Board of Directors and at least two contributors publicly identified with the outlet. In early October, YouTube took down the Raya Studio page, resulting in the loss of hundreds of locally produced original music videos not found anywhere else on the web. The studio lost thousands of subscribers and millions in views from its videos and was forced to create a new account from scratch.
In short, Abiy’s Prosperity Party has resorted to Orwell’s formulation, “extinguish, once and for all, the possibility of independent thought.” Instead of letting the Ethiopian people judge the truth and falsity of claims made in the public domain, the party is unabashedly presenting itself as the ultimate arbiter of truth and facts.
What is next?
The main driver of the political crisis in Ethiopia is ideological, leading to divergent visions about the future political and economic structure and governance of the country. Abiy and his party have signaled their intentions to forge ahead with elections in mid-2021. It would amount to a poll with only one contestant. Importantly, it would occur in an environment where local journalists increasingly have to self-censor or calibrate stories to avoid violent state retaliations.
The deepening authoritarianism bodes ill for Ethiopia’s future. The heavy-handed clampdown is already having a chilling effect on free expression. For instance, academics and scholars have declined offers to write for the Awash Post for fear of repercussions. Others are eschewing media interviews out of concern for their families in Ethiopia.
Abiy promised a political opening and a marketplace of ideas. Instead, he is overseeing a repressive Orwellian state where a real-life Ministry of Peace oversees security services. The government produces daily fact sheets and fact-checks that align with its propaganda (see Orwell’s Ministry of Truth), and the party follows a model of development that eschews terms such as “poor” and “poverty” in favor of prosperity in one of the poorest countries on earth (see Orwell’s Ministry of Plenty).
Ethiopia urgently needs a genuine and all-inclusive political settlement. However, no meaningful reconciliation can occur in an environment where opponents and critics are locked up, killed, silenced, or intimidated into submission at home and abroad. Abiy’s idea of national dialogue is using the bully pulpit to gaslight and lecture satellite political parties and individuals he has co-opted. It may give an appearance of dialogue and consultation in the eyes of donors, but it will not work.
To conclude, the arrest warrant against diaspora based scholars and activists is a dangerous development in Ethiopia’s increasing reliance on relentless propaganda and violence to intimidate and ultimately mute critical and independent voices. The arm of Ethiopia’s surveillance state is long, and the international community should not tolerate transnational harassment and surveillance of academics and activists who exercise their academic freedom and their fundamental rights to free thought and expression.