It was Malcolm X, the African-American Human Rights Activist, who said that “media is the most powerful entity on earth.” Especially in the western world, it is regarded as the most powerful actor in the political realm. In fact, it is so important that it is often called the unofficial fourth branch of government.Even in a country like Ethiopia, the sector has had its moments. I remember the golden age when media in general, and private press in particular, was at peak popularity and stretched its muscle by influencing political parties, shaping political discourse, and setting the agenda during the 2005 national election. This period could be said to be one of the most free times in the history of Ethiopian private press. I can attest to this fact from my own experience when I was on the receiving side of the fruit of free press while attending higher education.
Unfortunately, the period after 2005 has been an eventfully torrid one for periodicals in Ethiopia. This period exhibited a dramatic decline especially of politically oriented press. Due to controversies over alleged voting flaws and consequent public unrest, journalists were imprisoned while many news outlets collapsed. This was a great loss for private media and society at large, including the government.
Although the then ruling Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF) won 99.6Pct of parliamentary seats in the 2010 national election, the administration escalated its repression of independent voices. I joined the sector during its darkest hours and witnessed its unfortunate demise and dwindling in terms of number, scale, and influence.
By the time the nation began to submerge into violence after 2016, the few independent news outlets which survived suppression and pressure from the government were in no position to offer balanced news. This is when social media replaced independent media by taking the upper hand and responsibility of disseminating information. Since most of the information disseminated by social media was unfiltered and unbalanced, the crisis intensified.
The collapsing media economy is closely entwined with politics and is a result of the overall shrinking space for the sector. The government and EPRDF employed various tactics to silence independent media, which it branded as a threat to its hegemony. Initially, the administration used threats, intimidation, and sometimes physical abuse to paralyze media actors. Journalists who wrote about sensitive political issues received regular threats and harassment, often extending to their families and friends. I, myself, have received my fair share. As a journalist active in the past decade, I have seen how pressure from the government plays a major role in incapacitating private press.
As the crackdown against independent media escalated, the government’s action elevated further to an orchestration of politically motivated prosecution under criminal and terrorism charges. As a result, the trial and conviction of journalists for their reporting became frequent. Some journalists who feared prosecution and conviction fled their country, while others were forced to languish in prison. In this way the government paralyzed independent media.
I remember the fear that descended upon journalists when the government arrested and prosecuted 10 journalists and bloggers in 2014, most of whom I have had the privilege to know and work with. This time, the threats, intimidation, and repression reached new heights because the government aired a program on a state-run television channel portraying the media professionals as supporters of terrorism.
By 2016, Ethiopia had the highest rate in the world of incarcerated journalists and every international organization working on freedom of expression branded the nation as the worst place to practice journalism. But the government gave no attention to this. In fact, it intensified its crackdown and crippling of media.
While the repression was drastic in terms of incapacitating and shutting down many private print publications, it was also effective in suppressing the few surviving private media and forcing them to engage in self-censorship on their coverage of politically sensitive issues for fear of prosecution and being shut down. Those who did not censor their coverage following warnings were often arbitrarily detained. As a result, journalists like me were caught between a rock and a hard place. I still have vivid memories of the distress of the time. Journalists either had to choose covering news that may put them and their families in danger or self-censor their coverage to promote the ruling party’s agenda. In any case, the technique was effective in decimating private media, diminishing independent reporting, and discouraging critical analysis.
But beyond the more newsworthy arrests, prosecutions, and convictions, the government used various other pernicious, yet more subtle, techniques to stifle and silence media. These include restricting the right of access to information and documents.
Of course, in a country like Ethiopia where the culture of secrecy is strong, accessing information is the profession’s default task. However, the government went to great lengths to restrict information provided to private media. Especially for those private press which it labeled as irresponsible, the government closed its doors and denied information.
After the introduction of the Freedom of Mass Media and Access to Information Proclamation in 2008, the government created a new structure under the then Government Communication Affairs Office (GCAO). Based on this arrangement, directors of public relation directorates at all government institutions became accountable to GCAO rather than the relevant minister or state minister. This restricted higher officials from disseminating information without the knowledge of the public relations director. Numerous times, I have seen ministers and other officials shying away from providing information to journalists for fear of the consequences.
This made accessing information from government institutions and officials difficult and tiresome. I have seen many professionals in the field, especially new recruits, abandoning the job because accessing information was a tedious task.
This doesn’t mean that there were no officials who are helpful in providing information, at least anonymously or off the record. In fact, I had the privilege of knowing few government officials who went the extra mile to provide information even after work hours and during weekends.
Many of us are under the illusion that we have a free and independent press after Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed (PhD) came to power. But the truth is we don’t.
Of course, the government has relaxed the media landscape by amending laws governing media. Media outlets that were shut down and forced to flee also resumed operations. Nevertheless, we haven’t seen media as we knew it prior to 2005.
The government has continued restricting access to information as officials still hold on to their previous habits of shutting their door on media. Although it is not as frequent as previously, we have seen journalists arrested and prosecuted. Diversified voices eventually diminished to the point where almost all media are now echoing the same voice.
Whether we like it or not, gone are the glorious days when independent media in general, and the private press in particular, played a significant role in Ethiopia. It gives me no pleasure when I say that the vibrant media we knew before 2005 isn’t coming back anytime soon.
9th Year • September 2021 • No. 100