The World

The Information Age Retreats From the Battlefield

Ethiopia refines the art of the 21st-century war zone blackout.

Two men sit on the crowd cleaning their rifles next to a pile of rubble.
Members of the Afar special forces clean their weapons next to a damaged house in the outskirts of the village of Bisober in the Tigray region of Ethiopia on Dec. 9. Eduardo Soteras/AFP via Getty Images

On Oct. 23, 1984, a BBC report on what correspondent Michael Buerk called a “biblical famine” taking place in northern Ethiopia became a watershed moment in the history of both journalism and global humanitarianism. The report’s graphic imagery of emaciated children starving to death in a squalid refugee camp, and Buerk’s outraged narration, were rebroadcast around the world, and galvanized a major response, particularly in the United Kingdom, where the Royal Air Force soon began delivering food aid, and where Bob Geldof’s Live Aid benefit concert would raise millions of pounds for famine relief the following year.

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The BBC report oversimplified a complex situation: The famine was partly the result of drought and poverty, as it suggested, but also of deliberate policies of the Ethiopian government that was then fighting a brutal counterinsurgency campaign against the Tigray People’s Liberation Front, or TPLF, rebels in the region. Much of the aid ended up lining the pockets of the rebels or the government, perpetuating the war at the root of the crisis. Still, it seemed to mark a new kind of international response to humanitarian crises around the globe, one driven by the influence of on-the-ground media coverage (the phrase “CNN effect” entered the international relations lexicon a few years later) as well as the increasing power of humanitarian nongovernmental organizations. The ever-more-connected world had reached a point where suffering that was once unseen and far-off could now be visible and immediate.

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Thirty-seven years later, the Ethiopian government is again at war with the TPLF, and it has again resulted in a refugee crisis and humanitarian disaster. But this time the lasting lesson is likely to be different: In an age not just of 24-hour cable news but ubiquitous social media, it’s still possible for a region in conflict to be cut off from the outside world, almost completely, for months at a time.

Last week, the U.N. Security Council met to discuss the ongoing crisis in Tigray, where the Ethiopian government launched a military offensive in November. Thousands have reportedly been killed, and many more have fled, many of them to neighboring Sudan. (The session ended without a joint statement thanks to Russia’s and China’s objections to interfering in Ethiopia’s internal affairs.) Secretary of State Antony Blinken has also called Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed to express U.S. concerns about the situation, but he has not publicly criticized the Ethiopian government, a major recipient of U.S. aid.

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The latest international attention on the crisis comes after reports from Amnesty International, the AP, and CNN detailed the killings of hundreds of civilians by troops from neighboring Eritrea in separate incidents last November.  The New York Times also reported in late February on an internal U.S. government report concluding that the Ethiopian government and allied militias are conducting a campaign of ethnic cleansing in Tigray.

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But these reports are coming months after the events in question took place. They are based largely on testimony and footage from survivors who have fled—or in some cases, phone calls with survivors—rather than on-the-ground investigation. The Amnesty report includes a link to a shaky video purportedly showing bodies being transported after a massacre in the town of Aksum. An information blackout has kept the news, and with it the global sense of crisis, remote. Even as the blackout may be starting to lift, much of what’s happening in Tigray still remains a mystery to the outside world.

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The current Tigray crisis started this past fall, but its roots stretch back to the 1980s crisis. After years of fighting, the TPLF—which supports self-determination for Tigray—succeeded in overthrowing dictator Mengistu Haile Mariam in 1991 and led Ethiopia as a whole for the next 27 years. The period of TPLF rule featured rapid economic growth but also harsh political repression and a devastating border war with Eritrea. It ended in 2018 when current Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed took power following a mass uprising.

After that, the TPLF retreated to its home region, where it consolidated power. Abiy earned the Nobel Peace Prize in 2019 for making peace with Eritrea and for lifting some authoritarian restrictions at home, but a wave of new ethnic conflicts has broken out since he came into office, as various groups have sought to preserve regional autonomy. In September, after an escalating feud with the national government, authorities in Tigray held regional elections—defying Abiy, who had postponed the country’s elections for at least nine months due to the coronavirus. On Nov. 4, Abiy ordered troops into Tigray after accusing the TPLF of attacking a military base in order to seize weapons.

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Some of the earliest reported atrocities in the conflict were allegedly committed by the TPLF, but government forces have also been accused of widespread human rights abuses, including the shelling of civilian areas. Troops from Eritrea, who entered the conflict in an alliance with the Ethiopian government against the Tigrayans, have been accused of many of the worst atrocities. By the end of November, government forces had seized the region’s major towns, but TPLF fighters have fled into rural areas and low-level fighting continues, and may soon increase as more young men in Tigray take up arms.

In late November, Abiy claimed that no civilians at all had been killed by federal forces. That is certainly not true, but exactly what’s happening on the ground in Tigray is hard to verify, by design. Internet and phone service in Tigray were shut down just hours after the military operation began in November. Phone service has since been restored in some areas but is still sporadic. Journalists have mostly not been allowed in. Reports on events in Tigray over the past few months have often included disclaimers noting that the outlet is “unable to verify statements made by either side since phone and internet connections to Tigray are down and access to the area is strictly controlled.”

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The level of access has gotten slightly better since early this year but not by much. In early December, the U.N. reached an agreement with the Ethiopian government for humanitarian NGOs to have “unimpeded, sustained and secure access” to the region, but officials say the government continued to block that access. A map published by the U.N. in late February showed that access was still being partially or totally hindered everywhere in the region by insecurity or bureaucratic roadblocks outside the regional capital, Mekelle. While domestic and church-affiliated aid groups have had some access, international NGOs and human rights groups are barely on the ground at all.

“Some 80 percent of Tigray’s population is unreachable … it’s a complete blackout,” said the EU’s top diplomat, Josep Borrell, at the end of February. Meanwhile, journalists have been denied access to Tigray or discouraged from reporting on the conflict through violence and intimidation. In 2019, Abiy’s Nobel Prize citation praised him for “discontinuing media censorship,” but the country has also recently become one of the world’s top jailers of journalists. At least six journalists were arrested just in the first week of fighting. On Jan. 19, Dawit Kebede Araya, a reporter with Tigray TV in Mekelle, was shot dead by unidentified attackers. Dawit had recently been detained by security forces, and colleagues have told the international media that they believe those forces were responsible for his death. In February, freelance journalist Lucy Kassa wrote for the L.A. Times about being threatened by unidentified men to stop her reporting on Tigray  as they ransacked her house in Addis Ababa. Kassa had just filed a story detailing a gang rape by Eritrean forces in Tigray.

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On Feb. 24, the government announced it was allowing some members of the international press to report on Tigray but also warned it would take action against anyone writing untrue information. Just a week later, four media workers—two translators working for Agence France-Presse and the Financial Times, a local fixer, and a local journalist working with the BBC’s Tigray service—were arrested in Mekelle. They have since been released.

On March 3, the government issued a statement that it had granted “full access for international and local media to travel to and report from the Tigray region,” but the message it is sending is pretty clear.

“The claim and the promise to open up rings very hollow at this point,” says Muthoki Mumo, the Nairobi-based sub-Saharan Africa representative for the Committee to Protect Journalists.

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“Anyone in Mekelle who gets a request to act as a fixer or translator is going to think twice about it now.” She says the arrests of the journalists “seem like an attempt to at least frustrate the reporting of those on the ground, or at the most to silence information that might not fit within the narrative the government wants out there.”

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There have been occasional reports from international journalists inside Tigray itself. Belgian broadcaster VRT visited in late December. Agence France-Presse reporter Robbie Corey-Boulet filed last week from the Tigrayan town of Dengolat, the site of one of the conflict’s worst massacres. According to his report, as his reporting team entered the village, “dozens of men and women rushed out, some clutching framed photographs of their dead relatives,” eager to share the story of what had happened. It’s also getting easier to reach people in Tigray by phone.

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Still, five months after this conflict began, this region that is larger than Denmark is remarkably cut off from the outside world. While we’re gradually getting a fuller picture of what’s been happening in Tigray, the lack of firsthand documentation makes it difficult to push back against the government’s claims that reports of atrocities are exaggerations or Tigrayan propaganda.

Mumo says Tigray is an extreme example of a phenomenon she’s been seeing more of in the region she covers. She notes that it was near impossible for outside journalists to get accreditation during last October’s disputed election in Tanzania and points to the information blackout during Uganda’s recent postelection unrest. “This question of access is getting more and more relevant,” she says. “You almost have to ask yourself: Are these governments learning from each other?”

Looking farther afield, you could also point to the Chinese government’s limits on media access to Xinjiang, where it has been accused of perpetrating a genocide, and the relative dearth of on-the-ground reporting over the past decade of war in Syria as examples of the same phenomenon. Part of this story may be cutbacks in foreign reporting in the Western media: There are simply fewer correspondents on the ground with the backing of major international institutions demanding access to places like Tigray. But governments are also clearly getting smarter.

Nearly four decades ago, the response to a crisis in Tigray seemed to point to an emerging world in which humanitarian crises would take place in full view of the whole world. We would never be able to say, as generations did in response to previous atrocities, that we didn’t know what was happening. The ubiquity of smartphones and social media was supposed to make such atrocities harder to hide.

But today, thanks to increasingly sophisticated control of telecommunications networks, brute force, and a fair amount of global indifference, it’s still very possible for governments to keep these situations under wraps.

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