For long, Ethiopia has been known as a hostile country for journalists with a leading record amongst the global community of nations for jailing and incriminating media professionals. This record finally changed in 2019, a year which passed with zero journalists imprisoned and incriminated. The United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) celebrated that year’s World Press Freedom Day in Addis Ababa, as recognition for the country improving the state of its media since the coming to power of Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed and to further encourage the opening up of the space for media freedom.This rosy beginning was, however, very short-lived because media immediately started to be challenged on several fronts. The adoption of a bill that prohibited the promotion of alcoholic drinks on electronic media cut about 40Pct of the revenue of some media houses. The continuous devaluation of the local currency also made print media suffer due to the unprecedented escalating of printing costs.
Berhanena Selam, the sole and state-owned newspaper printing enterprise in the country, has instituted a price boost of more than 100Pct in the past three and a half years alone. Addis Maleda (AM) newspaper, a sister publication of Ethiopian Business Review (EBR) magazine, launched in October 2018 and was first printed for ETB6 per copy. The printing of the same newspaper costs over ETB12 per copy now.
The irony is that this state-owned monopoly bags profits matching the net income of some of the nations’ financial institutions, year after year. As a result of the revenue decline among several electronic media outlets and the severe cost escalation challenges incurred by many publications, several periodicals have ceased operations. To date, there are only eight private newspaper and five magazines registered in the nation. Two decades ago, Ethiopia had hundreds of newspapers and magazines in circulation, even with meager advertisement revenues.
Another serious problem media has been facing since March 2018 is an unprecedented level of information centralization. With the dissolution of the Government Communications Affairs Office, the tradition of regular press conferences by the state has been abolished. The Press Secretariat Office, within the Prime Minister’s Office, has neither taken on its role as the government’s information office, nor has it authorized line ministries to perform their role as sources of information regarding state affairs. Not only has that been the case, many government institutions, including the Office of the Prime Minister, have sidelined private media from accessing information. State and party-affiliated media houses were by and large the only privileged to access information regarding state affairs. The Premiere himself has avoided facing private media journalists, even as his predecessors had regular schedules of meeting journalists from public, private, and international media houses on a quarterly basis.
The new administration has, however, done something very positive for media. Before Abiy came to power, the then Ethiopian Revenues and Customs Authority (ERCA) was drafting a bill which was supposed to itemize business expenses exempt from being tax deductible. In this list, costs which companies incur for marketing, promotion, and advertising at other media houses were categorized in the list of expenses the tax authority would not consider for tax calculations. The previous norm was to only exclude costs categorized as entertainment expenses, including bills paid for food and drinks that even event companies organized on behalf of the media outlet. Had the draft bill in the making been approved and operational, most media houses would have lost substantial portions of their revenue.
Media, like any other sector, needs to be provided with the right mix of incentives to flourish. It’s only then that it can play a meaningful role in informing the public and ensuring public accountability at large. Governments that have understood this role of media have provided all the incentives that lead to a robust media landscape. These countries have achieved better growth of their economies and have also ensured an active citizenry—cornerstones of a flourishing democracy. Countries with a profoundly developed media landscape have better-managed public funds. Developing countries like Ethiopia, which are resource-scarce in many ways and have a large proportion of their citizens living in abject poverty, can’t afford the wastage of meager resources to corruption and mismanagement. Robust media can help in the fight against corruption.
One incentive government can provide for the flourishing of the sector is to provide sufficient tax privileges. The import of electronic equipment duty-free can help electronic media blossom. It can also encourage print media by incentivizing investments in the printing and pulp industries. In a country with close to 30 million students, the need for textbooks and notebooks is huge. Because the paper and pulp industries have not received enough attention and tax incentives to enable its development locally, Ethiopia now spends hundreds of millions of dollars each year to import these items from Asia. The development of these industries would provide print media with affordable and alternate printing options.
In general, the need to make media as a business, and journalism as a profession, attractive and less risky is very timely and truly beneficial for the country.
In the meantime, media should also organize itself and advocate for its collective interest. The less media organizes itself and pushes its agenda, the more government remains indifferent towards the sector. The country’s Media Council should especially and aggressively work towards bringing the sector together to change the status quo. Influencing public policies regarding media itself is necessary. Media governance should also improve with more transparency and accountability.
Many founders still struggle to institutionalize and leave a decent legacy. It’s extremely timely to work on media development strategies as a country, in consideration of the good which media can contribute in the fight against corruption and maladministration. An unhealthy media can become corrupt in itself and cost society dearly. This is more severe now with the advent of digital media, where everyone can become a citizen journalist with the means to misinform the public with a simple smartphone and social media account. The dangers of widespread flow of content that amounts to hate speech, and fake news promoting extremism and violence, are clearer now than ever. Strengthening legally registered media houses and journalism schools in the nation helps reduce the adverse effects of damaging media.
9th Year • September 2021 • No. 100