How Challenging is Journalism in Ethiopia? (Seble Teweldebirhan)

Journalism is a tough profession in Ethiopia. When I say this, people might go to the obvious and assume the difficulties of journalism, which is demanding, risky and the like, or presume the repression of the media, which Ethiopia is known for. However, sometimes the everyday challenges of journalism in Ethiopia take different turns.

For the most part, in Ethiopia, journalists are not opinion leaders. They are just people who tell others whether a meeting is held or a new road is inaugurated. Except in one or two private newspapers, there is no well-researched critic, no balanced comment, no interpretations and analysis of speeches or actions. In many cases there is no in-depth examination of the news source whatsoever. News reports do not seem to show any difference whether Abebeche or Kebede did it.

Therefore, what is expected of journalists is much less than any one can imagine. He/she might not even need to understand fully what is about to be reported. Therefore, if one carefully observes journalists in any event, their only concern is to get the speech and press release if there is any. They might even leave the event after that if there is no free lunch or some per diem involved – yes, some sort of pay from the host. In Ethiopia, most organizations pay per diem for journalists who show up and most journalists would not miss that event. Needless to say this affects what is reported and what is not.

However, let us see first how the news is done. Simply stated, the journalist would copy the press release, add some speeches on it and report it. That makes front pages of newspapers and prime hour news on the electronic media. Even when the concept is strange to the society, there really is not explanation or some background assessment. To anyone’s surprise, in many cases the press release without any touch will be published or announced as news. Frankly, this only takes half an hour to do. Therefore, you might ask, what is the challenge for the journalist in Ethiopia?

What challenges most journalists are the fact that Journalism is not a profession one picks to make a living. It is mostly a matter of talent and passion. In Ethiopia, if you ask most journalists, they do not have the required educational background on journalism. Even, the school of journalism in Addis Ababa University does not have that long history. Most joined it, leaving their own profession behind, for the love and adventure of it. However, most fail to build an identity of their own and become a commentator rather than just a reporter.

Regardless of the country’s stand on freedom of expression, even the media houses do not give enough space for the journalist to explore and come up with something new. That is sort of a culture. Even on matters of entertainment and other human interests, journalists are not appreciated to take a stand on issues or may be add some value to it.

Most journalists would tell you how passionate they were when they joined media houses. With time, when they do things differently than they had imagined, they eventually face the reality and fall into the usual practice. This, in fact, is very disappointing for them.

Asfaw Alemu, a journalist for ten years, left the profession last year to become a public relations officer for an NGO. “There is no professional, financial or personal satisfaction,” he said. “When I first joined the profession I thought I will become someone who will leave a foot print as a journalist. However, I found myself in the middle of two extremes and had no place to belong. The government works as hard as it could to suppress freedom of the media and if you try to work for the private media you are expected to be hateful for the government for no reason,” he said.

Fasil Hailu also tried to be a journalist for a while. “I knew there would be limitations. I understand the country creates a tough environment for anyone engaged in circulating information. However, the thing that drove me away was the way media houses function in the country. I tried to work for the government media. The only thing they wanted from me was to collect speeches and press releases. I felt like someone who was paid just to do that. I resigned and started to work for the private media as well. I did not see any thing different. Some of them were too scared that they did not want anything besides what was said. Others wanted the trouble too bad that they expected me to take some extreme positions. I decided to leave and engage in another profession.”

Fasil believes that the media in Ethiopia greatly underestimates its audience. “They make you think like the people do not know anything. They take the illiteracy rate in the country as an affirmation for their disregard for the people,” he says.

Nowadays, regardless of the love and passion for the profession, many quit earlier. This is probably one of the reasons we do not see older and mature journalists. In any press conference, 99% of journalists are very young, probably 20-something. Most are fresh graduate and before they understood what journalism is really about, they would tell you they are already looking for other jobs. Most take it in the first place for an opportunity to create contacts and find another job.

Helen Girma, who works for a private media house did not lie about her intentions. “I am just trying to establish a contact so that I will get a better job. Journalism in Ethiopia is hopeless. People say it is a profession to die for, but who would do that? I read and saw people who tried to do that but did not change anything. The only thing they managed to do is destroying their own lives,” she said.

In addition to that, journalism is by some taken as a short-cut for visa abroad. People might trust those who write extreme positions on the government. There are individuals who were given a hero status for their one-sided critics on whatever is going in the country. However, these people are nowhere to be found when the country and the people need someone real brave to say something important. By then, most are in Europe and the USA explaining how tortured they were for writing this and that. (At this point, I mean no disregard for those who actually fought and scarified for press freedom and live in exile because it was beyond their power.)

With such intentions, for those who indeed love journalism and believe in the power of information, the disappointment lasts lifetime. This frustration is not only for the journalists per se, but also for the media and the public in general. When a journalist gets an experience, learns how things work in whatever he/she is interested in, some NGO or other organ will pick him/her for a better salary. That way, the public misses mature and experienced information professionals and everything begins from zero again.

What pushes these young frustrated journalists further is the salary. Journalists today give more emphasis for events that pay per diem and a free lunch. It seems like evaluating a coverage based on content is not important. Most show up for things that hardly make news just because there will be good food or some money. For example, you might see more journalists for some NGO anniversary and hardly see anyone for a press conference called by opposition parties.

The per diem has a name called “Butche” which has the same meaning as something extra. When calling a press, the caller might have to indicate that there will be a ‘Butche’. That way, even journalists who were not called shows up. If there is also a lunch, you do not see journalists leaving the event before all is done. In addition, to get more of the press, calling the conference or organizing the event in a good hotel helps. That way, it is assumed that there will be something extra or special.

In addition to the usual journalism ethics, on paper, the editorial policies of most media houses prohibit taking any favor of this sort. However, if you talk to journalists, they will tell you their editors will go themselves to the events if there is a good Butche. The fact that the journalist is not that much interested in the content, since what is expected of him/her, is covered by a press release or a speech, focusing on other benefits is an option. It seems the understanding is that the public does not care about the content as long as the newspaper publishes it on time and the news anchor has something to read on the table.

Bethlehem Ayele, an event organizer, works with several organizations in the country. She says one of the toughest parts of her job is getting the press for the events. “Even when the issue is decisive and I thought any journalist in his/her right mind would be interested, they do not show up. For a very long time I did not know why. Finally, some of my coworkers suggested that it is because we do not give them money. I resisted for a while saying it is unethical. Finally, I started mentioning per diem and even major media organizations showed up for minor events. It is very disappointing,” she said.

The Butche is not limited to the reporter. There are cases when the editors accept the favor and send reporters. Tewodros Gezahagne says he experienced that. “I use to work for an English newspaper. My editor always sends me to events prepared by one of the embassies. The events are minor and are not worth any news. However, he expected me to write about it any way I can. Finally, in one event he told me to go but I could not go because of personal reasons. He was very angry. I missed bigger events before but he could not let go this one. Finally, after some research I found out that he accepts money every time he sends a reporter to the embassy,” he said.

Nowadays, this is an accepted practice. For the young journalists, who believe the profession is not worth sacrificing anything and plan to leave it as soon as another opportunity shows up, it is probably ok to accept any favor. These people really do not really believe in the profession.

The country is indeed producing some new graduates who know and adhere to the ethics. But these young people, just as many professions in the country, do not have anyone to look up to and take as a role model. Every senior they know is someone who was a journalist for a while and got a better job or left the country to get an asylum. Since these options sound good enough for them, to have a secure life, they may not do anything differently for themselves.

All of this makes it difficult to challenge problems of all sorts that the profession faces, including media suppression that may come from authorities or from within. The power of the media (or rather the power of words) is really beyond any government control. However, in order to use this power, there needs to be a commitment and a willingness to die for what one believes is right. It is impossible to get that from a media with a culture of extremism, fear and corruption.


* Originally published on, on April 29, titled ‘How Challenging Is the Journalism Profession in Ethiopia?‘, authored by Seble Teweldebirhan, who is Addis Ababa based Reporter for The article is republished here with a written permission to do so.

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