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Ethiopia steadfast towards a responsible and diverse media

By Endalekachew Zenebe
Tigrai Onlne - August 22, 2014

In a similar fashion to the seasons in football leagues, the self-appointed western groups apparently pick a season for Ethiopia. Unlike the friendly engagements of the football seasons, this one is a season of accusations, self-righteous lectures and tarnishing the achievements made in this developing country and young democracy.

The recent weeks is one of those seasons where the groups line up to proclaim their reports and announcements of the state of press freedom based on their inaccurate, exaggerated and biased information inputs and flawed methodologies.

Their entire exercise, as observed time and again, demonstrated a gross disregard to basic principles. They rarely bother to draw a line between those have terrorist missions and peaceful acts of free expression. They treat those with an explicit objective is to overturn the constitutional order and with others who conduct political struggles within the legal framework.

As a result, they rush to blame the government even when the detained have formed alliances with the regime in Asmara with clear intention to destabilize Ethiopia. In this regard, the statements made by some western rights groups when Elias Kifle was charged with crimes and when Andargachew Tsigie was extradited to Ethiopia can be useful examples.

In the same fashion, the western groups denounce any and every detention of a suspect without giving due process of the law a chance.

The flawed observations and statements are an outcome of a disregard of several aspects of the state of media in Ethiopia that needed to be considered in any responsible analysis.

First, 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.

Second, it is a disregard of the fact that freedom of expression and civil rights can never be used as a justification for illegal, immoral and similar misconducts. Particularly in a country that provides, and implements, constitutional guarantees for peaceful political dissent.

Third, it is a disregard of the studies and researches that demonstrate the prevalence of partisan and negative coverage in the private press which was supposed to primarily serve and reflect the diverse faces, issues and opinions of dreams of the population and add value to their daily challenges and aspirations.

In this piece, we will discuss these points in turn.

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 a 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 inteference.

(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.

In the run to election 2005 and especially after the ballot, these irresponsible newspapers worked day and night to misinform and inflame the public. Many were actively working to undermine the public desire for peace and the efforts of even some western embassies who half-heartedly attempted to calm the opposition.

The extent of their dangerous state of mind was best demonstrated by the fact they were not even subtle about their intention to inflame the chaos. Many invoked the Amharic saying “kaldeferese ayteram” (it will not be calm before it is stirred) on their Op-Ed columns. They stirred it well and 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.

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.

Despite that, several private press continues to act irresponsibly.

The private press trend analysis conducted by Ethiopian Press Agency and Ethiopia News Agency and released on Addis Zemen newspaper a few months ago demonstrated that the prevalence of partisan and negative coverage in the private press which was supposed to primarily serve and reflect the diverse faces, issues and opinions of dreams of the population and add value to their daily challenges and aspirations.

The objective of the study was to assess the role of these magazines in the nation's peace, democracy and development. Therefore, the study covered seven private magazines which are selected based on their distribution rate. Those are: Addis Guday magazine, Fact magazine, Lomi magazine, Konjo magazine, Jano magazine, Enqu magazine and Liya magazine.

The study analyzed the magazine's editorial and columns of all the issues of the seven magazines published from September 11, 2013 up to Nov. 11, 2013.

The study's findings were presented from six major subject matters: Constitutional issues, Economic growth, on the political system, terrorism, Meles Legacy and about government officials.

The table below shows the frequency of the issues on the seven magazines in the three months covered by the study.

















Belittling the









Blackening the

political system








Denying the

economic growth

















Call for unrest



















Meles' legacy









In general, several private press have been engaged in repeated acts of incitement and dissemination of false rumors intended to cause a violent overthrow of the constitutional order and to undermine the public trust on the government.

As the Ministry of Justice said this month, several media outlets are engaged in incitements that could undermine national security, encouraging and glorifying and encouraging terrorism, inciting ethnic and racial hate, and defaming public officials and institutions.

Nonetheless, the government most of the time chooses not to lodge criminal charges rather makes efforts to convince the magazines to change their ways. When that fails, it is nothing but obligatory to take the matters to a court of law.

Before concluding, this piece we shall underline that the government's role in the press has never been restricted to controlling misconducts. Indeed, freedom of expression has also benefitted from relevant government policies in the last two decades.

Government-owned media outlets have been re-established and again and again so that they acquire 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.

Similarly, 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 shall be 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.

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. 

In light of these tremendous achievements, it is irresponsible to launch a smear campaign on Ethiopia based on ideological bias and using the natural limitations of a transitional democracy and developing country as a pretext.

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