NAIROBI, Kenya — Ethiopia on Thursday expelled an Irish journalist working for The New York Times, dealing a new blow to press freedom in a country as the government fights a grinding war in the northern region of Tigray.
The expulsion of the reporter, Simon Marks, comes one month before much-delayed Parliamentary elections in Ethiopia that are expected to cement the authority of the country’s embattled prime minister, Abiy Ahmed, who won the Nobel Peace Prize in 2019.
Mr. Marks had reported extensively on the war in Tigray, where there are widespread accounts that the Ethiopian military and its Eritrean and militia allies are committing atrocities, including massacres and sexual assault.
On Thursday, Ethiopian officials summoned Mr. Marks to a meeting in the capital, Addis Ababa. His press credentials had already been canceled since March, one day after he returned from an approved reporting trip in Tigray. The officials detained him and drove him to the city airport, where he was held for eight hours before being deported on a flight that left around 12:30 a.m. local time on Friday.
The officials did not specify why they were deporting the reporter, whose residence permit was valid until October, saying only that it was a “government decision.” Billene Seyoum, a spokeswoman for Mr. Abiy, referred questions to the country’s immigration authorities.
Press freedom groups said the expulsion was a further erosion of freedom of expression following a campaign of arrests and intimidation, mostly directed at Ethiopian reporters, since the Tigray war erupted in November.
“It is alarming that the government of Ethiopia treated the journalist, Simon Marks, like a criminal, expelling him from the country without even letting him go home to get a change of clothing or his passport,” said Michael Slackman, The Times’s assistant managing editor for international.
“Journalists have become targets of authoritarian leaders around the world who want to operate in the shadows and escape accountability for their actions,” Mr. Slackman added. “With the credibility of an upcoming national election at stake, we call on the leaders of Ethiopia to reverse its efforts to muzzle an independent press.”
In recent days, some of Mr. Abiy’s most prominent supporters have called for demonstrations to push back against criticism of Ethiopia’s handling of the war in Tigray, and against what they portray as a campaign of concerted foreign meddling.
At a news conference, Andargachew Tsege, a businessman and adviser to Mr. Abiy, urged Ethiopians to gather outside foreign embassies in Addis Ababa on Friday, especially the United States’. “We should not hesitate to burn the U.S. flag in front of their embassy,” he said. “We need to go out in millions.”
Responding to that call, the United States Embassy said it would close its consular offices in Ethiopia on Friday, and it advised American citizens to “stay away from the embassy.”
The war in Tigray erupted on Nov. 4, when Mr. Abiy launched a military campaign against the Tigray People’s Liberation Front, the regional ruling party that had defied his authority and, he said, attacked a federal military base.
But Mr. Abiy’s promises of a swift, bloodless campaign were quickly frustrated, and the war has spawned a host of reports of horrific battlefield abuses that have left Mr. Abiy’s global reputation as a peacemaker in tatters.
The most serious accusations have been leveled against the government’s two major allies in Tigray, ethnic Amhara militias and troops from Eritrea. In March, under intense international pressure, Mr. Abiy promised that the Eritreans would be sent home.
But in a statement on Saturday, Secretary of State Antony J. Blinken said there was no sign that the Eritreans had left. Instead, diplomats say, some Eritrean soldiers have donned Ethiopian uniforms and continued to commit abuses.
A ballooning humanitarian crisis has compounded international alarm. Aid workers say 5.2 million people urgently need relief aid in Tigray. On Monday, an American-run famine warning system cautioned that about half the region had entered Phase 4 — one step short of a full-blown famine.
Aid workers say the situation is dire because widespread fighting prevented farmers from planting crops this spring. Without large-scale humanitarian aid, they warn, some parts of Tigray will be plunged into famine by September.
But government restrictions have prevented aid workers from reaching many hard-hit parts of Tigray, and insecurity is rife. Seven aid officials have been killed in Tigray since November.
In a statement on Thursday, the United States embassy announced that an employee of a local group working with USAID had been killed by Ethiopian and Eritrean soldiers on April 28 in Kola Tembien, in central Tigray.
According to witnesses, the embassy said, “He clearly identified himself as a humanitarian worker and pleaded for his life before he was killed by military actors.”
Journalists have also come under attack. At least 10 Ethiopian reporters have been detained since November, and several were employed by international news outlets including the BBC, Reuters and the Los Angeles Times, according to media freedom groups. At least one Ethiopian reporter has fled the country.
Mr. Marks has been based in Ethiopia since 2019, reporting for The New York Times and other outlets. On May 7, Ethiopian officials confirmed that his accreditation had been canceled, citing “fake news,” and said they would not consider reinstating it until October.
Mr. Marks said that officials told him privately that The Times’s coverage of Ethiopia had “caused huge diplomatic pressure” and that the decision to cancel his press credentials had come from senior government officials.
Ethiopia had a long history of restrictions on the news media under the government dominated by the Tigray People’s Liberation Front that led the country from 1991 to 2018. When Mr. Abiy came to power, he won praise for releasing political prisoners and allowing the press to operate more freely.
The expulsion of Mr. Marks, combined with the measures targeting Ethiopian reporters, suggests that the country is “going backward to its bad old habits,” said Arnaud Froger, head of the Africa desk at Reporters Without Borders.
“The freedoms that foreign outlets have enjoyed since Mr. Abiy came to power are coming to an end,” he said. “When they target a foreign journalist, especially for a major publication, it’s a very chilling message for local journalists, too. It means that anyone can be targeted.”