Ethiopian authorities on Monday forcibly removed journalists from a plane heading to Mekele in northern Tigray region, ostensibly to prevent the coverage of a controversial election there.
Reporters aboard an Ethiopian Airlines flight from Addis Ababa claimed security agents confiscated their identification documents and equipment, and removed other passengers from the plane on Monday morning.
According to the Ethiopian Foreign Correspondents Association, a lobby for foreign journalists, members of the National Intelligence and Security Service took away passengers’ IDs and prevented them from flying.
“Authorities confiscated or attempted to confiscate phones, laptops, and identification cards from all passengers. Very limited information was provided as to how to retrieve these items. Members of the public were also barred from boarding the flight,” the association said in a statement on Monday evening.
Tigray Region, one of the ten ethnic-based autonomous regions, plans to hold local elections on Wednesday, despite the Federal Government, headed by Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed, postponing the national elections to March next year due to Covid-19. They had earlier been planned for August 2020.
While the Federal Parliament indicated on Saturday the elections in Tigray would be illegal, the Tigray government said any attempt to prevent the polls would be a “declaration of war.”
The polls have been so controversial some pundits have described them as a possible incendiary for the country.
Simon Marks, a correspondent for the New York Times and Politico said he had arrived at the airport for the flight before officials stopped him.
“At Bole Airport this morning in Addis Ababa, three local reporters, myself, and other members of the public boarding a flight to Mekele were prevented from travelling by National Intelligence and Security Service. Phones and laptops confiscated, social media accounts scrutinised,” he said on Twitter.
“My passport, press card and Ethiopian resident's ID were also confiscated and no information provided on how to retrieve any of it.”
Last week, the Ethiopian Broadcast Authority, the country’s media regulator, warned some foreign journalists against covering the elections, “at the request of the Office of the Prime Minister.” Their press accreditation could be withdrawn, they were told when they were contacted.
Tigray, once a formidable member of the ruling coalition known as the Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF) has fallen out with Dr Abiy after he merged the member parties of EPRDF into a single movement known as Prosperity Party.
The Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF) which runs the Tigray region refused to collapse and join the Prosperity Party.
The foreign journalists’ lobby said Ethiopian authorities were acting beyond the law.
“There is no formal prohibition on covering the election, and Ethiopian law as far as we are aware, does not prevent it,” FCA said.
“Covering this election does not equate to an endorsement.”
The Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ), a US non-profit watchdog for press freedom, said the harassment of journalists on Monday added to Ethiopia’s continual detention a group of eight others who have been in jail for two months without charge.
“CPJ is concerned at this latest sign that Ethiopia has not broken with old patterns of repression.
“[CPJ] calls on authorities to immediately return all confiscated materials; to cease intimidation of journalists; and to guarantee that the media can cover the Tigray elections safely and independently,” the group said on Monday.