If someone said, a couple of years ago, that the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) is holding its annual Press Freedom Day celebration in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, it would perhaps pass as a joke or fake news among the global journalism fraternity. This, however, is not without a reason since Ethiopia is known for its track record of being one of the top jailers of journalists in the world and the worst when it comes to freedom of the Press. Now, the country has no journalist behind bars according to the Committee to Protect Journalists. And, it has improved 40 rank points in the global Press Freedom Index (PFI), according to Reporters without Borders; certainly, remarkable achievement by any measurable standard.
The country is also in the process of amending three proclamations that have been said to have hampered the practice of the press and journalism in Ethiopia: the Anti-Terrorism Proclamation, the Charities and Societies Proclamation as well as the Access to Information and Freedom of the Mass Media Proclamations. A bold move indeed for a government recognized as anti-free press by international organizations such as the Human Rights Watch.
Again, media outlets, once deemed destructive and threat to the country’s national security, and criticized for being mouthpieces for the then labelled terrorist organizations, are now legal media companies with local offices and correspondents covering even the Office of the Prime Minister. Online media platforms which were also blocked for instigating violence and other reasons are now allowed to roam free over the internet. This is a notable action too.
But, the media in Ethiopia are still in quagmire and neither local nor foreign observers are seeing clearly what is going on in the country and very few understand how the media operates. Although the impending amendments to the three press-related proclamations have not been completed, among journalists and media outlets there seem to be the revival of hope in the past one year.
“This was what happened during the times of change, in Ethiopia, in the past. We have witnessed this during the political events of 1991 and 2005,” says Abaynesh Birru, a veteran radio journalist for the state Broadcaster EBC, the then Ethiopian Radio and Television Agency. “Things get relaxed at the beginning but they will not last long.”
Describing her time as a journalist, Abaynesh, a communications consultant now, says that it was a time where journalism was tested and it was a game of passing through the different forces that move journalism like a pendulum.
Hence, whenever there are such political openings like the current one, journalists have to know how to get the best out of it and keep it going sustainably.
Speaking at a discussion forum dubbed “Media for Democracy: Journalism and Elections in Times of Disinformation” organized by Addis Ababa University in consortium with the Ethiopian Broadcasting Authority and the United Nations Development Program (UNDP), Amare Aregawi, the General Manager of Media and Communications Center, pointed out that the media in Ethiopia are in a critical time.
“The situation of the media is concerning now than anytime in history. Even though there are efforts made to improve the situation, amending few articles from proclamation will not be a solution in itself,” Amare asserted.
He advised that amendments to proclamations should include knowledgeable and well-informed people.
“Now, it is urgent to strengthen the media so that it plays a part in the democratic transition. It is now that we have to support each other and work in unison,” Amare called up on the government, the media outlets and civil society organizations.
Commentators also argue, even though there are moves to improve the media landscape in Ethiopia and there are visible efforts especially in terms of legal reforms, the media in Ethiopia is still marred with various challenges ranging from fear of the profession to lack of one common national agenda.
Tamrat Negera, former Addis Neger editor turned social media activist, says that, “the problems exhibited in the political sector, polarization and lack of rule of engagement, are becoming equally detrimental to the Ethiopia media. There is no common national agenda that ESAT and OMN can stand for, for example. There is no rule of engagement and the government is not working to bring about consensus and the narrative of unity.”
For him, the current situation in Ethiopia mimics the last years of Yugoslavia where there were extreme nationalist media outlets. Similarly, in Ethiopia, there are regional state media outlets, which are used by the regional governments, to propagate whatever they want in the interest of their respective regions rather a common national interest.
“The government has to look into shifts in the status of the party and government owned media institutions like Tigray TV to Mekelle TV, Amhara TV to Bahirdar TV and Gondar TV and so on,” he recommends.
But for Bruh Yihunbelay, a panelist and the Managing Editor of this newspaper, lack of good talent in the market is a primary challenge that is hindering media outlets, especially the print media, from working as expected.
“In order to provide the best information to the public, we try to hire the best in the industry and those who come from journalism schools are small in the number and less talented. Hence, we go to other schools like law, business and economics and other social and natural sciences,” Bruh says.
This, according to him, is because of the detachment of journalism schools from the real practice of journalism. Students straight out of colleges do not know what their theoretical lectures in the classroom looks like in the real world and their knowledge of what the newsroom looks like is limited to what they find through one or two visits to media houses during the last year of their study.
“On the other hand, as the sector is much politicized, the best and the brightest are not going to journalism schools,” he says, adding that the profession which used to provide efficient officials to diplomatic posts and other public positions is now seen as irrelevant.
“Policy makers influence it via different means including curriculum development,” he criticized.
This idea is also shared by Melaku Demissie, the Managing Editor for the Amharic Reporter newspaper. In a long and descriptive interview he gave to the state owned Amharic daily Addis Zemen newspaper, he reflected that all higher educational institutions in the country have opened journalism schools without fulfilling the needed requirements.
“All have opened journalism schools where the students do not read newspapers and do not make newspapers. When asked why, the reason is lack of budget. The students are suffering after being enrolled in the institutions that have no budget and when they leave schools, they become either public relations officers or marketers; this has to be corrected,” he emphasized.
In addition to this, the culture of labeling journalists in a manner that hinders their practices should be stopped and there should be attitudinal change, in this regard, he said.
Apart from this, there are also concerns that the public did not fully embrace the essence of journalism and the fruits of the seeds sowed for long are being harvested today. People do not fully accept journalism as a profession that stands for them challenging authority and that makes it dangerous at times. Journalists have been attacked and bullied several times while on duty. This is much treacherous when it comes to conflict reporting.
“As there is mass labeling and attacking journalists, it has become difficult for journalists to move from place to place and conduct their reporting. The government needs to give them protection,” Melaku said in his interview.
For Bruh, apart from this, the secrecy nature of the society makes it difficult to get information from the public.
“It is difficult to find information from this society as it is cryptic,” Bruh assesses.
While this shows the difficulties of operating as a journalist in Ethiopia, there are hopes and motivations among journalists that there will come a time when they can practice the profession they love to the level of their aspirations.
But, most of the discussions around journalism and its practice in Ethiopia are detached from the reality. They are criticized to be efforts to fit the practice of journalism in Ethiopia into the frame of western practices.