The history of the private press in Ethiopia is remarkably short despite the country’s long history, having a life span of no more than twenty three years. During this relatively brief period, although there were some papers that consistently showed mature professionalism and ethical journalistic standards, the private press has on the whole been dominated by what can only be described as the worst examples of the tabloid press. In the early days following the removal of the military junta, the Derg, there was a flood of papers on the streets of Addis. Heralding a new era of the freedom of press, the Transitional Government’s Charter gave rise to all sorts of publications, reflecting the euphoria of the nation’s newly gained freedom of conscience, speech and the press. Much of this was welcome but it also led to the appearance of a disquieting number of self –proclaimed journalists who had neither experience nor education in journalism. Their efforts resulted in a number of publications which were disappointing in content, often libelous, pornographic, even racist, as well as unethical, failing to observe even the most elementary standards of journalism.
Some of the new tabloids of the early 90s in fact published numerous offensive articles, including news and features that actually contravened established laws both of Ethiopia and of other nations. Some openly preached violence and war against the new government, filling their columns with hate speech, denigrating different nations and nationalities in the country and openly advocating hatred and even incitement to genocide. That period also saw the concoction of an amazing number of fictitious stories, most politically inspired and deliberately aimed to try to undermine the constitutional order.
The paradox was that much of the press, this “gutter” element, made every effort to attack the very system that had given it life. Its proponents left no stone unturned to undermine the government that had allowed a free press to operate for the first time in Ethiopia’s long history. In the first years of the new regime, some of the most notorious offenders were brought to justice, but overall the government exercised quite extraordinary tolerance for the output of the press. It underlined time and again that it wanted to see the evolution of a press that could eventually play a proper role as the “fourth estate” in Ethiopia. It also showed considerable understanding of the problems posed by the infancy of the press, the lack of professionalism and the shortage of professional journalists, and the difficulties that arose from the government’s own failure to supply a steady flow of information or organize an effective information machinery. Nevertheless, this was a period that will be remembered most clearly for the demise of the censorship which had controlled and constrained the press under previous regimes.
With the steady growth in a culture of reading newspapers in the 1990s, a number of changes occurred. Many of the papers fell out of favor of readers as these became more discriminating in their choices. The verdict of the market on many of the publications was damning and a significant number were forced to close. Those that survived were, in most cases, the better and more professional publications as they demonstrated in subsequent years. Some publications took a balanced view of the political landscape, whether supporting the EPRDF or opposition parties. Equally, some publications continued to make every effort to underline the system, trying to make a name for themselves by raising the temperature whenever a crisis arose, all-to-often using inaccurate, invented or libelous stories. Some of the papers even went to the extent of lending themselves as instruments of foreign finance, allowing themselves to be manipulated as part of a puppet show of yellow journalism. Some of their output would have put their editors and writers behind bars in almost every country in the world.
Another defining characteristic of some elements of the press in the last decade or so has been the repeated criticisms made by external advocacy rights group over allegations of imprisonment of journalists and shutdown of papers. These have often been exaggerated and nearly always unhelpful in the operation of a free press, not least because many of the claims made have been inaccurate, with no effort to verify them and often made in ignorance of the details or realities of the charges. It has been frequent for external groups to call for the release of journalists without making any effort to understand the reason that gave rise to their arrest and imprisonment. It makes no difference whether the journalist had been jailed for breaking any law or acting in a criminal way. These rights group echo what they were told and never try to understand what really happened or why, or indeed to look at what the journalist might have actually done.
These groups have time and again issued statements casting doubt on the independence of the judiciary and other organs of the justice system. This happened even when journalists were content to participate in the judicial proceedings without qualms. Subsequently, the proclamation of the Anti-Terrorist law gave added impetus to a series of concerted efforts to denigrate the law by rights groups and their supporters. Ethiopia was consistently given a bad press as one of the worst jailers of journalists. The allegations were made almost irrespective of the facts. Despite the fact that every weekend, dozens of magazines are published freely, Ethiopia is continually described as a nightmare for journalists, the victim of an ongoing smear campaign, claiming that the Anti-Terrorist law, usually referred to as “draconian”, is consistently used to try to control the press. Despite repeated statements by government and others that any journalists are on trial for criminal or other offences unrelated to the exercise of journalism, these rights groups continue to claim it is the freedom of the private press in Ethiopia which is under attack.
The truth of the matter, however, remains: the Anti-Terrorist law was not issued with the covert agenda of muzzling the press. It is a law copied almost verbatim from the legislation of many developed countries passed to control the threat of terrorism. The peculiar nature of terrorism calls for separate rules from the normal criminal legislation. The fear that the press will be targeted under anti-terrorist legislation is misplaced and cannot be supported by any cogent argument. Equally, this does not mean that being a journalist should make one immune from prosecution if someone is found to have committed a crime or has become an accomplice to an act of terrorism. Recruiting members to an organization defined by parliament as a terrorist group or providing open propaganda for such a body would not be seen as an exercise of the freedom of press in almost any country.
While attacks on the supposed government attitude towards the private press in Ethiopia continue, the reality on the ground offers a very different picture. The private press in Ethiopia today is witnessing an unprecedented growth in circulation, a sharp rise in the number of professional journalists and in the financial capabilities and organizational strength of the media. Quite a number of magazines now boast a weekly circulation figure exceeding 30,000 or so. This is a significant rise when compared to earlier years. The electronic media has also seen the addition of private FM radio stations attracting sizeable audiences. The private press representatives are now invited to press briefings by senior officials, and there are growing signs of an increased partnership between the private press and the government.
One noteworthy development has been the formation of the Press Council. This will provide an institution that can go a long way to address the ethical concerns over the practice of journalism through the issuance of a code of conduct. The Press Council will play a big role in setting the bar for healthy journalistic practice and the development of professional standards. The recent announcement by the Minister of Government Communications Affairs lowering the price of printing paper and several other measures that will provide support for the private press, also offers evidence of a very different press reality than that suggested by advocacy groups.
The coming into effect of the Freedom of Information Act has also had an important impact, consecrating the right of the public to seek and impart information. Giving further effect to the freedom of speech clauses of the constitution, the Act has laid down the duty of government offices towards journalists and citizens to give information except in cases of national security. The law allows citizens or journalists to bring cases before the court, if members of the administrative hierarch unjustifiably deny information. This law has provided a considerable boost for the private, and government press, and for exercise of the freedom of the press in general. Indeed, the passing of the Freedom of Information Act in effect says it all as far as the determination of the government to give full effect to the freedom of the press is concerned.
*Originally published on the Week in the Horn, a weekly bulletin of Ethiopia’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Feb. 21, 2014 issue, titled “False allegations and the reality of the private press in Ethiopia“. Re-published here with a permission to do so.