Solomon Goshu, is Program Officer at International Media Support and Foyo, international media development institutions backed by Denmark and Sweden that provide media capacity building, research and development, coalition building, and management. The program in Ethiopia focuses on media reform, professionalism, and inclusion.
Solomon is also Coordinator of the national committee established three years ago to revise Ethiopian media laws after having been a journalist for ten years, including as a senior editor at The Reporter newspaper. He is a Lecturer at Addis Ababa University School of Law and has undertaken various research on Ethiopian media from a legal and journalistic perspective.
Where does the power of media emanate from? Is media part of a social contract or just a business enterprise?
The freedom of private press is inherited from citizens’ freedom of expression, which is a human right. Other human rights are also advanced through the discourse and rhetoric of free media. Media shapes public opinion and facilitates participatory democratization. Media is an instrument and also an end.
Media institutions have both a public interest and business side. A media institution cannot be accused of similar cases as an individual. For instance, a journalist cannot be forced to reveal sources as whistleblowers are important for the good of the public.
Therefore, media inherits the fourth state power that emanates from both the voter and ruler. A government that does not protect the media is not protecting the public’s interest. Media is a watchdog for the interest of the public, not for the founder nor journalist.
How do you evaluate the gap between freedom of expression clauses in the constitution and its actual implementation?
Under a normative structure, policy frameworks state what is allowed and prohibited. Then, the institutional framework determines the level of realization of the policy frameworks. The third stage is enforcement. Ethiopia has achieved significant progress in terms of normative structure over the last three decades, though with shortcomings in what is allowed and prohibited. Building independent institutions remains immature, from manpower to knowledge and network perspectives.
When a journalist is imprisoned, absconds, killed, or the media house is closed, it is not about the person. It is about the public’s interest overrun by the government. In Kenya and South Africa, where free media started at the same time as Ethiopia, there is a lot of progress on those three stages. Whenever a journalist is arrested or a media house is abused by the state, the government is immediately scrutinized. These countries have strong media associations and human rights advocators that pressure government and avert threats to the industry. Their media also has a strong audience base and public support because they are influential and shape public opinion. Therefore, the government thinks thrice before impeding media. In Ethiopia, the public does not protest.
Every government has the temptation to bypass laws when it comes to policy enforcement. Therefore, complete media independence is achieved only through the pressure and sacrifice of journalists and the public. Schools, society, research institutions, culture and tourism institutions, associations, and journalists collectively realize the full implementation of the constitution. But media must build the public’s trust.
In Ethiopia, even civil societies and opposition parties denounce media if they are the ones being criticized. Because the executive, judiciary, and legislative bodies in Ethiopia are singularized and there is an overlapping of power checks and balances, media has not been able to secure its rightful place. Media cannot be the fourth state, where the other three are missing.
Some scholars assert that Ethiopia’s constitution allows for freedom of speech only to contradict the clause by empowering government with an information protection right, which is censorship.
Article 29 provides a powerful protection. It states, “everyone has the right to hold opinions and express freely without 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/ her choice. Freedom of the press and other mass media and freedom of artistic creativity is guaranteed.” Kifle Wodajo was the major force behind the insertion of such a well-designed article.
However, there are indirect censorships hindering Ethiopian media from full freedom. If the print cost is beyond media houses’ financial capacity, or if the reporter or organization fears repercussion from government, there can be no free media. Press needs special protection because it is a major pillar for nation building and democracy.
In Ethiopia, where idea monopolization is a brand of society, the political space cannot embrace ideological diversity. Many countries ensure access to information and as long as public interest is involved, government must release information on any matter. Ethiopia needs strong laws to ensure access to information.
Article 29 of Ethiopia’s constitution places no limitation on media freedom but there are no supplementary laws that ensure access to information. Ethiopia is known for suppressing diversity and shrinking ideological spaces. For instance, Ethiopia has laws that prohibit hate speech. This needs cautious implementation to avoid erosion of media freedom.
I disagree that Ethiopia’s constitution gives less freedom to media, compared to the USA or Europe. But there are issues hindering the implementation on the ground. For instance, in many countries, national security is an excuse to suppress media freedom. Article 29 does not mention national security. However, in its preamble, the Proclamation to Provide for Freedom of Mass Media and Access to Information, ratified in 2008 and recently amended, states that “the constitution affirms that freedom of expression and of the mass media can be restricted to ensure national security, public order…” This is utterly baseless and thus, totally undercuts the constitution.
Article 29 is an exhaustive listing, not a sample listing. However, media policies, proclamations, regulations, directives, and circulars are against the constitution. Especially circulars, which have no legal existence in the proclamation, are more powerful than the constitution. Any official can write circulars for institutions to ban media houses, arrest journalists, or restrict access to specific information, without any legal backing.
This is mainly because courts have no direct power in interpreting the constitution. The constitution could not be reinterpreted or revised because the House of Federation works for the ruling party. If tested, most of Ethiopia’s media laws would fail to pass Article 29.
What was your diagnosis as coordinator of the media laws reform committee and what were major changes undertaken in the recently ratified media proclamation?
The committee was formed in August 2018 by the Attorney General. Our fundamental task over the past three years was to revise Ethiopian media laws to reflect the spirit of Article 29.
In Ethiopia, reforms and the introduction of the best laws do not change the reality on the ground. So, our task was to also forward recommendations on straightforward implementations, alongside reforming laws and institutions. We referred to the constitution, international human right laws, and global best practices, models, and principles.
We cut out most of the media laws that do not align with the constitution. For instance, defamation and disreputation claims are currently seen under the civil code; they were previously under the criminal code. The previous media law has overly threatening penalties and exaggerated articles. For example, if a media house reports on issues that “inflict ethnic conflict,” all of its property is confiscated. In Ethiopia, it takes a lifelong worth of savings to invest in a TV station which the government can just overtake if the station reports something somebody does not like.
We did not only change the existing media law, but we also diagnosed 33 related proclamations. Fragmentation is a big problem. Mass media is now converging from the classical categorizations of broadcast and print. We congregated the classicals with internet laws and also gave due consideration for digital and satellite-based broadcasting services. We converged the new media law with the digital transformation legal frameworks that began in 2015.
Establishment of the previous Ethiopian Broadcast Authority also created loopholes for intervention by the ruling party as its directors were political appointees representing their interests. Media institutions and professionals’ rights and responsibilities were mentioned only vaguely and ambiguously. The Ethiopian Media Council was unable to legally register. All these have now been solved. We also differentiated between legal and administrative measures, pushing the government to use the latter corrective action. Possible monetary penalties should also consider financial flow and profit so as to safeguard the media house from folding from fines.
Media investment was also previously restricted. The banning of foreign investment in local media especially dried the investment flow. Foreigners are now allowed to own up to 25Pct in local media houses. Another area amended is the licensing process of media institutions where plural ownership is now allowed. This aims to end media founders’ monopoly and is in line with government’s principle of diversification.
We used the Mass Media Proclamation of 2000, Broadcast Services Proclamation of 1999, and the Computer Crime Proclamation as a baseline to craft the new media laws. The Ethiopian Media Authority (EMA) was established and is responsible for the regulation of online media and periodical print media. It is an anomaly that these were previously regulated by the broadcast authority. EMA is responsible to Parliament, where its predecessors were responsible to the Ministry of Government Communications and then the PM’s Office. This was wrong as these bodies are from the executive wing of government.
Board members of EMA now have to be publicly approved. The new law also prohibits political appointees of board members directly from party members.
Our initial plan was to even amend the advertisement proclamation, the penal code, and many others. But we were only able to work on these three proclamations. Although we tried to reform major bottlenecks, there are many laws that should still be amended to create an ideal media environment.
The government is deploying press secretaries, PR departments, state media, and social media to undercut private press. Does the new administration really believe that free media is a pillar of democratization?
Public media is under government pressure basically because they live on tax payers’ money. They cannot criticize government. As a platform, all media deserve protection, whether public or private.
A larger number of private media in Ethiopia were established during the transitional government after the fall of Derg. Their motive was to illegitimatize the transitional government and EPRDF.
In retaliation, EPRDF picked some media for its version of narration, and thus undermined private free media. This created voices which only praised government and did not articulate what policies and measurements government should introduce. To some extent, media was a platform of war with opposition parties. EPRDF perceived media as having an anti-regime mentality, with low professionality and lacking ethically.
Today, the public has much more alternatives to access real-time information online. The only option for classical private media to stay afloat is to yield to professional and independent analysis. It must be able to raise big issues and deliver sharply balanced criticism. Even though periodicals’ circulation might continue declining, its importance will persist in the near future.
Online media is shallow and the public wants research based, balanced, analytical, and constructive platforms. However, private media, advocacy groups, and others must pressure the government to create a truly free environment.
Yet, government plays a crucial role in that both the administration and stakeholders must fulfill basic and advanced infrastructure, because freedom of speech is based on state infrastructure.
So, you think that private press will only survive for the near future?
The media revenue decline that we are seeing globally is alarming. Advertisement rates are dropping in print media.
Unless print media manages to parallelly cope with a strong online presence, it might only exist for the next decade. It must customize its content for a digital audience, increase online distribution, and generate income from online readership. Monetizing online content has become an issue of survival or death for free press. Broadcast media are in a similar situation.
Previously, people had to watch TV or listen to the radio at the stations’ convenience. But today, technology-enabled audiences have access to information at any time. The digital era is dictating the content and timing of old mainstream media. Yet, it is an opportunity to reach a greater audience. Public, commercial, print, community, and online media must all find their rightful place in the generation of the internet.
Media relies on advertisers, funders, or partners. How can free press exist under such circumstances?
Every content production has an editorial process. Media must operate without pressure from advertisers, funders, business partners, or any other political, religious, or economic entity. It should never become the mouthpiece of any specific ideology.
Usually, media free of government influence is considered free media. But they are not, because they are often the mouthpiece of the other side of government. Philosophically, the principle of independent media has been changing throughout time. The current global discourse is changing the traditional subjective and objective reporting mechanisms into an artificial function.
Traditionally, media cannot endorse any political force during elections. But in contemporary media, it is not the case. So, the discourse is fundamentally shifting.
In Ethiopia, media has not been able to stand on its own feet because it is instrumentalized for ulterior purposes.
Print media are an endangered species especially after the 2005 election. Even the decades-old periodicals are struggling with the emergence of digital media, let alone being able to grow their circulation. Can a sector that is close to dying, grow?
Public, community, and commercial media establishments in Ethiopia have not grown over the past decades. Some have even gone in reverse. In terms of content quality, coverage and circulation, operational capacity, presence outside of Addis Ababa, and financial and professional capacity, they have fundamental limitations.
The problem starts at the journalism schools which are inadequate and insufficient. There are no research centers, labs, inhouse training facilities, and mechanisms of how senior journalists can train juniors.
Government does not support private media. The media environment is also not appealing as a business. Media grows on the shoulder of many stakeholders, not only the founders. These stakeholders are lacking in Ethiopia.
The last three years have brought in many key stakeholders including civic organizations and media supporters, like International Media Support (IMS). To my knowledge, over 17 international institutions are working to develop the inhouse capacities of local media houses. They are working on institutional development, experience sharing, and research and development financing amongst others.
But in a country like Ethiopia where there are authoritarian natures, opportunities are shut out too soon. Though we are in transition process, we must appreciate the changes.
Can media houses float shares to the public?
The government regulates this transaction. For instance, it can determine to whom a broadband-based media organization should be sold to, because spectrum frequency is a limited resource and it must be properly utilized.
Consideration is also placed on the origin of the investors to ensure they are not from hostile nations. EMA checks why foreigners would want to invest in local media. In other countries, such background checks are done with the support of the intelligence service. Therefore, media cannot be led with purely a market-based principle, because ownership is attached to sensitive national security issues. If media ownership is violated by investors from enemy countries, both government policy and public interests are infringed upon.
If founders sell their company, the transfer or transaction is finalized only when the regulatory body ensures the public’s interest is maintained. Transferring media ownership is not like selling a car. This is because there is a solemn public interest above the commercial aspect of a media house.
The new law limits foreign ownership at 25Pct. Also, the buyer must have similar interests as the founder. Media transactions can never be based on the free-market principle. Yet, a media business must be viable enough to market and persist under different owners.
How should free press maximize its significance and coverage and go beyond unexplored boundaries?
Which media platform will be more in demand in the near future? For example, we see in developing nations that radio has a significant place in shaping public opinion.
Most of the current Ethiopian population, especially the youth, rely on mobile phones for their first news experience. This generation isn’t well experienced with neither print nor broadcast. It is the digital generation. Older age groups, experienced with classic media, need content delivery in that manner. When this old generation gradually ceases to exist, print and broadcast will gradually diminish and online media will increasingly take over.
Mainstream media needs to revise their business models. Demography, geography, age, interest group, and other segmentations require customized content.
Currently, some audience members do not believe the news, unless their loyal platform reports it. Media houses must reform, from their recruitment policy to performance levels. Some establishments claim that they are the only authentic media house on some topics. This excludes other media from reporting on the same issue. They call themselves free but label other media as untrusted. This goes against the ABCs of free media.
Basically, free media is about civilization, accommodating diversity and extreme ideologies, and creating a common agenda. If the media industry does not stand together as one, it cannot have bargaining power against the government. So, whether media is traditional, online, public, or commercial, it must unite.
Government needs a policy to redistribute dwindling advertisement revenue equally among media houses. The new media law allows for government’s advertising distribution based on performance, thus rewarding professional media’s capacity to influence public interest. The regime used to prohibit advertisers from giving ads to media who criticized government.
Therefore, media needs collective effort to advance the industry’s interests. Government also needs to pursue its commitment to ensure human rights protection, democratization, and development promises. Further, the administration wants equal development amongst regions but media is primarily limited to Addis Ababa. It should work towards this.
Online media provisioning needs special attention and policy because the platform can be used for both positive change or destruction. Mainstream and online media must target large online audiences. Developing and professionalizing online media should be top priority. At the same time, community-based ownership of media is also essential.
Who is the judge that determines what is against or for the public’s interest?
The courts have the final verdict over access to information. Preferably, self-regulation is the first mechanism. Courts oversee legal and serious issues while EMA looks at administrative mistakes. But ethical issues should be seen by senior journalists and the media council.
These are the global trends. Media practitioners need consensus on peer review mechanisms before complaints go to adjudication. The overseeing of media issues by outsiders is equal to the hijacking of media. The new media law provides a self-regulatory space for practitioners.
Some scholars insist that Ethiopia needs developmental journalism. What are your thoughts on this?
The question is not whether developmental journalism is necessary or not. What is development?
In Ethiopia, developmental journalism has been practiced out of context. Even in the most authoritarian states like Singapore, for instance, media is allowed to criticize corruption but never ideological debates. Singapore believes that ideological issues can only be probed by its parliament. But the government is ready to react to any corruption news reported by media.
Ethiopia defines developmental journalism as anything the state says. Yet, in its classical definition, constructive, forward looking, and development-oriented critiques and performance evaluations are developmental reporting.
For today’s media, establishing ideological attachment with specific models is outdated. Under the EPRDF, developmental reporting was badly distorted and focused on praising government without mentioning its failures. This created narrow-minded journalists instead of promoting development. In its essence, developmental journalism is evaluating and criticizing political and economic progress and proposing policy options.
A road project is delayed by fifteen years. If the delay is reported, it is doomsday reporting; if its inauguration on the 15th year is reported, it is developmental journalism. EBR
9th Year • September 2021 • No. 100