Graduating in 1989 from Addis Ababa University with a Bachelor’s degree in philosophy, Teshager Shiferaw (PhD) has been working for various private and government-owned media outlets. Having worked in the field of journalism for about 13 years and having obtained a master’s degree in the field, he joined Addis Ababa University in 2008 where he also chaired the Print and Web Journalism Department.
Admired by his students for both his teaching and researches, he keenly follows the state of journalism in Ethiopia. The Reporter’s Samuel Bogale recently sat down with Teshager to discuss issues related to press freedom in the country’s tortured media landscape. Excerpts:
The Reporter: Press freedom in Ethiopia has seen many ups and downs. Do you think that has anything to do with the economic and political status of the country? Would it still be a problem had Ethiopia been a developed nation?
Teshager Shiferaw (PhD): It is partly related to the stage of development but that cannot be an excuse for the situation the Press is under. There are some countries with comparable economic development level as Ethiopia but are in a better media situation.
The economic development alone is not a factor that explains the press situation in Ethiopia. There are specific conditions that can explain the reasons such as socio economic and political culture. It is a highly diversified society with specific political and historical background and different forms of contending ideologies. All these contribute to the progress or stunting press in Ethiopia.
The media follows the political patterns of a nation and in most cases the people in power try to exploit the potential the media has in their favor.
How do you assess the level of professionalism among journalists? Don’t you think this has an impact on the development of media in general?
The journalists don’t have technical problems and that doesn’t seem to be the problem as most can write or produce perfect stories. The problem is with journalists’ knowledge and understanding about the sensitivity of issues and the country’s diversity in terms of culture and beliefs.
Knowing the right questions, one can ask politicians or others these and produce good stories.
In journalism what is regarded as good in society might not be the same to others. Receiving and understanding information by a society in different ways could result in disagreements, so journalists should also be considerate of this. It should be with utmost care that journalists need to do their work so that different groups don’t use that as a tool to promote their own political agenda.
Lack of skills, contextual knowledge and background information are some of the issues raised, especially with junior journalists. As a teacher in the field, do you see that problem?
There are of course some technical issues, but I don’t see that as a problem for what the media is under now. Many journalists are young and they are less experienced, but through smart coaching by editors, they could reach a higher level of professionalism.
Lack of skills and contextual knowledge on matters might have to do with a weak academic background. A sound grounding in reading and writing from early on as well as knowledge of the political, social and economic history would go a long way in addressing current shortcomings. A journalist indeed should know the background of political and economic situations of a country, patterns of contradictions, ideological problems of issues, and more.
But these can be learned through time. The stories we see published that are categorized as destructive and unsubstantiated are actually produced by highly trained and experienced professionals, because they are using the media for political gains, not as an instrument to inform and promote the society’s interest. Issues are also being trivialized.
The lack of neutrality among media outlets and favoritism shown by the audience are among the challenges the profession is faced with. How do you see that challenge?
In the Ethiopian case, most of the media are owned either by the government or some opposition political groups, and they promote their own political goals. This is the biggest problem with Ethiopia. Political parties run the media and the media can’t exercise impartiality. There are indeed genuinely private and commercial media outlets, but unfortunately they are now less influential.
A section of the audience tries to find group interests in media outlets that sometimes are constructive and neutral stories appear to be less attractive to them. This seems to be the biggest challenge to some private commercial media houses.
Sometimes private media houses can also be contested including the category the Ethiopian Media Authority gives them, as you can see, a few of them are owned by political parties and favor them.
How important is the existence and strength of institutions such as associations that can stand against the imprisonment or harassment of journalists? How would you rate the integrity of such institutions?
The existence of a strong association plays a robust role in making good space for journalists than the existence of press, radio and TV stations themselves. The strength of such groups would create a strong network and power to be heard by the people in the upper level and promote the interest of the profession. Weakness or unavailability of such groups might hamper the good service the media can provide to the public.
As in any profession such as electricians and others, it has occupational hazards in the form of detainment and harassment of journos. So the associations can play a vital role in the fight for freedom of press.
How do you see the recent reports of detention of journalists and the situation in general?
The improper detention of one or two journalists shouldn’t be regarded as affecting these one or two individuals only. When the government detains journalists for their journalistic activity, it detains the whole society.
Democratic societies cannot be imagined without a free press, so a fight to end that isn’t a fight for the imprisoned individual but the profession as a whole. Such things shouldn’t be taken lightly as a matter of an individual; rather it should be seen as disabling the media itself.
Many incidents like unlawful detention and mob harassments are happening on journalists in Ethiopia, what is your take on this as an expert on the profession?
The most important thing is to fight for the rule of law. Any journalist could be detained but the detention should be done in a manner that follows due process. To be questioned by the law in front of courts is actually the right and obligation of each individual, but it is totally unacceptable for the government to engage in extrajudicial activities.
This is really an ugly feature of the current situation in the country. The latest case isn’t the only one but simply the latest one. It doesn’t seem to be the last one as well. Professional associations, individual journalists, or media houses themselves should all fight against it.
Government officials and security forces seem to be ignorant about the issue of freedom of speech now. This is a really threatening development.
Much has been said about physical attacks and harassments. How do you see online harassment and pressure on journalists, which happens to be the theme for World Press Freedom Day this year?
The theme was actually not rendered well in Amharic when marking the occasion here in Ethiopia. We usually see journalists producing stories, and massive online attacks follow, threatening and intimidating journalists. Those at the receiving end of the message of published stories might be politicians, individuals, some interest groups or even the government as a whole. These bodies might be the enemies of press freedom that can easily manipulate the advantage of being online and harass journalists.
Why does the government show favoritism towards some media outlets while tightening its grip on others?
The problem is with media ownership. Those owned by the government serve the interest of the government and there is no reason for them to be detained of course. Also, the pattern of contents other media outlets produce matter, that if you challenge the status quo in your content, it would be taken seriously and you would be challenged yourself.
The challenge doesn’t come from the government only but individuals affiliated with the government. Enemies of the press are not only government bodies, there are also groups who might not be interested on the concept of free press, as the role of free press is to fight illegality, crime, human rights violation and so on.
A critical media outlet actually causes pain to the status quo, so those in power would respond in a negative way against journalists. It is a fact all over the world and it also happens in the same way in Ethiopia. Such challenges are regarded as professional hazards and it’s impossible to totally avoid them. So this is where associations would help in easing such challenges.
What is your take on the responsibilities of journalists themselves? How do you observe the media landscape Ethiopia is in with regards to journalistic problems?
The freedom of press isn’t actually free. Actions have consequences, the same way medical practice has. Journalists have to take into account the fact that their profession is very consequential. Whenever a journalist produces a story, they have to think twice about the society, the politics and more.
Sometimes, a news story shouldn’t be reported even though it is a true story based on cost/benefit analysis. If the news is a harmful one, journalists shouldn’t actually publish the news. Consideration of consequences on the society’s well-being is very important for journalists.
The lack of preparedness among journalists is one other concern. Sometimes they report on issues but don’t get prepared in a manner that they should. Questions from journalists shouldn’t come out of ignorance, and they should do some basic researches about the subject beforehand.
What is the limit to the freedom of speech?
Freedom isn’t totally free and freedom of speech isn’t without limits. The actions of journalists should not violate human rights or the rights of individuals. The stories published also shouldn’t generate a bad feeling on the audience like publishing gruesome pictures. One shouldn’t scare the audience but care for their feelings. It is intolerable to disturb the individual rights of audiences.
How about limits to tolerance by the government?
Journalists aren’t actually acting on the benevolence of the government. The only and best way is for the government to exercise its power according to the law. The government isn’t expected to be patient or show some goodwill, it just has to apply the rule of law. Let the journalists as well work according to the standards of the profession, and then the problem can be solved.
Freedom of speech is a measure of the democratic behavior of a government. It is the government itself that benefits from the freedom of speech, but only if it is democratic.
Such actions also might have influences on other journalists, especially on students. How do you see the potential it has in diminishing their hopes of becoming journalists?
That is exactly the message that harassing journalists is intended to send. The insecurity of journalists definitely discourages those aspiring to join the profession. It forces other journalists to focus on trivial issues instead of focusing on issues that really matter.
The purpose could be to shift the focus of journalists to entertainment or other trivial matters so that the government can take it as an advantage.