Terrifying the Press signals Defeatism | Ethiopia

Speaking in general terms, I don’t like the way the Ethiopian private press is molded. It is characterized by outright partisanship – both in its reporting and airing opinions. In fact, that is the very reason I started blogging in a language and medium less familiar to me and less accessible to the majority of Ethiopians. This is a verdict from one who followed the press for the last two decades, since its launch, and who had an encounter with about half a dozen of them. Yet, it is too general, thus fails to recognize the progress through time in general and the efforts and achievements of a few newspapers in particular.

At one end of the spectrum, you find irresponsible newspapers, like, the now-defunct Askual newspaper, owned and edited by Eskinder Nega. For instance, it regularly added ‘(an Oromo)’ whenever it wrote Prof. Andreas Eshete’s name. It is a common knowledge that Andreas is an Amhara from Northern Shewa, a locality that was allegedly a stronghold of the All Amhara People Organization(AAPO), of which Eskendir Nega was(still?) a vice Chairman. Andreas Eshete didn’t care to correct it, but it is obvious Eskinder Nega was doing it purposely – whatever the motive.

Well, this is nothing compared to the fact that Askual newspaper run a series, at least for a year or so, a column that directly and unequivocally attacks the Tigray ethnic group. It had written, in one of its issue in 2001, that ‘the German Nazi must have been annoyed by the Jews as we are by the Tigryans that must be what pushed them to carry out the Holocaust’. This is a direct quote! And, despite the passage of time, I am quite sure of it, as the person directly responsible for it was member of a central committee of an opposition party – of which I was then a member and later resigned after demanding his demotion.

On the other end of the spectrum, we find Addis Fortune, Addis Admass, Ethiopian Reporter and the now-defunct Addis Neger. Of course, they leave much to be desired. Yet, their drawbacks and merits are resultant of the skewed growth and gradual maturity of the press, respectively, as much as the personal preference of the owners/editors.

What’s most disheartening is the ruling party, EPRDF, made few contributions in the process, though, praiseworthily, it was the first to make press freedom a reality and to abolish pre-publication censorship two decades ago.

Notably, EPRDF’s first program, published on January 1991, when it was still an insurgent, had this as one of its primary objectives: ‘Ensuring an unlimited democratic right to write and speak freely, to organize, including forming a political party, to conduct street demonstration and strikes, etc. for the proletariat, the farmers, the small producers, and the national bourgeois’. Even more strikingly, the program obliges ‘the government shall remove anything that might impede the public from full realization, and uninterrupted strengthening, of these rights.

There is a catch, however. The same section later states that the government is to have ‘the mandate to prohibit direct and indirect interference of foreign powers and to limit the degree of democratic rights to be enjoyed by the reactionary feudal who stand for poverty and foreign-backed parasitic capitalists.‘ In EPRDF’s current vocabulary, these are ‘rent-seeking elements’.

Of course, this statement didn’t surface in the laws EPRDF issued as a government. In fact, the 1995 FDRE Constitution contains one of the most liberal, but less noticed, principle: freedom of expression and information cannot be limited on account of the content or [opinionative] effect of the point of view expressed. Yet, apparently, the reactionary – progressive typology persisted in the thinking of  the architects of the party.

It must be in that context, in a party meeting in 1993, Meles Zenawi, then President of the Transitional Government, when asked about the unflattering cartoons of him and accusations in the press, allegedly responded saying ‘leave it be, it only proves how much we frustrated them.’ Indeed, Meles let the press thrive, at least quantitatively, though his categorical characterization of the press as a reactionary inhibited his government’s potential role in its growth.

It is no surprise then, a couple of years ago, responding to a question on whether the surge in printing costs is aimed at the press, a senior official(Meles?) said that the government wouldn’t do that as it affects the publication of educational materials. Don’t bother to speculate on whether the government could get around the higher costs, the main point here is the press has no educational or other social value. That must be why the government, which takes pride in achieving a 90% primary education coverage, publicly mocks the press for the smallness of its readership. One may sarcastically ask if literacy and newspaper readership are supposed to be inversely related in Ethiopia.

The ‘ignore them’ attitude, which had been premised on the expectation that ‘reactionary forces/ideas’ will perish through time was changed after the 2005 post-election violence, where a few newspapers played a role ethically and legally unacceptable. Consequently, at least a dozen were forced out of print via legal and/or administrative means. More followed later discouraged by as various environmental factors.

At this point, you might expect the ruling party to start actively working for a more responsible, professional and diversified press, since it has become evident that ignoring isn’t an option and there was a chance to start afresh – with about half or more of the papers out of print. Quite to the contrary, EPRDF saw more policing as an option.

In a publication, titled ‘Public Relation and Mobilization works’, in 2006/7(?), the Ministry of Information proposed stricter enforcement of the law. Though it suggested something like inviting them to press conferences and the like as a means to encourage ‘the good ones’. It states on another page, however, that all media outlets are entitled to information access and government offices should strive for a favorable presentation by providing information to all. So, it seems there is no direction on how to ensure its qualitative and quantitative growth, except the police work.

That is why the laws issued afterwards do more to frighten than encourage the press.

The underlying assumption is that the private press has no much, actual or potential, constructive role. Thus, the government simply drew more redlines and placed a big stick. An approach more befitting to night clubs and similar enterprises, which a nation do not normally wish to encourage, but forced to tolerate.

I am not going to dwell on what the government can do to support the press, though there are several even costless options, like assisting in the distribution system, which is a significant market entry barrier. But that is a wishful, though constitutional, thinking which only dilutes the more pressing agenda.

What is pressing then?

The legal regime of the press has never been ideal. It has become even more terrifying lately. It is intriguing that the government responds to the criticisms on the laws saying, ‘there are similar provisions in the laws of a couple of western countries’. Yes, there are and that doesn’t necessarily make them good. More importantly, in those countries, they are conjoined  by developed political culture, strong institutions and other laws which collectively assure the media and the wider public that those provisions are less likely to be abused. It is in the absence of all these that EPRDF insists ‘trust me’.

It is nerving when a politician asks to be trusted without exhausting the available confidence boosting options, especially when the issue concerns liberty – something governments are naturally uneasy about. But our problem is much broader than trusting the Prime Minister or the upper leadership of the ruling party. It was only a few years ago that we saw a chief-editor of Ethiopian Reporter detained from his office in Addis Ababa, taken to Gondar city, 750 KM away, where he was held for several days. The illegality of his transfer and detention in Gondar was conveniently ignored by the Addis Ababa police and by the Amhara region police and judiciary which took part in the process. What is more interesting is that this was not done for some high-sounding causes, but to appease a Brewery factory management that was in dispute with the labor union. Mind you, the editor was harassed for airing the voice of the proletariat, as the above quoted EPRDF program calls them.

The point here is the terrifying character of the laws should be measured in the institutional context in which they function. It is undeniable that a police officer even in Addis Ababa can detain a person for 12 hours, even for several days with a node from the chief of the station. The courts sheepishly legitimatize the detention for at least a week or two without bothering to review the merit of the case. I am referring to cases in which the ruling party has no evident interest. This would be even worrisome in cases involving the press, which is likely to have already upset key personalities here and there, while the government is obviously ‘unfriendly’.

This makes the media sector a minefield.

In fact, the figures concerning the press are telling.

There were about 200 private newspapers and magazines, a few with selling up to 50,000 copies, by year 2001/2. Now, a decade later, I doubt if we have half of that. Mind you the market potential had doubled in the mean time.

The number of employed people in the ‘Professionals, Technical and associate Professionals’ bracket increased from 285,000 to 623,000 in the last seven years. Or, take the Civil Service, with minimum education level of grade 4, which ballooned from about 600,000 in 2004 to almost a million currently. Add to that, the expansion of the service sector in the last decade, which suggests a higher demand for advertisement.

What kind of business sector is the press then which shrinks as its market expands? I say, a terrified one.

Perhaps, the government doesn’t hate to see the press terrified. That is what the recent arrests suggest.

At the beginning of the last week, we saw the detention of two members of the press(this and this), perhaps a third one was also briefly held. Worse, the government has yet to comment on the matter. Presumably, the government will claim their arrest is unrelated to their media activity. Well, doubts aside, that could be somehow comforting to writers. Then,why is it taking long to deliver the ‘good news’? Some could have chosen to give the government the benefit of the doubt, even as a defense mechanism repress the sense of danger. 

No, the government want me to spend a week or more terrified, reflecting in case I had done something wrong too.

Then, it would not be unfair to assume the terrifying effect of the arrests is welcomed if not intended.

The folly of the approach

As indicated on the beginning of this article, the government’s wariness of the pre-2005 style of the press is founded. But, so what? We have a disconcerting police force, which even the Premier once bashed in parliament (in 2003/4) saying ‘we hired 300 officers to control 300 thieves and ended up with 400 thieves’. Yet, i don’t remember anyone suggesting its closure. To the contrary, methods that would help enhance its accountability are often refused on the ground that they will ‘tie its hands’.

I am well aware that the ruling party is disinclined to assign an ‘exaggerated’ role to the press, like, considering it as the fourth branch of the state. In fact, I doubt if it sees freedom of expression as an end by itself, developmental or not. Yet, I’d rather save that for another day – as this article has already become too long already and I don’t need those issues to make my point. It suffices that EPRDF endorses the press as a relevant player in the system, as a sort of public institution, as that is what its Jan/1991 program indicates.

Thus, I shall hastily note why terrifying the press, intended or not, is counter productive.

The perception of the press as a dangerous place to work will only help radicalize it. As the press appears a ‘no-go area’, it will be further deserted by professionals and investors. Those who remain in the press will have lesser resources to make an extensive and in-depth coverage, which they will have to compensate by amplifying/exaggerating the few stories they have at hand. That is not all.

Those who join the press sector will mostly be politically motivated individuals. For one, they will be willing to take the risks as engagement in the press is equated with political activism. Second, given an ill-informed audience and the absence of alternative credible sources, the press will (continue to) appear an effective way to easily shape public opinion – by informing or disinforming. Needless to say, those politically motivated persons will not be some selfless philosophers or ‘developmental intellectuals’, but the foes of the regime. This will continue to be the case, as long as the press is not banned altogether.

Of course, there would be some moderate and reliable publications. Yet, their credibility will be diminished as the public suspects they are exercising self-censorship. Not to mention, the problems they face due to the limited pool of professionals willing to join the sector.

One may wonder what if the government makes the cost of deviance very high. I don’t think that could work. The habit of mind, the temptation of a writer, the demand of the audience, etc. militate against it. And, there will always be some willing to take the risk. Yet, let’s assume the press became effectively devoid of sticky issues. It would be even dangerous. As the gap will be filled by the oldest media – ‘word-of-mouth’. Something the Ethiopian government can not hope to control. Of course, ‘word-of-mouth’ is arguably the main media currently. But its content and trend is shaped by, and reflected in, the press. With the press out of the picture, the public will be left to hearsay, which naturally obtains more reception when exaggerated and in conformity to preexisting prejudices. [I left out the public media and the government sponsored opinion polls as it takes time to build their credibility and quality. I don’t see much potential in clandestine publications currently.]

There is another option, however.

If the ruling party wishes to get a favorable presentation of itself or developmental issues in the press, the best way to do it is to facilitate the latter’s growth. (In addition to, narrowly defined and predictable laws.) With hundreds of well-resourced newspapers and magazines in print, some will naturally share its agenda in some areas, others in other topics. In a competitive environment, even the most unfriendly publication will be forced to present government news and views, in a bid to be comprehensive and enhance market share. This is a well-thought proposal and an empirically supported one.

There is no reason why this approach wouldn’t work. Plus, it has never been tried. The pre-2005 area, despite the relatively relaxed laws, was more like the first scenario – an under resourced, understaffed press that was naturally prey to special interests and yellow journalism. The resource-constraint is much the same now, except that they are more terrified.

Of course, the press will always look for something to criticize and expose. That is to be handled by competent PR work and taking corrections when appropriate. The press will probably post unflattering stories on some public officials, well, that comes with a public life and shall be tolerated. It should be noted that, despite the impression one may get from the elitist political dialogue of the country, the Ethiopian public has neither the custom, nor the luxury, to demand a flawless résumé from its leaders. This I raise for fear that it could be a factor in some of the decisions regarding the media. Aside from that, the ruling party should commit to live up to the challenge – that would be quite revolutionary, as it is a quality conspicuously absent in the Ethiopian political elite.

Perhaps, EPRDF should be reminded that press freedom is not some neo-liberal agenda or an imposition from CPJ and the like, but a pledge made to the brave men and women facing death.

Backing away on this pledge, and from the challenges thereto, signals a deafitist mindset of wider implications.


Note: The issue of internet filtering is intentionally left out of this discussion. As its current state is extensively presented in my previous posts (here and here) and my recommendations on it is further complicated by the recent decision to proscribe a couple of groups as terrorists. I hope to present it in mid-July.

Daniel Berhane