Alastair McPhail CMG OBE
It has been months since COVID-19 impacted the globe in so many ways. This pandemic is challenging the world’s social, economic and political order. In that regard, the media is one of the sectors that face a difficult challenge posed by COVID-19 and this year the World Press Freedom Day will be commemorated on May 3, 2020 under the theme ‘Without Fear or Favour.’ In an email interview, Alastair McPhail CMG OBE, Her Majesty’s Ambassador to Ethiopia and Permanent Representative to the African Union and UN Economic Commission for Africa reflects with Zekarias Sintayehu of The Reporter about the impact COVID-19 has on the media. Excerpts:
The Reporter: The media sector in Ethiopia is still at its infancy and most media houses struggle to survive. Adding insult to injury, COVID-19 is putting them in a very fragile situation. How do you see the impact of COVID-19 on the sector?
Alastair McPhail CMG OBE: The COVID-19 pandemic is making it difficult for media all around the world to do their jobs. Members of the press must observe social distancing and other measures designed to stop the spread of the virus, but that makes getting out and collecting information incredibly hard.
I acknowledge that things will probably be even harder in Ethiopia. The media have only enjoyed freedom for the last few years and are still figuring out how to operate. This is compounded by challenges that journalists face here that they may not in other countries. Poor connectivity, for example, will make working remotely difficult.
I hope though that this pandemic will help the Ethiopian media see just how vital their role is as a source of credible, trustworthy information. I have been inspired by the ambition and sense of public service of many Ethiopian journalists I’ve met. The sector here is in its infancy, as you say. But it has incredible potential and a huge role to play in the development of Ethiopia.
If the media in Ethiopia hold their nerve, and can find ways to adapt to the circumstances, I am certain that they will come out of this crisis stronger and more mature.
We are witnessing the social, economic and political impact of COVID-19 around the world. What do you think the media should do to survive during COVID-19? How could media houses achieve economic sustainability?
While I’m not an expert on the business of running a media house, I do know it’s hard.
Some of the most economically stable media houses around the world are those whose readerships trust and rely upon them. Media houses must make sure they build a loyal readership.
A loyal readership should make obtaining advertising revenues easier. I know that COVID-19 is affecting the economy but the growing business environment should make advertising an increasingly viable form of economic sustainability for the media.
Further down the line, Ethiopian media could consider charging their readers to access content online. Again, having built a loyal audience will help with this.
More recently, we’ve started working with BBC Media Action on a project that aims to strengthen and increase the sustainability of independent media in Ethiopia.
The mushrooming of fake news and disinformation has become a major challenge for media houses. How do you think the media should act in debunking fake news and disinformation?
In a world where fake news is so commonplace – and can be such a damaging thing – the media must step up their professionalism and level of skill.
Media houses must make sure they themselves are not spreading fake news or misinformation. Fact-check everything you publish.
If media houses are fact-checking everything they publish, the public will see them as a credible source of information. They will then look to them for the truth when they are confused by misinformation they see online. This way, fake news loses it power.
Media houses should be very careful. One mistake can cost you your reputation as a trusted source of news.
How will be the role of the media in the fight against COVID-19?
The role of the media in the fight against COVID-19 is huge. I would say that this role is not just one for big organisations. In parts of this country people are reliant on smaller, more local sources of news.
As I’ve said, the media has an important role to play in debunking fake news. The UK is working hard to develop a vaccine for COVID-19 but we do not yet have one. At the moment, the greatest defence we have to slow the spread of the virus is providing people with the right information on how they can protect themselves and others. The media are instrumental in making sure people everywhere get this information.
Ethiopia has been progressing in Press Freedom Index but some players of the industry argue that the situation on the ground has not changed that much. To support their argument these media players state that journalists are still being arrested for doing their job. How do you evaluate the press freedom in Ethiopia?
The government has made huge steps towards press freedom in Ethiopia and the country’s place in the index rightly reflects this. I recognize, as I think the government does, that reforms are not yet being perfectly implemented. The government should not allow COVID-19 or any other crises to de-rail progress. We are watching the situation closely.
The UK is fully supportive of the positive reforms the government has made. We support freeing journalists and unblocking websites.
Last year, our Foreign Secretary was in Addis when he announced new, UK-funded Press Freedom Fellowships for candidates from African countries including Ethiopia. While this programme has unfortunately been delayed due to COVID-19, I hope that the fellows will lead the press across Africa to continue pushing for media freedom.
The recent Hate Speech Law has been considered by many as being similar to the previous repressive anti-terrorism law. Many were lobbying the parliament not to pass it. But the parliament paying a deaf ear to that has passed the law and becoming governing now. What will be the impact of that law in narrowing press freedom spaces in Ethiopia?
We have hate speech laws in the UK so this is not something we disagree with on principle. Laws like these are important as they prevent people from inciting violence.
Still, I can understand why people, particularly journalists, are wary of laws like this. I know that some legal scholars have expressed concern over the text of the law itself and how widely it could be implemented.
What matters then is how this law is implemented. The government needs to make sure everyone gets a fair trial. A strong, independent justice system should stop any laws being used for political purposes. The government needs to keep building these strong, fair institutions so basic rights are upheld.
The media in Ethiopia is not only being challenged by the government but it is also being thrown under the bus by different non-state actors. What should be done to protect the sector?
It is important to understand that press freedom needs more than just reforms in government regulation. The whole environment must be supportive of the press doing their job.
The media in Ethiopia must stand together. In a country with a mature press sector like the UK, we see journalists from competing publications and viewpoints defending each other when one of them comes under attack. The government and society should never accept a journalist being attacked – but nor should other journalists. The press should proudly defend each other and they will be stronger.
Ethiopia will hold its six national elections in the months to come. As this year world press freedom day theme is ‘Without Fear or Favour,’ how do you think that the media should do to report the upcoming election without fear or favour?
To report without fear or favours means to do so impartially, without political or ethnic interest.
I hope that, ahead of the elections, the Ethiopian media will make sure they give fair coverage to all candidates.
I also hope that journalists will act on behalf of the public. The best journalists ask the right questions, making sure voters get the information they need to make informed choices.
I also hope that the media will play a key role in challenging and debunking fake news. As with COVID-19, the press must fact-check anything that they publish.
I know that some Ethiopian journalists would like more training. The UK has trained 100 Ethiopian journalists in the last three years. We have also been working with UNESCO on an Ethiopian Media Sector Alliance. This should help provide training programmes and unify the sector.
The government considers the media especially the private media as traitors. It is one of the sectors with less incentives. What do you think the government should do to grow the sector?
I regularly meet with senior members of the Ethiopian government and this experience does not lead me to believe that they consider private media to be traitors. The government should want to encourage better media. By competing for readership, private media houses will improve their offering.
The government must keep building a good working relationship with the media. We are lucky in the UK that there is a mature, largely trusting relationship between the state and the press.
I would encourage governments to make sure that they engage with all parts of the media in their country. And journalists must also make sure they are a partner deserving of trust, acting with professionalism and integrity.
For those of us working in politics, being asked difficult questions is just a part of our job.
The UK has sunk down the World Press Freedom Index. Is the UK still in a position to champion media freedom itself? What about the killing of Lyra McKee, treatment of Julian Assange?
The UK will always champion media freedom. Our press are known around the world for their skill, professionalism and independence. I can’t comment on particular cases that may have affected our Press Freedom Index ranking this year. The awful killing of Lyra Mckee in Northern Ireland shows that the freedom of the press to do their important job safely can never be taken for granted.