Muting the Mic: the Plight of Journalists in Tigray

By Mebrahten GebreMariam and Daniel Zemichael

Haftom Abraha, Senior Sport Producer at Dimtsi Weyane (DW) International before the war suddenly found himself as a political news editor in November 2020. 

“A journalist fainted during a live television news broadcast.” he says, “We ran the live news show from another channel.” 

Haftom became desperate after learning that his colleague was in distress as a result of lack of food. “He told me he hadn’t eaten anything for more than 18 hours.”

He recalls that the last salary he and his colleagues at DW International got paid was 18 months ago, back in October 2020. 

Hiwet Birhane, a journalist at the Tigray Mass Media Agency, explains: “We journalists in Tigray are striving to present the effects of the siege on our people, though we are starving ourselves.”

Many of her colleagues were forced to “flee to their families in rural areas in search of something to eat after the harvest season.” 

Hiwet thinks she may not be able to manage to keep delivering her professional responsibilities if the siege continues “as is.”

Rushing to the studio for the 12:00 AM news program at the station’s national Radio broadcasting service, Weldemhret Gezae, a reporter at DW International, came across a colleague who told him: “Somehow, I managed to go to sleep on an empty stomach last night; but it’s too much to go hungry for two consecutive days.”

“I have nothing to eat today.”

Weldemhret had to share what he could with his starving colleague. “I had 30 Birr [0.6 USD], so I gave him 10 Birr, and kept the remaining 20 for my lunch and dinner, which is only bread with tea.” 

Yet, Weldemhret found it hard to concentrate on his news program. “I was heart-broken to read the news in such a desperate mood.”

“Many of the station’s experts were about to leave the media.” says Mrs. Mitslal Abera, Human Resource Officer at DW International.

“One of our camera operators told us he is getting too weak to carry his camera when covering events.” 

The station began providing bread with tea daily for “about 50 media professionals who were about to leave their jobs as a result of the worsening starvation”.    

Mitslal says this “unusual service” tells its own story about “the magnitude of the man-made starvation” she and her colleagues have been enduring.  

Adanech Gebregzabher, a reporter at the local radio station FM 104.4 Mekelle, which covers the capital of Tigray and nearby areas, states that the challenge she is facing on the ground is “triggering me to shun my journalistic profession.” She adds that she is powerless to think about survival; basic needs have been cut for over a year. 

Another journalist, who preferred to remain anonymous, says: “There have been situations when I spent a day and a half, or even two, without eating anything.” 

When this happens, he says he prefers “to doze” at home, until “my colleagues come and check, after missing me at the daily news desk brief in the office.” 

According to some, the hardship of starvation tends to be worse on bachelors. 

A reason for this is that, as Selamawit Kahsay from the Tigray Mass Media Agency explains, before the war, bachelors usually used to eat out to save time, a precious resource for broadcast journalists.  

At the time the interviews were conducted, on April 20 2022, staff members of the Tigray Mass Media Agency were observed queuing to receive 25 kg of sorghum. 

Yemane Hiluf, a reporter at the state media, says that the staff have established a team that mobilizes food resources “to save colleagues from dying of the man-made starvation”. A father of three, Yemane explains that the sorghum he received was donated by members of the local Chamber of Commerce in Mekelle.       

The siege even challenges nature. Ngisti Kinfe, reporter at DW International, says: “The cost of a single sanitary pad has risen from 30 to 150 Birr [3 USD]. As a result, many female journalists are being prevented from coming to the office during their period.”

Most of all, Ngisti worries for her lactating and pregnant colleagues. Considering the alarming increase in the cost of living, she elaborates: “I think everyone can understand what it means for us whose salary has been stopped for 18 months and counting.”

House Rent Fatigue

Journalist Hiwet Birhane says most media professionals in Tigray live in rental houses, as the media industry was already relatively low-paying. The long-missed salary adds fuel to the fire. 

“Amidst the dire situation we are in,” Hiwet says, “the public perceives us [media professionals] as if we are always content when it sees us on TV.” As a result, many people, including her landlord, expect money from her.         

“For journalists, this is the Dark Age that we are passing through,” Hiwet says desperately. 

Another journalist anonymously states: “The playful landlord I used to share many things with now looks strange, as the rent is not being paid – for 18 months.  

“I have tried to find another place to rent, but I finally gave up because I am unable to settle 54,000.00 Birr [1125 USD] payment clearance for my current landlord.” 

“Do you know what I try now?” he asks bitterly, “Just not to see his frowned face.”

Field Assignments under Communication Blackout

Haftom Abraha traveled across Tigray for various field reports. At one point, he was assigned to cover new developments of internal displacement, as Eritrean soldiers continued shelling Mereb Leke district, in the Central Zone of Tigray, bordering Eritrea.

He recalls that he had to wait for the concerned administrative bodies for more than two weeks to get one of the scarcest resources in Tigray these days: fuel.

He had a badge, but he also collected another supporting letter requesting the local administration’s cooperation during his field trip. This meant local administrators would cover the accommodation for his crew. He then went to Rama, the administrative seat of Mereb Leke district, where they got out of the car to save fuel, and the endurance of Haftom’s crew was tested. 

“We traveled on foot for three hours. Think of how much we suffered carrying the heavy camera, tripod and sound devices,” Haftom recalls.

Yet, another challenge. They were told that the interviewees had already fled, and Eritrean soldiers had begun shelling their village three days ago.

“You see what life without communication looks like!” Haftom exclaims desperately. 

They were told to leave the area “urgently” because of serious security concerns. Haftom’s crew then rushed back to Rama, where they spent the whole night in their car.  

The people in the town informed Haftom that his interviewees had been displaced to another nearby locality, Adi Fitaw. 

“So, will you be able to deliver the news on time?” Haftom asks.   

Many journalists we approached also stated they find it challenging to do reports critical of the local administration which accommodates them in their regular field trips. They think the media environment in Tigray is already tough, but it may become even harder to do critical reporting from areas where the expenses of journalists are covered. 

Amharic News Desk Coordinator at DW International, Angesom Abraha, says it takes them “5 to 6 days to produce a single project news, even in Mekelle, where their station is based.

“We travel on foot to contact sources, to ask them for information.

“But we may not find the interviewee at home when we get there.”  

A reporter at the local FM station, Adanech Gebregzabher, says: “I am about to give up. Journalism without communication facilities is null.” 

She describes its effect as “visible collapse in quality of the contents.” 

Tamrat Yemane, Producer of Aiga Forum, is one of the many journalists who lost their job immediately after the Tigray war broke out. As an online media producer, his profession is dependent on access to the Internet, which Tigray has been denied almost continually since November 4, 2020. 

He says: “I, together with my family, am facing existential and professional threats, as the communication blackout continues in Tigray.”

*The data is gathered from human resource officers and managers of 96.4 FM Momona, DW International, ETV Mekelle Branch, ENA Mekelle Branch, FBC Mekelle Branch, FM 104.4 Mekelle, Online and Freelance Media (Aiga Forum, Horn Affairs, Laza Tigrigna, Wurayna, Hadush Business, Finote Semien), Mekalih Newspaper and Tigray Mass Media Agency. The term ‘media professionals’ comprises journalists, media managers, technical editors, designers, camera and studio operators.

The chart above shows the number of journalists in Tigray who have not been paid for 11 to 21 months. Some of the media institutions have been shut down as a result of the war and the ongoing siege. The total communication blackout is one of the critical factors for media closure. 

As a result, 96.4 FM Momona, Horn Affairs, Finote Semien, Wurayna, Hadush Business, Aiga Forum, Mekalih Newspaper, ETV Mekelle Branch, ENA Mekelle Branch, and FBC Mekelle Branch have been closed, either since the eve of the Tigray war or since June 2021. 

Tigray Mass Media Agency, 104.4 FM Mekelle, DW International and Laza Tigrigna are currently functioning against all odds. But what is common to all the media institutions in Tigray is that they are unable to pay the salaries of their media professionals. This continues to threaten the lives of the professionals, their families, and the future of journalism in Tigray.

Journalist Yemane Gebremikael, from the Tigray Mass Media Agency, confirms: “No phone, no internet, no fuel, no banking, nothing; no way to report what is happening in Tigray. 

“I leave the judgment to you what that means, when it is interpreted in the context of the rights to free speech and freedom of expression, to which Ethiopia is a signatory.”          

The Chair of the Tigray Journalists’ Association, Tsegaw Tadesse, states that the quality of the news media in Tigray is weakening steadily, as the “deadly” siege and communication blackout continue. “This is a clear breach of the internationally recognized laws to protect the media and journalists.”      

An Editor at the Tigray Mass Media Agency, Mache Debesay, says: “Our perseverance to project the voice of a voiceless, besieged society is ending, as we are running out of food and journalism altogether.”  

The question Mache Debesay asked continues to resonate cruelly: “But who will be the voice for us, the starving journalists? Who will tell how many difficult situations we journalists in Tigray are enduring, in the face of a communication blackout?”