The Economist’s correspondent was expelled after a shadowy online campaign against him
Jun 24th 2022
By Tom Gardner
Last July I travelled to Amhara hoping to interview soldiers wounded in Ethiopia’s civil war with Tigrayan rebels. I was accompanied by a young Ethiopian journalist, who was also translating for me. A group of federal police officers stopped us outside a hospital and threw us in the back of an open-top jeep. While the vehicle wound its way towards a police station, four or five officers stood over us as we knelt or sat on our haunches. Bystanders jeered from both sides of the street. The man driving the car behind us stared at me, then made a gesture of slitting his throat. When the police started beating us, my Ethiopian colleague got the worst of it: his mouth filled with blood from the blows. I was hit in the head at least twice with a rifle butt. I made a pleading motion for the officers to stop; they laughed. That was a turning point for me. In the grips of civil war, an already brutal authoritarian regime was taking a darker turn. Anyone could become the enemy. Including me.
I did not expect to become a war correspondent. Like many people, my early associations with Ethiopia were news stories about famine. I got a more nuanced view when I studied African politics as a Masters student. In the few years before I became a correspondent for The Economist in Ethiopia in 2016, the country seemed to be in the midst of a peaceful, epochal transformation. I was beguiled by its deep sense of history – the national myth stretches back 3,000 years – by its beauty and by the energy of its capital. The state remained rigid and authoritarian; protests against it were gathering momentum. But, from afar, Ethiopia still seemed to be a land full of ambition and possibility.In an already brutal authoritarian regime, anyone could become the enemy. Including me
At first I wrote about urbanisation and infrastructure – railways, new housing projects, industrial parks and mega-dams that had been supercharged by Chinese investment and a Chinese model of state-led growth. Many welcomed the ascension of Abiy Ahmed as prime minister in 2018 and the advent of “Abiymania”. Pop songs with titles like “He Awakens Us” lauded his rise; people wore t-shirts bearing his image; a book comparing Abiy to Moses became a bestseller. Abiy offered a glimmer of hope for an opening of political and press freedom, too; he was awarded the Nobel peace prize in 2019 for negotiating a peace deal with neighbouring Eritrea. Stepping aboard the first commercial flight between the two countries in 20 years, watching tearful families reunite, I felt like a witness to history.
Yet there were darker cross-currents. The brief unity brought by Abiy belied a more contested, painful reality. Decades of dictatorship and the long-simmering border conflict with Eritrea had obscured fractious rivalries within Ethiopia, particularly between the country’s three most powerful ethnic groups, the Oromo people, the Amharas and the Tigrayans, the smallest of the three, who comprised just 6% of the population but until recently held outsized power. Those fissures started to widen.
The Eritrean regime and Abiy shared a common adversary in the Tigrayan People’s Liberation Front (tplf), which started as a band of guerrillas in 1975, toppled Ethiopia’s military dictatorship in 1991, then dominated the regime that ran the country for more than a quarter-century. Abiy ousted the tplf amid public protests against the party’s imperious reign, and repeatedly blamed it for Ethiopia’s woes. But after Abiy made peace with Eritrea, tplf leaders feared that Eritrea’s and Ethiopia’s armies would combine forces to crush Tigray, the tplf’s homeland in the north.
When I visited Tigray in late October 2020, mobile communications were shut down for four hours amid rising tensions, a precursor of a much longer blackout to come for the region. Days later war broke out, after Tigrayan forces attacked a federal army barracks. War fever quickly took hold in Addis Ababa, with blood drives and rallies in support of government troops. Tigrayan militiamen committed a massacre of Amharas in a border town just inside Tigray. (Tigrayan civilians were killed or chased from their homes in tit-for-tat attacks.) Videos emerged of piles of corpses; bodies were carried through the streets as their relatives wailed. Abiy’s regime seized on these images, pointing to them as a retrospective justification for the conflict. The propaganda battle was on.
Suddenly I was covering a war. To some partisans in Abiy’s government, I was fulfilling a secret purpose: on social media, members of the Ethiopian diaspora labelled me an agent of the cia (later I would also be called an agent of mi6). Along with other journalists, I was accused of siding with the tplf. At first, I laughed off such conspiratorial accusations. At the time there was little sign that the government would take such talk seriously. Independent Ethiopian journalists, however, were already under pressure. Always constrained in their reporting, after the war began some were detained for daring to contradict the official government line. A number were physically assaulted.I was labelled an agent of the CIA, then of MI6
Soon the regime escalated its attacks against me and other foreign journalists, human-rights workers and employees of the United Nations and other international institutions. In December 2020, a local magazine ran a cover story which accused me, along with a preposterously long list of foreign and local journalists, of being part of a grand British conspiracy to overthrow Abiy’s government.
That an established journalist could spread such lies, and in a publication that many thought was respectable, marked a disturbing shift. Government officials seemed to approve of the story. One even recommended it to another member of the foreign press corps.
Pro-government activists and trolls were making similar attacks against me and others online. On Facebook a post began circulating: a collection of mug shots of foreign and Ethiopian journalists and academics – my photo among them – presented as though we were criminals and supported the tplf. The post popped up whenever a story appeared in the Western press that cast Abiy’s regime in a negative light. That happened often, as government troops blockaded the region; human-rights groups accused the forces of ethnic cleansing and crimes against humanity, including mass murder, forced hunger and rape. I reported on these atrocities, as did other journalists, and tweeted about them. A Facebook post appeared with images of 12 foreign correspondents, including me: “Please follow these people on Twitter and expose their lies”, the post said, calling us “tplf sympathisers”.
Twitter and Facebook have served different functions during the war. Twitter has been a forum for international, English-language discourse, where members of the diaspora and people inside Ethiopia waged a propaganda war that was, at least in part, intended for a foreign audience. On Facebook, Ethiopians increasingly spread hate speech and disinformation in local languages that could sometimes incite real-world violence.
Abiy himself poured fuel on the fire of the propaganda war. In April 2021 he urged Ethiopians not to “bow” to Western media “campaigns”. In August, he called for a mass social-media campaign to counter “lies” in the Western media. That same month, state media accused me, along with journalists from the bbc, cnn and New York Times, of working for the tplf. The state was now openly encouraging hostility against Western media as well as the human-rights groups and international institutions that were monitoring the regime’s war crimes.
Tigrayans and other Ethiopians suffered the most. By August 2021 foreign media and Amnesty International had documented the systematic rape and sexual enslavement of Tigrayan women by Eritrean and Ethiopian soldiers. (Tigrayan forces were also found to have committed mass rapes against women in the Amhara and Afar regions.) On social media, government officials and their supporters engaged in a cruel campaign to cast doubt on Tigrayan accusers. They argued that victims’ testimonials were false or exaggerated, that rape was endemic in Tigray and that many such assaults had actually been committed by Tigrayan criminals who had been released from prison. They also smeared Tigrayan refugees in Sudan as perpetrators of a massacre, to cast suspicion on Tigrayans’ own claims of war crimes. Regime apologists downplayed horrific acts and denounced as lies even some documented incidents, such as a video of security forces burning a man alive. Ethiopia seemed to be tearing itself apart, tweet by tweet, Facebook post by Facebook post.Ethiopia seemed to be tearing itself apart, tweet by tweet
Attacks were gathering against foreign interests of any kind. A campaign under the hashtag #NoMore – that is, “no more” Western intervention, colonialism and lies – started trending on Twitter and Facebook in late 2021. The social-media posts showing my face seemed increasingly ubiquitous. Previously I had felt safe in Addis Ababa. Now I started to worry about being recognised in public and subjected to abuse, or that I might return home one day to discover my landlord had changed the locks.
Some of this was paranoia. During this time thousands of Ethiopians, usually ethnic Tigrayans, were rounded up and thrown into internment camps. Even when I was roughed up in Amhara, my Ethiopian colleague suffered the brunt of the abuse. Foreigners were sheltered by comparison. But I felt a creeping sense of the nastiness online bleeding into my real life. In mid-2021 billboards had been put up in parts of Addis Ababa calling for “white demons” to leave the country. They were the handiwork of a fire-and-brimstone preacher advertising his YouTube channel. It seemed telling, though, that the government let them stay up.
I was ever more conscious of my status as an outsider – distrusted, unwelcome. I was on a trip with friends in the eastern town of Harar when, one night, the owner of a bar told me that because I was British I must be a journalist – and because I was a British journalist, I must be in the pay of the tplf. Rattled, I slipped out into the night. When the regime declared a state of emergency late last year, police began conducting house raids and arrests throughout the capital. I slept uneasily for weeks, expecting a loud knock at the door.
In March this year the government agreed a truce with the tplf. The situation was calmer and relations between Abiy’s regime and the West were improving. I continued to look into the machinations behind the war. I was interested in how research conducted in Ethiopia by a Western scholar seemed to be enabling the government to whitewash war crimes, which included the use of hunger as a weapon against Tigray. A polite email I sent on May 1st to a Western think-tank sparked yet another online campaign, this time against me personally, lasting two weeks. My email to the think-tank was made public on Twitter, where pro-government figures (yet again) spread wild accusations that I was operating on behalf of the tplf. One thing had changed: there were also calls for my journalist accreditation to be revoked.
Some social-media posts came from the Ethiopian diaspora, others from Western apologists for Abiy. State media republished claims of my “despicable behaviour”, along with the suggestion that I be “given the boot home and fired”. On May 13th, the government’s media authority summoned me to its office and handed me a letter: my press accreditation had been revoked. The next day an immigration official called to tell me I had 48 hours to leave the country. Just like that, my life in Ethiopia was over.
In the short time since I left in May, many more Ethiopian journalists and activists have been detained. One of those arrested was the author of the magazine story that attacked me and other journalists early in the war. Even he had not kept faithfully enough to the government line. (His family says he was beaten in custody.) He joins scores of other writers, commentators and photographers who have been jailed since 2020. Last year two journalists were murdered. Others have been hounded out of the country. Several other foreign journalists have been banished or barred from reporting. Ethiopia’s own human-rights commissioner has called the situation a “new low” for the country.I started to worry about being recognised in public or that I might return home one day to discover my landlord had changed the locks
Friends in Addis Ababa sent me a video posted just days after I was expelled. An Ethiopian commentator, Seyoum Teshome, was celebrating my departure on a YouTube talk show. A fiery, Tucker Carlson-like figure, he wrote the word “journalists” in sneering inverted commas in tweets. Now he was making explicit his charge that I and others worked for the tplf. “Tom Gardner has been expelled, hasn’t he? Why?” he said, speaking Amharic. “I’ve proved 30 or 40 times that he is a criminal. Before he was expelled, I came here and told you, ‘Look at him’, didn’t I?” He said he “proved 1,000 times” that I was part of the tplf.
This televised tirade, since viewed on YouTube more than 100,000 times, was the coda to the long digital campaign against me. Modern digital warfare, designed to sow confusion, is now being waged everywhere from Ukraine and Syria to China and beyond. The experience was a painful reminder to me that China was a model not just for Ethiopia’s state-directed economic development. The government had also taken more disturbing lessons from China and other authoritarian states. It was learning how to become a modern, digital autocracy.■A
Tom Gardner is a correspondent for The Economist
photographs eduardo soteras jalil