Mulatu Alemayehu (PhD) is an assistant professor of journalism and communication at Addis Ababa University (AAU). He received his PhD from the University of Oslo, Norway, in 2017.
Mulatu stresses the need to free the media and provide support for improved practice. Journalism in the country faces obstacles hindering its growth.
The Reporter’s Abraham Tekle sat down with Mulatu to discuss various topics related to the media industry in Ethiopia, including the overall landscape, story sensationalism, the influence of social media, and how it has transformed the country’s media discourse into another dimension. EXCERPTS:
The Reporter: Your doctoral thesis focuses on peace journalism and conflict-sensitive reporting and their application in the Ethiopian media by taking internal conflicts in the country as your case studies. So, how would you describe the current state of Ethiopia’s media landscape? What are some of the major challenges facing journalists and media organizations in the country?
Mulatu Alemayehu (PhD): In my opinion, it is best to analyze the Ethiopian media landscape from different perspectives. When exploring the media system, it’s crucial to consider media practice, professionalism within the sector, the operations of media associations, the implementation of media plurality and diversity, and advancements in media education.
The industry can be divided into three main categories since Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed (PhD) came to power. His leadership has brought opportunities, changes, and challenges to the media industry in the country. There has been an increase in freedom of expression and improvements in media practices since the political reform of 2018.
After the reform, the restrictive media law was revoked by the government. Certain laws, such as the freedom of expression and media law, broadcasting service law, and the anti-terrorism laws, were up for revision and discussion. This paved the way for new laws to be enacted, which improved the media sector.
The second most important factor was introducing pluralism and diversity in the media. By media diversity, we mean the variety, volume, and content of the industry’s media outlets.
Currently, there are 117 electronic media outlets (TV and radio) and over 33 operational community radios.
Although the number of media outlets is decreasing over time, there are still 30 private and government-run newspapers and magazines in circulation. With these figures, we can conclude that the Ethiopian media landscape has been expanding over the past few years.
It’s interesting to see how many languages are used in media across the nation. People can receive content in their own language, but unfortunately, most media outlets don’t provide different perspectives. This can limit the diversity of sources available. It is important to seek out a variety of viewpoints to get a more complete understanding.
The journalism industry comprises 26 associations, but they lack legitimacy and normal connections with the government. These associations fail to safeguard the profession against the system’s abusive authority, highlighting the absence of freedom of expression and media in the country. Professionalism is a concern, with many schools prioritizing theory over practice. Media organizations are often dissatisfied with market practitioners.
How about the media organizations? Are they free from such challenges?
The media landscape in Ethiopia has become increasingly polarized, with media ownership closely tied to political, economic, and ideological influences. The media in Ethiopia is more divided than ever before, with most outlets presenting only two perspectives: those in support of the government or opposition parties.
Unfortunately, today’s polarization has had a negative impact on the quality of journalism in the country. Recent studies have shown that many media outlets are exclusively affiliated with specific ethnic groups, resulting in a prevalence of hate speech and incendiary language across various platforms.
Audience influence is also critical in journalism. Most media organizations shape their stories based on audiences’ interests, which can have a significant negative impact. The political climate further fuels this practice, as politics and the media are closely linked.
How has the Ethiopian government’s approach to media regulation and censorship evolved over the past decade?
Answer: Media laws have evolved. The government’s willingness to discuss and reform the laws is commendable. The new media law is progressive and ensures freedom of speech. Unfortunately, the regulating body has shown some flaws in enforcing the law, which reflects the government’s reluctance and lack of dedication to implementing it. Consequently, journalists feel the need to practice self-censorship. These circumstances have led to the use of violent means such as assassination and mass arrests to suppress journalism.
Does this practice impact the ability of journalists not to report sensitive issues? How would you assess the level of press freedom in Ethiopia today?
Nowadays, journalists do not report on controversial issues for fear of the consequences. They mostly reframe the narrative to demonstrate their allegiance to the state. However, it has become customary for social media platforms to address these sensitive issues in a manner that favors their political interests.
Currently, it is extremely difficult to obtain impartial and unbiased information that is not influenced by an external force.
When discussing the media landscape of a country, we should also investigate the extent to which free speech is exercised. The Ethiopian Constitution guarantees freedom of expression in Article 19. People can impart, hold, and receive any kind of information without any limitations. However, its implementation is problematic.
The nation’s freedom of speech is threatened. Due to a lack of understanding of the right and its legal applications, society does not usually recognize the right to free expression as a fundamental or legal entitlement. Others prefer to remain silent out of fear of appearing inappropriate.
What role have social media platforms played in shaping the media landscape in Ethiopia? How do journalists and media organizations balance reporting on sensitive issues with threats of legal action or violence?
Social media currently dominates Ethiopian media. It has become a component of the agenda and serves as the main source of information. In addition, it undertakes the leadership role of freely discussing controversial issues.
We cannot deny the influence and significance of social media in the current political affairs of the nation. It is now as prominent as the mainstream media in addressing important issues. Regarding professionalism from an ethical standpoint, the industry is frequently characterized as unprofessional and a threat to national stability.
In terms of reporting on sensitive issues, there is a significant amount of manipulation within the media. This manipulation stems from both internal and external factors, including media owners, government officials, and the organizational system. Even the journalists themselves can be part of the problem.
The solution lies in acting professionally and responsibly.
It can be challenging to get media professionals to act this way. To achieve unbiased and balanced reporting, they must be objective and accurate in their reporting. By remaining committed to their profession, they can minimize challenges directed from different directions.
How can a media organization balance their reporting on issues with the risks associated with sensationalism?
Nowadays, stories are often sensationalized because they are not easily accessible to the public immediately after their release. If stories were available in a timely and balanced manner, the likelihood of sensationalizing them would decrease.
It has become increasingly difficult to obtain information directly from government organizations. Consequently, media institutions gather information from various sources and sometimes sensationalize it in their reporting. The main challenges faced by the sector are making stories accessible and ensuring a fair distribution of information.
When it comes to journalism, responsibility and a reflection of human character are key. Understanding the society in which one operates is essential to being a humane journalist. After all, journalists are active members of society and cannot be detached from it.
Our current societal landscape is often politically, religiously, and ethnically divided, but this should not impact the quality or integrity of journalistic practice. Instead, journalists should prioritize serving their profession and avoiding sensationalism in their reporting.
In light of the media reform initiatives that followed the change in Ethiopian leadership in 2018, do you believe the reforms have lived up to their promises to promote democratic values?
I do not believe so. The promises made were short-lived and unfulfilled, leading many to disappointment.
Nowadays, people are hesitant to express their ideas freely due to the potential negative consequences, even without justifiable reasons, out of fear. Although the Ethiopian government made promises and took steps towards fulfilling them during the transitional period, media freedom has only deteriorated since then.
It is evident that no reform has brought any improvements to the sector.
How have the recent political developments in Ethiopia, such as the change in government leadership and the conflict in Tigray, affected the media landscape and freedom of expression in the country?
During the two-year-long war in the Tigray region, the media landscape was significantly impacted, leading to a decrease in freedom of expression within the country. This can be seen in the biased and sensationalized reports coming from both sides of the conflict, which were tailored to meet the interests of their respective political affiliations.
This type of journalistic practice was prevalent throughout the war, causing long-lasting damage to the sector and exacerbating existing issues.
Journalists often viewed themselves as active participants in the war, reporting from both on and off the front lines. But some took advantage of their position to manipulate their reporting for the benefit of certain groups. This can be seen in their biased coverage.
The profession suffered greatly during the unrestrained two-year period of the war, with a significant decline in professionalism, media trust, and overall integrity.
How prevalent was sensationalism in the Ethiopian media during the war? What impact does this have on public discourse and the quality of journalism in the country?
During the war, both media organizations and journalists indulged in sensationalism and saw themselves as orchestrators of the conflict. This had a detrimental effect on the quality of journalistic practice.
Instead of promoting positive discourse, the media changed the public discourse, which can be seen in the mistrust that has developed among people living in war-affected regions. The negative effects of the media have left many traumatized.
The media failed to effectively facilitate discussions about the values and struggles of certain communities, instead contributing to their division. As a result, their discourse has had significant impacts on both the social and political landscapes of these regions. The past two years have witnessed a shift in the media’s approach, with a greater failure to emphasize promoting peace and stability.
Has the media discourse changed after the Pretoria peace accord? Justice is expected to bring long-lasting solutions to war affected areas. What is your perspective on these matters in terms of the media’s role?
Despite the peace accord, I expected the media to bring a different discourse, but it seems that little has changed.
From my observations of the political situation in war-affected areas, I don’t believe the agreement was well-founded. While the Tigray region suffered the most damage, the Amhara and Afar regions were also greatly affected. Alas, the agreement only involved the federal government and the Tigray regional state, leaving out the other two regions. This raises important questions about the interests of those affected by the war. Are we reporting stories that encourage those affected communities to start their lives in a more harmonious manner? I believe this is a primary question that needs strong attention.
To my knowledge, there hasn’t been enough reporting or commitment from the media or government to connect with those impacted by the conflict.
When discussing justice, there is a system in place that designates individuals as either victims or offenders of a crime. However, the media’s role in this process is different.
The media should serve as a platform to bring all communities together to express their perspectives, thoughts, and principles for the betterment of the affected society. To ensure justice and other forms of solutions for the good of society, excessive media involvement that could aggravate the already tense situations in the war-affected areas must be limited.
Most importantly, it is crucial that we address these issues to ensure a better future for all involved in one way or another.
What role do social media and citizen journalism play in shaping perceptions of Ethiopia’s media landscape, and how do the platforms intersect with issues of sensationalism?
Currently, there is a growing lack of trust in the public media, including mainstream media, due to their reliance on propaganda to address various issues. This has led to increased frustration and skepticism among the public, who are hesitant to rely on any information provided by traditional media sources.
Consequently, more people are turning to social media platforms for information. This has resulted in social media having a greater influence on the nation’s general media landscape. One of the major prospects of such a practice is that the platform is more viable for intersecting issues related to sensationalism.
Posting sensationalized stories on social media can often be done due to two factors: a lack of extracting enough information from the governmental sectors and a desire to gain as many followers as possible. To achieve these goals, social media practitioners may anticipate the outcome of a certain issue and sensationalize their reporting in a manner that satisfies the interests of their followers, the media owners, and their financial gain.
However, accessibility to information can help avert sensationalism when reporting.
How have these instances impacted public trust in journalism and media organizations? How can they work to promote dialogue and constructive debate around important issues rather than simply reporting on them?
In today’s world, anyone can act as a journalist. However, this trend has significant implications for the journalism profession as a whole. The same level of accuracy and timeliness is expected from mainstream media reports. To establish professionalism and gain the trust of the public, media organizations must adhere to three key responsibilities: presenting factual information, ensuring the reliability of sources, and maintaining balance in their reporting. By fulfilling these obligations, media outlets can earn public trust.
Moreover, the key purpose of journalism is to provide accurate and reliable information to the public. In doing so, journalists must remain objective, independent, and responsible in their reporting.
There are certain situations where journalists are expected to go beyond their basic duties. During times of social unrest and conflict, it is important for journalists to become advocates and activists who can represent the affected individuals and help find a resolution to the cause. Their responsibility comes to light when they facilitate dialogue and report on the progress and outcome of the process.
In your view, what prospects exist for the future of journalism and media in Ethiopia given the challenges they currently face?
I have always had a pessimistic outlook on the state of journalism in our country, and unfortunately, it has not changed as I expected. Nowadays, the media industry is facing numerous obstacles from various sources, including political interference, security risks for journalists, and influence from media owners.
Audiences have also played a role in shaping the sector in a more polarized direction. What’s more troubling is that journalism education has not been effective in helping the media navigate these challenges. Given the multitude of obstacles, it’s difficult for me to remain optimistic about the future prospects for the country’s media.