Media freedom under siege again in the new Ethiopia

 

 

In a small, barely furnished office with some of the electric wiring still showing in half-completed walls, Habtamu Mekonnen sits at his laptop putting the finishing touches to tomorrow’s Berbera newspaper edition.

The fledgling newspaper, which is just more than a year old, is one of a plethora of new publications that sprang to life following the whirlwind of reforms that helped to garner Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed the Nobel Peace Prize in October 2019.

The Nobel committee cited the prime minister “discontinuing media censorship” as one of Abiy Ahmed’s many achievements in paving the way to establish a new and better democracy in Ethiopia.

Ethnic tensions, journalism and activism

But the bonanza of media activity that followed is now generating increasing concerns that new media freedoms are being abused to stoke ethnic tensions.

Media are being accused of abetting groups seeking to leverage identity politics to destabilise the country for their own ends.


At the same time, the government is now facing criticism for repeating the authoritarian ways of previous Ethiopian governments toward media and attempting to put the lid back on what it opened.

“This paper exists because of Abiy’s reforms,” says Berihun Adane, an Addis Ababa-based journalist who has been published internationally and who helps mentor reporters at Berera. “But now we are witnessing the same thing that has happened after every regime change: first there are lots of new magazines and newspapers, then the government starts to crack down on them.”

Back in 2018, reforms that opened up Ethiopia’s previously restricted media space included the freeing of detained journalists and bloggers, along with an end to the blocking of more than 260 websites and the restoration of access to media outlets that had been been forced to work in exile.

In the 2019 World Press Freedom Index, compiled by Reporters Without Borders, Ethiopia jumped 40 places from number 150 to 110 out of 180 countries — the biggest improvement by any country.

But Berihun has experienced the other side of this, having recently been released from three months in prison due to charges of inciting “terrorism” through his journalism.

“I had the impression Abiy was friendly to media,” Berihun says about an interview he conducted with the prime minister. “Now Abiy seems to hold a view that categorises media as either hate- and ethnic-based or as mainstream. But it should be up to professional institutions to judge media conduct.”

Continued unrest

The prime minister’s concerns about ethnic tension are not without reason. Ethnic-related conflict has displaced millions of people and, most recently, resulted in about 80 deaths at the end of October.

“Many individuals are mixing up the roles of activist and media when they shouldn’t go together,” says Abel Wabella, managing editor of the Addis Ababa-based newspaper Addis Zebye. “You have people running media who are calling for protests — it’s totally absurd.”

The political activist and media mogul Jawar Mohammed, who founded the Oromia Media Network, has come under significant criticism for making incendiary comments on social media.

The violence at the end of October erupted after Jawar Mohammed alleged that police tried to remove his security guards, who had initially been assigned by the government. His supporters argue he played no direct role in demonstrations that were a spontaneous response to the government’s actions.

Abiy Ahmed even addressed parliament to discuss media “fomenting unrest”, focusing on the role of Ethiopian diaspora figures such as Jawar Mohammed, who started his International Oromo Youth Association while studying in the United States.

“Using their second nationality and foreign passports as an advantage, these media owners are likely to run away to their safe havens after inciting conflicts and leading the country into chaos,” Abiy Ahmed said.

New laws in the making

Part of the problem for Ethiopia’s new media landscape, say Berihun and other seasoned journalists, is that, after decades of suppression, it remains institutionally weak.

This means many Ethiopians rely on social media and foreign-based media for news, increasing the chances of misinformation and manipulation permeating the news cycle.

To address this, the government says it is seeking to improve both the capacity and regulation of local media.

“The Ethiopian Broadcast Authority is in the process of reorienting its institutional form to better regulate,” says Billene Seyoum, a spokesperson for the prime minister’s office.
“The appointment of experienced professionals to such institutions is a commitment by the government to undo the repressive tendencies of such institutions in their prior form.”

At the same time, Billene notes, the government is developing a new media law and an anti-hate speech law.

But some people in the media industry are concerned such laws could be used to further stifle their new-found freedoms.

Amnesty International has condemned the government for using anti-terrorism measures to conduct a “surge in the number of arrests” since June.

“The use of Ethiopia’s anti-terrorism proclamation to arbitrarily arrest journalists is completely out of step with reforms witnessed in the country,” said Seif Magango, Amnesty International’s deputy director for East Africa, the Horn and the Great Lakes. “This law must be revised to align with international standards and must no longer be used to harass journalists.”

‘Journalism not possible in this environment’

The shifting and strained media climate makes self-censorship by journalists more likely. Berihune says that as the case against him remains open, he is wary of what he writes and he avoids Twitter entirely in case his posts could be used against him.

“In this environment, whereby the government says you are either with us or against us, journalism is not possible,” says Eskinder Nega, a prominent Ethiopian journalist and blogger who was released from prison under Abiy Ahmed’s reforms in early 2018.

Another problem for media organisations is the challenge of remaining viable financially.

“We have no profit; we can’t get any revenue from advertising,” says Rekike Tesera, Berera’s 22-year-old editor, who earns about 6 000 birr ($200) a month.

“Organisations and businesses are afraid to advertise with media because of how the government might react, as media are being viewed as ethnically biased. We are viewed as being for the Amhara region, but we cover issues concerning the whole country,” Tesera explained.

There is perhaps one upside to the current situation for struggling media. Berihun notes how the Berera readership has increased from about 2 500 a month to about 5 000 because of Ethiopia’s volatile situation.

“When the political environment is good, you tend to see a decline in readership,” Berihun says. “People are reading a lot at the moment.” — Deutsche Welle

Subscribe to the M&G

These are unprecedented times, and the role of media to tell and record the story of South Africa as it develops is more important than ever.

The Mail & Guardian is a proud news publisher with roots stretching back 35 years, and we’ve survived right from day one thanks to the support of readers who value fiercely independent journalism that is beholden to no-one. To help us continue for another 35 future years with the same proud values, please consider taking out a subscription.

James Jeffrey
Guest Author

Related stories

Women are entitled to own land

Too many laws and customs in too many African countries still treat women as minors

Disaster as climate crisis, tectonic shift swell Rift Valley lakes

The current tectonic cycle squeezes out water from the Earth’s aquifers; the previous cycle caused water to drain out of thelakes into the Earth’s aquifers

US foreign policy may be creating instability in Africa

Sometimes, the best foreign policy might be not to get involved at all

Abandoned in Lebanon, African domestic workers just want to go home

Dumped by their employers, and then stranded by their governments, African workers in Lebanon just want to go home. But it’s not that simple

‘Pro-family’ campaigners ignore pregnant women dying during Covid lockdowns

Conservative groups are fighting efforts to expand African women’s access to healthcare. Do they care about women all the time, or only when they’re procreating?

Polls in Ethiopia’s Tigray set to escalate standoff with Abiy

In recent days Abiy's office has instructed the Ethiopian Broadcasting Authority to call journalists working for foreign media outlets to pressure them not to cover the vote
Advertising

Subscribers only

SAA bailout raises more questions

As the government continues to grapple with the troubles facing the airline, it would do well to keep on eye on the impending Denel implosion

ANC’s rogue deployees revealed

Despite 6 300 ANC cadres working in government, the party’s integrity committee has done little to deal with its accused members

More top stories

Finance probe into the Ingonyama Trust Board goes ahead

The threat of legal action from ITB chairperson Jerome Ngwenya fails to halt forensic audit ordered by the land reform minister

Ailing Far East Rand hospital purchases ‘vanity’ furniture

Dr Zacharia Mathaba, who purchased the furniture, is a suspected overtime fraudster and was appointed as Gauteng hospital chief executive despite facing serious disciplinary charges

Eusebius McKaiser: Reject the dichotomy of political horrors

Senekal shows us that we must make a stand against the loud voice of the populist EFF and racist rightwingers

Seals abort pups in mass die-off

There are a number of factors — a pollutant, virus or bacteria or malnutrition — may have caused the 12 000 deaths on Namibia’s coast
Advertising

press releases

Loading latest Press Releases…

The best local and international journalism

handpicked and in your inbox every weekday