Ethiopia: media in transition

The current media system in Ethiopia has yet to yield the desired results of promoting diversity, openness, responsiveness and autonomy

Ethiopian society has been in transition for more than a quarter of a century and so have the country’s media and their practitioners. Having a legacy of rule by monocracies and autocracy before 1991, the past three decades were broadly characterised by the authoritarian rule of the ruling Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF). Now, the country is in a period of political transition, the form and substance of which are yet to be seen, and the stakes have never been higher. Aspiring to hold a hegemonic grip on society, leaders of successive regimes increasingly believed that the media should play an instrumental role in their designs. The most recent regime declared a transitional charter in June 1991, which lifted sanctions on freedom of speech, removed prior censorship, and outlawed the practice of “administrative” censorship of the press. The charter led to a proliferation of the printed press in the early 1990s in the form of periodical magazines and newspapers, although the broadcast sector remained the exclusive domain of the state up until very recently.

However, in the decades that followed, whether in the public sphere or the private media, the media landscape in Ethiopia’s political transition was defined by the adversarial relationship between the state and the nascent private press. As part of this, the state continued to see the public media as an instrument of management. Members of the Ethiopian elite see members of the public as indifferent and passive recipients of information in the form of education and entertainment, as well as social mobilisation, all in pursuit of a defined objective. If power is about seeing reality in order to change it, the Ethiopian media industry has a history of complicity with the government of the day, as an echo chamber to its narratives. This continues to be the case, only with new slogans. A world of information that is differentiated, (possibly) contradictory and which involves changing interests is discouraged; the media are not seen as an intermediary in participatory democracy. Many of the country’s journalists agree with this paternalistic view of power, thus cheerleading the ruling elite’s definitions of national security and national interest.

Many find it convenient to accept this, and their complicity has been important in maintaining power. Since the charter, the government’s approach has been to subdue the media under the guise of maintaining “public order” and asserting “national security”. The struggle between these two ideas of the media – as an instrument of state control on the one hand (agent of stability), and as a check on the state’s exercise of power and representative of the public on the other (agent of change) – continues to this day. Ethiopia’s Constitution (Article 29) favours the latter approach. It guarantees comprehensive freedoms by banning prior censorship and protecting the freedoms of information and expression. Sub-article two of Article 29 says: “Everyone has the right to freedom of expression without any interference”. Article 29 criminalises those who would constrain the exercise of this freedom, declaring, in sub-article seven: “Any citizen who violates any legal limitations on the exercise of these rights may be held liable under the law”. The Constitution establishes that the state cannot write laws in violation of these rights in the absence of a legislative body, and even with such authority, it cannot do so as it pleases.

The grounds for limitations are narrowly defined. Limitations on the fundamental freedoms must “protect the well-being of the youth, the honour and reputation of individuals”. The Constitution also outlaws “propaganda for war as well as [the] public expression of opinion intended to injure human dignity”. If these constitutionally enshrined freedoms have been eroded in recent years, both in legal and institutional ways, the blame lies with legislators. As leaders of the ruling party developed an ever more sophisticated taste for ideological hegemony, they wrote laws governing many aspects of life in Ethiopia. Of note was the erosion of these freedoms when legislators voted in favour of the revised Penal Code, in 2005, which contains elements that are a regrettable regression from the spirit of the Constitution. So the Constitution narrowly constrains the state’s ability to curb freedom of speech and the press and sets a minimum standard for the protection of human dignity. On the other hand, it broadens the scope of possible limitations in the criminal code, which includes a clause referring to “the protection of collective security and violations of any rights protected by the law”.

Another provision of the Penal Code (Article 613, sub-article one) has earned Ethiopia a rare place in the world for its resurrection of an archaic concept of law many countries are now only willing to preserve in their archives. For many across the world, the phrase “seditious libel” must sound antique. In Ethiopia, however, content published might be true, but if it is deemed to be libel and malicious [by a court], its publisher faces criminal conviction. This provision was quietly introduced into the penal code by proponents of the views of Sir William Blackstone, a British 18th century legal scholar who established that “truth is not a defence, and the judge alone decides whether the publication was seditious”. The burden of proof otherwise is with the accused. These constitutionally guaranteed rights have been further eroded by subsequent laws, putting the media as agents of change on the retreat. There have been no less than 33 proclamations of various kinds, all of which have yet to pass a legal test on whether they comply with the Constitution. The media’s rightful place in Ethiopian society should be shaped by clarity as regards its purpose and mission.

Editors, journalists and commentators need to understand the evolving values, norms and principles of the society they serve. They must define their mission in ways that are not shaped by fear of power or by vested interests. In transitional societies, where the old has not been phased out entirely, and the new has yet to be born, the media’s responsibilities are to transform. It ought to be up to the media themselves to guard their expressive space against hegemonic incursions of power. It is not the business of the media to get into bed with any of these actors, regardless of the holiness of the cause professed or the attractiveness of the veil under which it is hidden – whether in the form of patriotism, nationalism or the many other “isms” that pop up periodically. Regrettably, in a landscape where power plays a significant interventive role, the media churn out partisan political commentaries rather than dispassionate information, news and analysis. These instrumentalist and, in some cases, militant media help to create a public that is loyal to ideologies that may be at variance with a common good. At present, the most politically active segments of Ethiopian society are avid consumers of information, while the majority remains passive and disenfranchised.

The media should instead see their mission as being rooted in public opinion. They need to recognise the important roles non-state actors can play in society. They can benefit themselves and their audiences at the same time, as long as they remain professional in their core mission, which is to help the public broaden their range of choices. This requires accuracy, context, analysis and background. Professionalism in the media industry, as with many other disciplines, has limits. Practitioners need to ensure their own financial viability while carving out an expressive space that is free from state and other intrusion. They cannot thrive as long as they remain dependent on predatory hands. They ought to be enabling legal and ethical frameworks and in so doing ensuring their own credibility, which further supports their continued existence and provides protection whenever they come under attack. Legal and ethical instruments are therefore also needed to keep the media on their toes so that they remain faithful to their core mission. Any attempts to mould any media platform in terms that are contrary to the realities of society, and which make the media subservient to hegemonic messages, are a betrayal of the spirit of the Constitution.

Ethiopian society is diverse, and its media should reflect that. Stifling dissent in a diverse society only leads to despotism and the tyranny of the majority. A media corps willing to embed itself with the powers that be, and to carry out their wishes, cannot be faithful to the public and quickly loses credibility. On the other hand, independent, professional and competent media need the protection of an independent judiciary. It is crucial that Ethiopia’s media industry institutionalises itself, first agreeing on the model it wants to emulate. The current media landscape is, no doubt, a product of a social and political history characterised by a high degree of polarisation between various groups of society. For many, “loyal” bias in favour of a partisan agenda is more important than commitment to shared professional values. The media industry and its active players are not immune to the demands of collectivist political cultures, but they should see themselves as the champions of different, even polarised views.

Tamrat G Giorgis is the managing editor of Fortune, which covers mainly the economies of Ethiopia and Africa. He has over 28 years experience in nearly every aspect of publishing with more than 11 various publications. He is a member of the Alumni of the University of Georgetown’s School of Foreign Policy and regularly contributes to specialised international publications.