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Analysis: Eskinder Nega and the Ethiopian Media Landscape

By Meserach Hune
Tigrai Online Nov. 25, 2012

The media landscape in Ethiopia has changed dramatically in the past two decades. A country that had a few governmental media outlets has come to provide its population diverse print and electronic outlets.

It was only two decades ago that the country had only one television service, two radio services(one solely for educational transmission), four newspapers and two magazines. All explicitly owned and used by the government solely for the dissemination of communist ideology and official rhetoric. Their contents were uniform with no regional variation.

The transformation of the media landscape began in 1991; months after the Ethiopian Peoples’ Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF) captured Addis Ababa ending the 17 years long brutal rule of the Military regime. Freedom of Expression was affirmed in the Transition Period Charter adopted on June 1991 by the Transitional conference attended by representatives of almost all political parties, trade unions and other associations, including public figures.

Dozens of privately-owned newspapers and magazines flourished overnight. The government didn’t wish to delay the exercise of free press, even though an enabling legislation was not issued yet at the time.

A year later, the Transitional Government, which was a coalition of several parties, including OLF and Dr. Beyene Petros’s party, drafted a Press Freedom Proclamation and had it approved by the Transitional Council, which consisted about two dozen political parties.

The proclamation abolished “censorship of any form” and provided procedures for press license. Like any responsible press legislation, the proclamation set civil and criminal penalties for incitements of war and for publications encroaching on the rights of individuals.

This was re-affirmed in the Constitution of the Federal Democratic Republic of Ethiopia, which was adopted by the directly elected Constitutional Assembly in Nov. 1995. The Constitution declared in Article 29 “Right of Thought, Opinion and Expression”:

(1). Everyone has the right to hold opinions without interference.

(2). Everyone has the right to freedom of expression without any interference. This right shall include freedom to seek, receive and impart information and ideas of all kinds, regardless of frontiers, either orally, in writing or in print, in the form of art, or through any media of his choice.

(3). Freedom of the press and other mass media and freedom of artistic creativity is guaranteed. Freedom of the press shall specifically include the following elements: (a) Prohibition of any form of censorship.  (b) Access to information of public interest.

In the subsequent ten years, the government treated the press leniently, despite the abuse and misuse of the freedom by some members of the media. Despite cries of foul play by its own officials, other members of the political elite and academicians as well as the disapproving public opinion, the government hesitated to deploy the necessary administrative and legal tools to discipline the press, hoping that the press will mature gradually.

The government even abandoned a draft legislation enabling the establishment of an officially recognized National Press Council press council, (a journalists’ forum to set code of conduct and assess its implementation in the media), when the private press claimed it is an interference. But they didn’t establish the press council by themselves either.

Therefore, publishing news and stories with outright fictional claims, defaming individuals and organizations continued unabated. For example: The first privately owned bottled water factory went bankrupt after the owner refused to give money to a private newspaper which threatened to publish a false allegation of contamination. As the public took published claims at face value, the enterprise couldn’t undo the damage to its brand.

There were newspapers with outrageous and destabilizing contents, therefore, suspected of being controlled by outlawed opposition parties and foreign governments.

The case of Eskinder Nega

Eskinder Nega is a good demonstration of the level of irresponsibly observed in the private press prior to 2005.

Taking advantage of the government’s hesitancy to take harsh measures against the infant private press and having a considerable resource inherited from feudal grandparents, Eskinder simultaneously launched three newspapers, under different names, to suffocate the public space with explosive propaganda, incitements and hate speech.

The newspapers were a medium for sensationalized, fabricated and defamatory stories, with huge space dedicated for relaying incitements and provocative statements of outlawed insurgent groups.

The notoriety the three newspapers – Asqual, Menelik and Satenaw – is well known to anyone who was old-enough to read a newspaper in the first half of the last decade. As a demonstration of the scale of irresponsibility, let us read a few quotes, from Asqual newspaper, which are made available online recently by blogger Daniel Berhane. (http://danielberhane.com/category/eskinder-nega/ ).

Even though Blogger Daniel Berhane, laudably, published the originals with long translations, we need only to see a few lines glorifying the Holocaust and calling for the same to happen to Tigrayans. 

Asqual newspaper May 1 & 8, 2004:

“Wasn’t it possible to eliminate these people, who have no history other than being Baandaa, from Ethiopia? We feel it was a very easy task. But there was no determination.”

“The German people who took a decisive stand against the exploitative Jewish, under the resolute leadership of the Nazi, had continued showing their bravery in action. The German people have continued marching forward demonstrating its rage in action. Who can hold it lack? What does this tell us - real Ethiopians?”

“We, Habesha people, didn’t learn from the Germans. We couldn’t even preserve the history of our fathers. We are humiliated. Indeed, very humiliated. We should have acted with determination to eliminate racists and traitors from the face of Ethiopia.”

“However, there won’t be peace in a country where a cancer tribe or community exists.”

“A talk of peace would be a meaningless play with words in a country where a cancer tribe or community exists.”

Asqual newspaper May 15, 2004

“In any country, a cancer race, tribe or community shall be exterminated. It shall be done whenever it is necessary for the preservation of a country.”

“Derg didn’t have a genocidal mission on our ruler’s people. Of course, we real Ethiopians do not deny that is a sacred mission. Our mind immediately grasps its merit for our unity and sovereignty. Who cares about a soul whom history knows only for its crimes? Saving Ethiopia comes first.”

Asqual newspaper June 2004

“The traitors, who have been cancers of this country for centuries are now amassing our national resources. The Baandas, who have always been bleeding our country in cooperation with foreigners, are now in charge of our national treasury. The Jewish community’s economic prosperity was irreversibly demolished by the heroism of the Germans. How can the mountain of our traitor rulers’ tribal prosperity be flattened?”

“Nothing can succeed without popular mobilization. Several millions of Germans took part to demolish the economic base of the Jewish. We cowardly chose not even to question our rulers as they climb to great economic height in this poor county. To the contrary, one hundred thousand Germans directly participated in removing the Jewish and other anti-German forces. This is a historical irony.”

Eskinder’s newspapers are demonstrative of the outrageous misuse of the freedom of press by many of the privately-owned publication prior to 2005.

Eskinder was not alone. Like him, many of the owners of private newspapers were opposition party officials. They had no restraint from using the newspapers to create a national havoc, in the hope that the government will fall and their parties will grab power.

In the run to election 2005 and especially after the ballot, these irresponsible newspapers worked day and night to misinform and inflame the public.  The end result was a national tragedy where about two hundred people, including police officers, died and more than a million Birrs worth property was damaged.

Is Eskinder a loss to the media?

As demonstrated above, Eskinder Nega’s was not a pearl of the Ethiopian media landscape in the pre-2005 period, unlike what the westerners would have us believe.

To the contrary his practise was a bad influence on his peers and his publications disseminated dangerous incitements, even by European standards. His newspapers would have been treated as tabloids and he would have faced charges of Holocaust glorifications if they were published in Germany, France, etc.

The so-called human rights organizations, who don’t bother to read those newspapers and don’t care about the consequences, ignore all these misconducts. To the opposite, these organizations wish to see those days of insanity back. They spare no ink to denounce the legal actions taken to hold these publications and their owners accountable through a court of law.

Despite all these, the westerners go as far as to claim that the Ethiopian media landscape is impoverished because the government banned Eskinder from the media, since his release from prison in 2007.

The claim is misleading at the least. He was contributing articles sporadically to print and electronic media outlets and he could have worked as editor or journalist in any media if he had the skills and the interest.

The source of this misleading claim is the withholding of a publisher’s license he sought in 2007. In actuality, Eskinder’s application was withheld as it was a clear attempt to circumvent a judicial decision on the publishing enterprise, which he used until 2005.

The Court had levied a fine and ordered dissolution of that publishing enterprise for criminal misconducts in 2005. The enterprise had to be dissolved and its assets liquated. Instead, Eskinder was attempting to continue the publishing enterprise simply by securing a license under a new name. The government could not be part of this scheme, so it withheld the license application until the judicial decision is satisfied. The action was affirmed proper and legal by the Supreme Court when Eskinder lodged complaint.

Eskinder declared the government banned him for life and never bothered to make a serious engagement with the media, except for a handful articles in the years since 2007. As his trial had shown, he was rather busy meeting extremists at home and in diaspora contemplating an unconstitutional change of government through havoc and terrorization.

As you will see below, it not a surprise why Eskinder deserted the private press in the four years before his arrest. The Ethiopian media landscape was no longer the one that Eskinder and the like could easily dominate and circumvent.

The current state of the Ethiopian media landscape

As would be expected, following the scale of irresponsibility witnessed in 2005, the government started to set the necessary legal arrangements for the development of a constructive media landscape.

The Freedom of Press is not an absolute right. As Article 29, sub-article (6) declares:

Legal limitations can be laid down in order to protect the well-being of the youth, and the honour and reputation of individuals. Any propaganda for war as well as the public expression of opinion intended to injure human dignity shall be prohibited by law.”

Therefore, the government closed the legal loopholes used to misuse and abuse the freedom of press and put in place sufficient safeguards. However, as the same time, the government moved to exempt journalists from pre-trial detentions and establish a legal framework to establish the right of access to information.

Certainly, it is methodologically flawed and intellectually dishonest to overlook monumental transformation in the media landscape and focus on the case of an individual with scandalous media reputation.

A proper assessment of the Ethiopian media landscape should start from noting the level of diversity – interms of content, ownership, content and format – achieved in a short time, despite resource constraints and the abuse and misuse of the freedom by some members of the media.

Today, there are 6 television services, of which four transmitted by regional governments from their capitals. The national television provides news and programmes at half a dozen local languages, while providing air time for privately-owned shows and transmissions from regions which are yet to launch their own TV. Private-owned television stations are expected to start once Ethiopia completes the on-going technology transition from analogue to digital broadcast technology.

The growth in radio services is even more dazzling. Today, there are 3 MW radio services and 31 (thirty-one) FM radio services, almost half of which are privately owned. This is in addition to the 16 community radios.

No less importantly, about half of the radio services serve so far neglected areas and marginalized communities. The total number of the languages of transmissions has reached about 50 !

The surge in the number of languages of transmission is expected to be replicated in Television transmission in the next three years when the plan to launch about 10 more TV channels and 5 regional TV stations is completed. In addition to, several publicly-owned, private and community radio services currently in the process of licensing and launching.

The print media also has shown robust growth. The number of privately-owned newspapers and magazines currently in circulation at national level, weekly or monthly, stands around 40. This is excluding publications by the public media and those registered and circulated at regional level. 

Freedom of expression has also benefitted from relevant government policies.

Government-owned media outlets are re-established under a legal framework that gives them the character of a mass media. Today, these outlets consider themselves as a public media and effort to provide a people-centred service, under the guidance of a Supervisory Board directly appointed by the parliament.

The government’s socio-economic policies have seen an exponential growth of in the number of households owning Television and radio receivers. While the number of internet subscribers stood at 2.5 million in June 2012.

The main measure of Ethiopia’s media landscape is its ability to serve and reflect the diverse faces, issues and opinions of dreams of the population and add value to their daily challenges and aspirations. While that goal is far from achieved, the journey covered thus far is encouraging given the shortness of the period and the infancy of the democratic order.

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