Terje Skjerdal, is Associate Professor of Journalism and Media Studies at the Norwegian NLA University College, with decades of engagement with Ethiopian media with a focus on the conduction of research in collaboration with Addis Ababa University. In February 2021, Skjerdal published “Ethnification of the Ethiopian Media,” a research peace alongside Mulatu Alemayehu (PhD).
He argues that although it seems that ethnicity has become the new mainspring, it has always been an undercurrent in the Ethiopian media and journalism landscape. EBR had an audience with him to learn more about recent developments observed in the media sector.
How do you evaluate the media landscape after Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed (PhD) assumed power?
We have seen different noteworthy changes in the Ethiopian media sector during the past three years: liberalization of media legislation, diversification of media markets partly due to the diaspora’s return, and reinforced ethnification of the media landscape.
To some extent, untidy developments are only to be expected in the aftermath of newfound liberalization. It is common to see a flourishing of outlets and new channels when political systems open up, even though some outlets are driven by political motives rather than professional ambitions. It is also common to observe counter-tendencies after a couple of years when media faces renewed pressure from multiple actors.
Did you think the improvements observed in the media sector will continue?
My assumption is that the formal liberalization of the media sector in Ethiopia will last since it is based on tedious labor rather than just a quick change of the legal framework. However, deep suspicions between the authorities and parts of the media sector have existed for long, and these are not likely to disappear in the short term.
Where do you place media operators in terms of covering day-to-day events?
It is hard to evaluate Ethiopian media as a single entity. But generally speaking, the different outlets are better in political analysis than in news coverage. Breaking news is almost non-existent in local media, which I see as a legacy from government-controlled communication which has characterized the landscape for decades.
As of today, it is still difficult to follow day-to-day events in the country through media. Take the recent elections as an example. Both the election campaign and results are severely under-covered. Many important events, both in the government and in the rest of society, never reach the headlines. So, there is a lot of improvement to be done in basic news coverage and current affairs.
Another challenge is political bias, which characterizes various media channels. Bias is arguably an increasing problem in media around the globe. What society needs from professional media in an age of massively opinionated social media activity is reliable facts-oriented journalism, or neutral reporting, if you will. This is one area where Ethiopian media could improve their performance as well.
What are the main challenges for media?
As in other parts of the world, the competition from social media represents one of the biggest challenges for Ethiopian media. Many people are satisfied with news updates they get through social media and see no need to read newspapers and listen to news bulletins. As a result, traditional media are experiencing declining audience figures and subsequent revenue losses. They are challenged to demonstrate their uniqueness, for example, that they are more trustworthy than non-professional media.
Vis-à-vis the government, taxation represents a real threat for media. Imported media equipment—which is a necessity for many media houses—is taxed between 100 and 140Pct. This is one reason why it is tempting for private media to go digital. Ethiopia’s print media industry is an endangered species and high taxes only make the situation worse.
What should be done to improve access to information in Ethiopia?
Ethiopia was one of the first countries in sub-Saharan Africa to secure access to information when it introduced the principle in the 2008 media law. But, in practice, this right has not been much used. There are combined reasons for this, including a tradition of secrecy and protection in government offices.
Information in Ethiopian public administration areas tends to be personally protected, meaning that a journalist may not get access to a specific document if a certain person is out of office or the journalist is not trusted. There is a long way before Ethiopian journalists and citizens can experience real access to information. However, the Media Law Working Group was acutely aware of this, and I am sure that the new law will be followed up with further training for public officers.
Media should also take its share of responsibility for the lack of information retrieval. Journalists must be far more active in requesting information from public offices and start using the access to information legislation on a day-to-day basis.
In Ethiopia, the wholesale market for private print media is monopolized by a handful of distributors, which has hindered private press from increasing its circulation. What should be done to solve this problem?
I am not sure if there is an easy way out of this conundrum, but ideally, print media should own its own distribution network. That would require that the different outlets collaborate and own shares in the same distribution company.
There is also a severe problem regarding the lack of professional manpower. How can this be solved in the short- and long-term?
It is true that there aren’t short-term training centers for journalists in Ethiopia, but on the other hand there are many journalism programs in different universities—at least 20. The level of formal training is increasing. A survey I conducted among 350 media practitioners found that more than half—57Pct—had studied journalism in various universities.
The challenge with many of the degree programs is that they are mainly theoretical with less emphasis on hands-on training. A more practically oriented program in different universities would help the situation, combined with shorter courses.
How do you evaluate the financial standing of media houses?
Financial viability is a challenge for most media operations in Ethiopia. Overall, the media economy is weak. A part of the reason is that the country has never succeeded in establishing an audience-driven payment model. The Ethiopian Broadcasting Corporation formally has an annual license fee supposed to be paid by viewers, but very few households do so.
Instead, the broadcaster is sustained by government subsidy and sponsorship, besides advertising. Newspapers also mainly depend on advertising. This is not likely to be a viable model in the future when advertisers increasingly migrate to digital platforms while audiences have to carry more of the production costs. Changing the finance model will be one of the most important tasks for media—both public and private—in the next decade.
Any outlet depends on a viable audience base to be able to sustain itself financially. However, there necessarily isn’t a correlation between audience base and policy impact. It is well known from other societies that small and targeted outlets may have more influence on political decisions than popular outlets with high audience figures.
The private press in Ethiopia is highly concentrated in Addis Ababa. Why couldn’t private print media flourish in regional states?
In fact, regional media have grown considerably in the last decade. This is not least thanks to the public mass media agencies, although some cities, such as Mekelle, also have competitive private outlets. The different regional outlets have more than 2,000 journalists according to a survey I am currently engaged in, representing more than the number of journalists in federal media in the capital city. However, regional cities are dominated by monopolized mass media agencies. Some of the need that audiences have for alternative channels is probably fulfilled by private national channels which they can access online.
A competitive media culture on the regional level has not yet developed. However, I think this will change in several cities in the near future. One condition that is already in place is that most of these cities already have a journalism program in the local university with a number of students enrolled.
What should be the role of media in Ethiopia?
It is well established in modern media theory that the mandate of the journalistic media is built on the premise that media should be independent from other societal agents, thus comprising a fourth estate apart from political and legal authorities. This is necessary in order for monitoring and legitimate criticism to occur. Along this line, media should also be independent from civil society and the business community, even though media institutions are at the same time businesses rooted in the civil society. There is a tendency to portray media as having obtained a special mandate from the public, but this is misleading given that the public is not a unison voice. People have also not been consulted on what type of media they want. The reality is that media’s mandate is defined primarily by their own self-perception, informed by the history of journalism and media studies.
In any modern society, media has a great deal of framing power which influences decisions and public opinion. People working in media should be conscious about this power and exhibit a certain degree of humility towards other societal agents. EBR
9th Year • September 2021 • No. 100