Journalism in Ethiopia: Yesterday, Today and Tomorrow

Woubshet Taye Abebe is an Ethiopian journalist and writer. Prior to being convicted, along with three other journalists, under the Ethiopian terror act in 2011, he served as editor-in-chief of the Awramba Times, among other posts. He now works for the Gulale Post Magazine in Addis Abeba. Woubshet Taye Abebe’s article in this issue of The Dissident Blog describes developments in journalism in Ethiopia – from the first printed newspaper, Aemro, to contemporary hopes and expectations in anticipation of the recently-signed agreement. 

May 3 2019 Text: Woubshet Taye Abebe Translation from Amharic: Dejene Tesemma

It goes without saying that press refers to the whole body of mass media, including print and broadcast. Discussing journalism in the Ethiopian context means: reviewing the past, analysing the current, and predicting the future situations, which could be seen as complete if all aspects of media are taken into account.

The First Phase of Yesterday
Reports indicate that the period between 1890–1920 was the golden age of journalism, even worldwide. It was also a frog leap phenomenon, as photographs were first published with the headlines of newspapers some years before the golden period. 

This era was a time filled with great personalities we respect and admire in journalism classes: people like Joseph Pulitzer, William Rudolf, and Lord Rockcliffe created a newspaper empire. It was during this period, already after a long existence of journalism, that Ethiopia itself started exercising journalism. 

In the long history of emperors of Ethiopia, Minelik II is notably known for the victory he achieved over Italy at the battle of Adwa. He was the first leader to establish a newspaper in the country. Emperor Minelik also utilized media during his dispute with the Italians. While the dispute with colonialist Italy was still underway, but the power balance not yet determined, a certain crafty man by the name of Belata Gebregzabiher fled to Ethiopia from the then Bahire Negash (currently the State of Eritrea), which was a colony of Italy. 

Gebregzabiher resisted the colonization by Italy and moved from the district of Hamasen in Bahire Negash to the city of Harar, where Ras Mekonnen Gudissa, Minelik’s top official, was based. 

Gebregzabiher shared his worldly knowledge of diplomacy, Western philosophy, trade relations, and other things with the officials he met in Harar. Even though it was a good opportunity for the nobility in Harar, they couldn’t utilize Gebregzabiher’s wisdom, due to the day’s backward attitude towards western civilization—he rather encountered serious hatred from the nobility. 

The governor of Harar had respect for the new ideas from Western culture, but since his subordinates were critical he didn’t want to betray them. However, there was an unexpected incident; Ras Mekonnen suddenly passed away.

Aemro: The First Newspaper
Emperor Minelik heard about the wise man Gebregzabiher. He said Gebregzabiher was the type of person he most needed in his palace and summoned him. 

When Emperor Minelik met with Gebregzabiher, he was impressed by the latter’s talent and deep understanding of world affairs. Then Minelik instructed Gebregzabiher to write about the state of world affairs by hand and distribute copies to the palace community so that the nobility and emperor’s officials read them. As a result, a new wave of enlightenment filled the palace air. 

The name Aemro (brain) comes from this atmosphere of enlightenment, according to some scholars. It was the emperor himself who coined the word. 

However, this initiative was not flawless. As the writing was prepared by hand, neither the copy nor the content was sufficient to satisfy readers’ demand. 

As it is the case with media to take advantage of opportunities during changes of events, a chance came for Aemro to move a step forward. 

A Greek man named Salbandias told Emperor Minelik that a duplicating machine was available to distribute copies of Aemro. 24 copies of the newspaper were duplicated for distribution. Gradually, Aemero’s weekly copies grew to 200 pieces. This number was believed to be too many by the standards of those days. The publication continued in the same fashion up to 1905/6. 

In 1907/8 another expatriate by the name Edilbie introduced a printing machine, and on July 17, 1908 a modern newspaper known as Goh (dawn) was published. 

Colonization Attempt
During the Italian invasion in 1935, underground publications were distributed in the form of pamphlets. The publications focused on the victories of patriots, magnifying protests against the rule of the invaders and denouncing opponent forces. Contents of the publications were drafted, printed, and distributed by a group of young patriots known as the Black Lion. 

In modern theories, such clandestine publications are dubbed the fifth estate. However, such publications are not acceptable by authorities because of their influence on public opinion. 

The media commonly called the fourth estate usually operates in a similar manner that government executive, legislative, and judicatory structures function. 

As far as publications during the invasion period are concerned, one should never miss out the great contribution of the respected lady Sylvia Pankhurst, who produced “The Ethiopian News,” a newspaper that exposed atrocities committed by the invaders and their illegal occupation of Ethiopia. Ethiopian scholars also took part in the production of that newspaper. 

After the evacuation of Italian forces, defeated for the second time in its attempt to colonize Ethiopia, one of the main priorities of Emperor Hailesillassie (the last Solomonic monarchical dynasty) was the expansion of media outlets. He accomplished as much as conditions allowed him. 

He established Berhanena Selam [lit. translated Light & Peace] newspaper. He also established Addis Zemen [lit. translated: New Era) in 1941, a national daily still in publication. 

Despite the failure in practical implementation, this period also witnessed constitutional recognition of freedom of literary works and personal correspondences. No doubt the stay of the emperor in exile during the invasion period deeply motivated him to understand the importance of media. 

The Second Phase of Yesterday
When the great popular revolution of 1974 removed the feudal system in Ethiopia, it was hoped that new rays of dawn would radiate for democracy and the press. With some signals of the emergence of a multiparty system, strong political organizations of the time introduced their programs in their press organs. At the level of electronic media, reports have it that EMLOU (the Ethiopian Marxist Leninist Organization’s Union), a union of various political parties, was freely introducing its program. Unfortunately, that freedom was short lived, to be replaced by a media scenario that sung the same mantra for 17 years. 

The Recent Yesterday
This period covers 27 years, from 1991 when the Derg regime was toppled, up to early 2018. This time is characterized by unspeakable human rights violations and a systemic, nonstop attack on freedom of expression by various government institutions. The period can be sub divided into three categories: 

1993-2005: Immediately after the demise of the military regime, the first press law was proclaimed. Taking the momentum, some 380 newspapers and magazines were printed in an unprecedented fashion. Different views and ideas were exchanged freely. Nevertheless, the trend shocked a regime that didn’t believe in the quality of ideas but only force, for it grabbed state power at gunpoint.

Thus, the regime used systematic methods to intimidate and accuse media outlets, and in the end it forced them out of circulation. It pushed many journalists to leave the country and abandon their profession. 

2005-2010: Many believe that this period left behind two major hallmarks in the media history of the country. The first hallmark is that vying opposition political parties [in 2005 elections] were able to enjoy media coverage and attracted public attention, as they presented themselves in a well organized and coordinated manner. 

Second, it was a booming time for the print media as well. That time witnessed a circulation of 100,000 copies of a newspaper for the first time in the country’s media history. As much as those who were working in the media industry remember the golden time of freedom of expression in the time from the eve of the year 2005 until October 2006, we also remember with regrets the doom that press freedom faced. The aspiration of building a democratic system was also completely shattered. 

In the aftermath of the 2005 elections, at least 194 innocent souls were perished by sniper shooters. Free press was banned, journalists were jailed and sentenced to rigorous imprisonment. 

Even in the months before the incident, several journalists, including the writer of this piece, were intimidated and beaten up, kidnapped frequently, and their cameras and recorders either vandalized or confiscated when they came out from the opposition’s press briefing rooms. 

It was not a surprise to stay blindfolded for days in custody in unknown detention centres or military camps. 

The authoritarian system found itself hard pressed, and tried to halt free media and the urge for democracy under a camouflage of law enforcement. Accordingly, it proclaimed the infamous suppressive mass media and information freedom act 590/2008. This was an utter attack and irresponsible restriction on natural freedom of expression. 

An insult on injury was the code of ethics the government introduced on election reporting, totally eroding the nominal freedoms stipulated in the infamous press law. Some of the points regarding this issue will be briefly discussed later in this piece.

2010-2018: Dictatorial regimes usually end up naked, where no pretentious coverup could help them deceive the outside world. No pretexts could help to cover up their true nature. That was the case with the Ethiopian regime during the above-mentioned years. It could cheat neither the international community nor the Ethiopian society under the mask of law enforcement. Thus, it was clear to everyone that press freedom was totally suppressed. All journalists with dissident voices were either jailed, exiled, or forced to abandon their profession. 

Today and Tomorrow
The time we are referring to as today starts in the early months of 2018. In the last few months of this period, the suppressive regime shamefully relinquished power and we are already now in a transitional process. All imprisoned journalists and politicians have been freed by the coordinated efforts of the Ethiopian public. Those who were in exile for decades, those who went to the bush for armed struggle, and many others have returned home with honors. 

Those who are interested in media engagement have already grabbed the opportunity without any prerequisites. Parties are exercising politics freely, opening offices, undertaking organisational works. 

A committee tasked with the amendment of media law has been established in which stakeholders, including the writer of this piece, are taking part. Extensive discussions, consultations, research works and evaluations are underway. It is important to highlight in this writing some issues that are believed to be points of focus for the press law are on the table for amendment.

The Press Law Amendment
After the formation of the Justice and Law Advisory Council, it was agreed that draconian laws such as the electoral law, the antiterrorism law, and the mass media and freedom of information act should be amended. Accordingly, research and discussions with participating stakeholders are in progress. The mass media and information freedom act package study team is spending extensive time working on the amendment of the law.

According to the statement released by the team regarding the gaps:

  • Existing media laws, namely: Mass Media and Information Freedom act 590/2008, Broadcast Service act 533/2008 and the Cybercrime law 958/2016 have tarnished the country’s image and triggered serious international criticism.
  • Due to the restrictive laws, the few existing media outlets in the country are weakened; hence, they are not capable of performing investigate journalism; they engage in self censorship.
  • There is a double standard by the government in treating public and private media. 

The team tasked with the amendment of the existing media laws (those indicated earlier) are being reviewed as top priority. The initiative is so promising at this stage. Yet, it should surely but carefully be put into practice sooner than later to stimulate media vibrancy. 

The press freedom package needs to be put in place in line with the international pacts Ethiopia has ratified and the ideals stipulated in article 29 of the Ethiopian constitution. 

The law to be enacted should encourage freedom instead of control, latitude instead of restrictions, so as to build a transparent and democratic society. The law to be enacted should recognize and encourage the positive role of media institutions in fostering good governance and protection of human rights and economic and social development.

It should also promote public media partnership, impose loose fines, and have reasonable disciplinary rules. Given that these are satisfied, we can predict what tomorrow will bring for press freedom in Ethiopia.