16th of March 2014 marks the 1000th day since Reeyot Alemu, a newspaper columnist and teacher, was arrested for working to ethiopianreview.com news website which the Ethiopian State/court called ‘supporting terrorism’. On the same day, a twitter discussion focused on what happened to weaken the Ethiopian Press. Soleyana Shimeles, an activist for human rights and constitutional order, commented that the State ‘blames the victim after deliberately weakened the Press’. However, a twitter discussion following her tweet revealed that it is not only the State that blames the victim. Many ‘activists’ do.
A Short Story of the Press
It is the same regime, the current regime, which created the Free Press and then tried to kill it. It is not dead yet; but it is also hardly possible to say it is alive. Researchers (Terje and Hallelujah, 2009) put the history of the Free Press in the past two decades in three overlapping periods:
“…Tafari and others draw three periods of the private press in Ethiopia. The first period was the chaotic period from 1991 to 1997 with a blooming of new newspapers and anarchy journalism. The second period, 1997-2005 saw the establishment of professionally and ethically integrated newspapers like Reporter, Addis Admas, Fortune and Capital. The last period goes from 2005 when press freedom again came under threat after editors and journalists were imprisoned and persecuted after alleged transgressions following the May 2005 elections…”
If the paper, from which the above excerpt was taken, was written now there would be a fourth period too – we may call it a counter-attack period! The current Press, however is mostly led by different people from the media leaders who existed pre-2005, it is now trying to counter attack (in becoming too critical of the State in its own way) past the self-defense time that followed its threat after the contested election in 2005.
Elections have become nightmares of the independent media. Even though the Press tried to recover from its wound of post 2005 election, the Ethiopian State planned to narrow the sphere to clear way for the 2010 election: the penal code was revised in relation to Free Press issues; the anti-terrorism bill, which clearly puts Freedom of Expression in danger, passed; the highly emerging Addis Neger newspaper journalists were intimidated to have eventually exiled; other journalists and bloggers were prosecuted in relation to terrorism; a few media houses such as Addis Admass took measures to toned down choosing existence over professional integrity.
What Went Wrong?
There are still a lot of independent magazines coming out on Saturdays monthly, fortnightly or weekly and a dozen of weekly newspapers. Nevertheless, their maximum circulation is not more than 10,000 of copies. Most of the publications lack original stories, they are full of opinions rather than news and features, opinion columns are full of ‘hateful insults’. Some of the publications copy contents from social media; some others write their opinions based on what the social media set; and, only a few strive to write original and researched stories - and these ones are not preferred by the State.
This severely discouraged the ethical and professionalism needs to publish a news outlet. The market is apparently dominated by ‘market-driven’ news publications regardless of their content. However, the debate about these news outlets ranged from the question of professionalism to ‘the requirement of balancing stories’ as a must.
Ethics and professionalism are not the only things that Ethiopian independent media are criticized for. Keeping balance between two sides of stories (especially while covering politics) is mentioned as a precondition to blossom a media industry that promotes plurality of ideas. In additon, some believe this isn’t achieved due to mere lack of the media performance while others argue that this incompetent and less diverse media was created after continuous intimidation of the Press by the State.
Along with the above legitimate arguments are there also confusions by critiques of the Press: (1) criticizing the State has been labeled as ‘hate speech’ (which is also referred as ‘lack of ethics’; however, Zami FM and Ethio-channel newspaper, for example, were never criticized by State officials however they are not different (except for they are affiliated to the ruling party) from those criticized in lack of ethics); (2) upholding specific values has been considered as lack of balance to alternative sides of stories; and (3) the Press is generally considered as irresponsible unless the State highly regulated it.
In the rush to criticize the media, no one remembered to ask the real causes of these problems. It is inevitable that every country of the world would have tabloids that focus on rumors and individuals stories. Countries would also have quality news outlets that do their jobs professionally and Ethiopia is not an exception. However, the latter needs to have freedom as a prerequisite.
The State has labeled whatever comes out from the independent news outlets as lies and hates; so, officials cooperate least when the Press needs to access official information. This opens door for listening rumors and making speculations. The laws and intimidation against media houses and critical journalists drive professionals away and those “heroes” who militantly engage with State views dominated the sphere.
What went wrong is the cause, not the consequence. The cause is lack of freedom to do the job.
The Tale of Two Magazines: Lomi and AddisGuday
These (Lomi and AddisGuday) are two weekly magazines that have competing numbers of circulation while both being critical of the government. Yet, they are very different in any ethical standard.
The Deputy Minister in the Government Communication Affairs, Ato Shimeles Kemal, commented in a symposium that it’s ridiculous to say ‘there is no press freedom in Ethiopia’ where news outlets like Lomi magazine are published without a problem. The infamous Lomi magazine has the highest weekly circulation followed by AddisGuday, recent report from Ethiopian Broadcast Authority indicated. Lomi, in contrary, is not dearly loved by its own readers. Lomi barely writes an original content except in a couple of columns left for “Beteley lelomi” (“Exclusive to Lomi) and the editorial message. Its number of staff is very limited and the entire job is done on what is gathered from the Social Media. This magazine has no role other than disappointing public officials.
On the other hand, AddisGuday publishes full content of original stories with an excellent layout design and serious concern to brand the news outlet. It has four-fold number of staff than Lomi has; its office size and weekly expenditures are also that fold. This is the kind of competition that discourages professional news outlets to be committed in doing for the best. The only way AddisGuday could survive from such competition is its brand – which brought it high value and number of advertisements.
The State never took any measures on whatever Lomi publishes because it would rather encourage such incredible news outlets which it would be advantaged from for two purposes: (1) to show ‘we give freedom to even those who insult us’ card (knowing the fact that these outlets do not do any bad to the regime in a long term due to lack of credibility); (2) to prove the news outlets don’t do any good other than compiling angry comments from Social Media (by letting us see all the news outlets in the same eye).
These rules of the State (its patience to Lomi) are not applicable for AddisGuday and the like. Since May 2013, the infamous ‘agenda’ column of another State-owned and poorly professional Addis Zemen newspaper (on page 4) is busy condemning AddisGuday for being a voice of oppositions and alleged terrorists; the page even went worse claiming the magazine has received money from Ginbot 7, a convicted terrorist group. In addition, in a so-called ‘study’ conducted jointly by Ethiopian Press Agency and Ethiopian News Agency, Addis Zemen claimed that AddisGuday, Lomi and other five magazines are voices of extremist political groups. The target of the ‘study’ gets clearer not only when one see that Lomi and AddisGuday are evaluated in the same criteria and found to be functioning similarly but also when one discovers that AddisGuday is put on top of the list of the ‘study’. It’s like accusing AddisGuday for Lomi’s fault.
The Press Freedom was a good thing in the beginning. The constitution gives the best it has. The very challenge is the ruling party – which has a long term dream in power. All the intimidations of the Press, prosecutions of journalists, unfair competition opportunities for preferred media houses, unfavorable investment ground for media business and etcetera happened to bring this dream of the incumbent true. There is no distinguishing line between the State and the ruling party, EPRDF. The ruling party wants the media to work in favor of it or it won’t exist; so does the State.
Lack of freedom decreases creativity; but, that’s not the only challenge the Press is experiencing in the industry. The press, like any other private sector, it has to face being disfavored for State investments. There are no enough private publishers; even those existed do not risk their business involving themselves in printing news outlets. It has been criminalized for publishers to publish stories that might incite public protests. This is how the media business, we argue, is forced to face double-fated challenges than any other investment to primarily bother about ethics and professionalism. Currently, those who invest in the industry are not those who value professionalism most, they are those who love to play it hard – who take greater risks.
Emphasizing freedom’s role in creating good Media, Tracy J. Ross opens and concludes her paper ‘Test of Democracy: Ethiopia’s Mass Media and Freedom of Information Proclamation (2010)’ in the following two paragraphs:
“David Ben-Gurion once said, ‘The test of democracy is freedom of criticism.’ Freedom of criticism has long been recognized as an essential, inalienable human right; a right that is thought to transcend political and geographical borders and applies regardless of culture, language, and national origin. In Ethiopia, as democracy begins to grow despite a history of corruption and totalitarianism, freedom of expression has proven to be an unsteady notion […]
“If Ethiopia hopes to move toward a more democratic State, it is critical to open the lines of communication between the government, media, and citizens. Freedom of expression is the only way to achieve an accountable and transparent government free from corruption and tyranny, while developing a professional and unbiased press. The press, in other words, must have the freedom to criticize the government.”
----Edited by: Soleyana Shimeles