By Benon Oluka
In mid-2021, research carried out by Dr Mulatu Alemayehu Moges, an assistant professor of journalism and communication at the Addis Ababa University’s School of Journalism and Communication in Ethiopia, and Dr Terje Skjerdal, an associate professor of journalism at NLA university college in Norway, revealed the extent of the divisions within the media in Ethiopia. Dr Mulatu, who is also the founder and executive director of a media development non-profit, the Ethiopia National Media Support (ENMS), spoke to Benon Herbert Oluka about the state of the media in the Horn of Africa nation, and the effort to undertake a digital transformation amidst the current challenges. He also made a pretty damning projection about the fate of journalism in the country if the current downward spiral continues.
Describe the current state of the media in Ethiopia in terms of the quality of output and quantity, in terms of the numbers of the media outlets that operate in the country.
Let me start with the quantity of media organizations. Well, I am talking about this in relative terms; since the coming of [current Ethiopian Prime Minister] Abiy [Ahmed], the number of media organizations have relatively increased because new licenses have been given for some community radios as well as commercial radios. Some media organizations which were operationalized outside Ethiopia have now started operating in Ethiopia. So, this has increased the number of media organizations in the country.
However, comparing [the number of media organizations] to the total population of Ethiopia, you know it’s more than 110 million [people], and [given] the importance of media for development, peace-building, democracy, etc, the number cannot be described as promising.
[This is] because currently there are 101 radio and television stations in Ethiopia, and around 23 newspapers and magazines, which are owned by the government as well as private organizations. So, when we calculate the ratio, one radio station has been serving more than one million people. So, based on this comparison, we can’t say the number is promising. But if you compare with the ratio under the previous government, then the numbers are somewhat good.
The other one is the quality of media output. I can describe this in two ways. The first one is, soon after the coming of Abiy, which was the period of a new spirit, hopes and opportunities for the Ethiopian media, the media were reporting issues in the way that journalism requires. They used to report issues objectively and independently. People were enjoying the stories that were coming from the media, including the government-owned media.
However, this did not last long. After, one or two years, things changed to the way things were before Abiy. They went back to the situation of government interference on the content and its manipulation, and governmental interference in agenda setting has been largely observed. And you can see the issues that are reported in the public media, for instance; almost all the issues are entirely dominated by government voices or issues related to the government now have much more prominent coverage. So, you can sense how the government is, directly and indirectly, influencing the content.
This [interference] cannot largely be seen in the private media originations. However, due to the fear of the political situation or as business-related issues, the private media organizations, particularly the televisions, are not strong enough to deal with critical issues. In fact, this is also in relative terms. So, compared with the previous government, they are good but still, there are a lot of issues which are going on in Ethiopia. You can take the political, conflict and election issues. These issues should be reported thoroughly [but], unfortunately, we cannot see thorough and objective reporting in the media at large.
The other thing is that some of the private media are in one way or the other aligned with the owners’ interest, so this affects the quality of output. Issues are framed based on either the media [outlet’s] political interest or the ethnic group’s interest of the owners and this has a repercussion on the quality of the output in the Ethiopian media. So, in general, we can say that the Ethiopian media’s internal or external plurality is highly under pressure; it’s not promising. It is not as it should be.
You have spoken about the impact of the Abiy administration since he came to power. What other decisions, actions, or positions by successive governments on issues regarding the media have had the most profound impact on journalism in Ethiopia as we see it today?
The current government can be described as liberal and when it comes to the expansion of the media, particularly in the quality of the production and the news reporting, when it comes to the quality of the stories, the appearance of Abiy’s government on the scene can be described in two phases. The first one is soon after he came to the power, he did so many amazing jobs to improve the quality of the news and programme production and people were enjoying the independent news stories aired by the public media.
However, after [about] one or two years, because of so many political [developments], the media reduced the news stories that were in line with the interest of the public. At this moment, just to make it very clear, the public media, which is technically the state media, are not that neutral in writing and reporting stories as the profession requires. Most of the stories, like in the previous government, are reported in line with the interest, and in favour, of the government. And if there are things that the government is not comfortable with, the public media are not that courageous to report those stories. So, everything is now determined by the government’s interests.
So, taking this situation into account, though the expansion of the media is relatively increasing, when it comes to the quality, I don’t see the support of the government to improve the professionalism of the journalists. Instead, the government is putting its own direct and indirect pressure on the news production [processes], so it’s very difficult to say that the media reporting is neutral.
What caused this change of stance by Abiy’s government from a point where they were advancing more progressive policies that led to an increase in the number of media outlets to this point where they are putting undue pressure on the media to tow a particular line?
One of the reasons is the conflict [between the government and forces in the country’s northern Tigray region]. You know, [with] the current conflict, we don’t know how it’s going to turn out. There are so many unprecedented issues. People are dying and the political scenario has totally changed. Almost the [entire] northern part of Ethiopia cannot be described as peaceful, and the political situation is so worrying. The groups which are fighting against the government have put up their own challenge against the government, and the government wants to use the media as a propaganda machine.
The second one is the overall political situation in Ethiopia. There is so much turmoil across the country. The situation is not that much compatible to the people, and the international and national pressure on the government is increasing. So, all these things have changed the interest and the commitment of the government to liberalize the media. So, the government seems [to be] using the media as a tool to send its own stories, its own propaganda. And because of this, it’s becoming difficult to see neutral and balanced stories in the public media.
When it comes to other media like the private and online media, we can see lots of stories are being sent by different organizations and these stories, since most of them are not well-sourced and are reflecting some groups’ interests, sometimes it’s difficult to say that it’s accurate information.
So, in general, the public media are not providing neutral information. The commercial media is tilted to the owners’ interest. The online media is reporting whatever they see fit but that has its own challenge of fake news. So, just to come back to the question, the government has changed its stance because of the current conflict and the overall political situation of the country.
You have done research on what you have called ‘the ethnification of the media in Ethiopia’ and you have written research papers about it. What is this ethnification? And how much of an influence does it wield towards the quality of news and information that the public consumes?
Ethnic classification has become the root cause of the current political turmoil in Ethiopia. At the very beginning, the Ethiopian government structured the country based on language or ethnicity. This was galvanised using different hate words and stereotypes, even by the previous governments. So, this has had its own repercussions, including dividing people, businesses, even universities, etc. With the coming of Abiy, we have seen the ethnic tendencies of the media. When they are reporting issues, they are mostly focussing on the issues that can favour that particular group [that they belong to]. So, the ethnic issue has become a serious problem in the Ethiopian media at this moment.
First, media organizations are owned by some ethnic groups and unless you are a member of that ethnic group, you might not get the opportunity to be hired. The first thing they ask is, ‘do you speak and understand that language?’ There is a big rumour that in the public media, some journalists are hired because of the ethnic group, without intense examinations, qualifications, etc.
The second one is that stories are reported in line with the ethnic group that favours that particular media. If you are in favour of some group, then you will be taken as a source and you will be interviewed, and you can say whatever you wish. If you are [seen as] against that ethnic group or not in support of that ethnic group, then you might not get the chance to reflect your ideas, even if you are actually liberal and neutral.
Our study, the ethnification of the Ethiopian media, clearly shows that this is a major problem of the Ethiopian media. We sampled 10 media organizations and, based on our research, I can firmly state that most of the media in Ethiopia is affected by this problem of ethnification.
Having looked at the problems, let’s discuss the possible solutions. What does the media in Ethiopia need in order to overcome its current and ongoing problems and challenges?
Well, [the subject] needs some more research. But the first thing that can be done is just liberalize the political system. That means the political system should not focus on ethnic ideology. The main problem of the media is derived from the political system and that means the power of the media is determined by the politics of the country. So, our political system is highly dependent on ethnic groups. You will get an appointment or you will be promoted if you are a member of some ethnic groups. You will be punished because you belong to another ethnic group. So, the political system should be either revised or changed from the unfair federal system to a liberal or more inclusive that federal system. But at this moment, with the federal system which is applied right now, it is very difficult for the media. The system needs to be improved. If someone wants to change the media environment in Ethiopia, they should focus on the political system.
The second thing is to work on media leadership. Unfortunately, most of the leaders of the public media organizations are appointed by the government. Then when they are appointed by the government, they are expected to, at least, support the government or be a member of the ruling party. This is another problem. Media organizations should be led by independent, non-partisan, or non-political people. In short, it should be led by professionals.
The third one is we have to focus on the journalists. It’s my strong conviction that the Ethiopian journalists do understand the profession; what journalism means; how they are supposed to report stories accurately, in a balanced way, etc? So, the ABCD of journalism is clearly known by the journalists. The problem is when it comes to applying what they have learned in higher education institutions. So, in this case, the first thing that should be done by any media organization is change the behaviour, the attitude of the journalists.
The fourth one is the sources. Sources should also be open to all media organizations. They should not select the media organizations [to share information with]. They have to send their views to any platform without thinking about which media belongs to which ethnic group.
You haven’t mentioned capacity development, but Ethiopia is known to have a strong education sector and organizations like yours are training journalists. How important is training as an avenue for developing a new group of young journalists who are not influenced by the challenges you are talking about? And is it possible to train them such that you have a whole new crop of journalists who come up to change the industry?
This is really an interesting question. Capacity development can be one of the strategies, but I can assure you, it’s not a guarantee that journalists will not practice their profession in line with their ethnic denomination. For your information, there are around 22 universities in Ethiopia which are offering courses and programmes of journalism and communication and most of the journalists who are currently joining the media organizations are graduates of these universities. So, I can say that they know what journalism is and what the ethical aspect of it is, etc. But as soon as they complete their studies in the universities and join the media organizations, automatically they forget what they learned. They put their feet in the media organizations’ systems. They start reporting the way that media organization wants them to report. So, the media organizations are the determinant factors right now, not the capacity development.
In many cases, I have conducted so many training sessions and at the end of the training, I collect feedback. They say, ‘Mulatu, it was really an interesting training, but we cannot apply it because our media organizations do not have room to practice such kinds of reporting’ because the media organizations have their very own reporting style, their own political interests and they have their own positions. Because of all these, I have concluded that capacity building will not be the ultimate solution. But, this does not mean that capacity building is not a solution for the problem. It is, but it is highly influenced by other factors.
Is there, then, another way of getting to the core of the problem from within the media organizations?
Yes, the problem is the media organizations; ownership is the determinant part. As I mentioned, if we invest in changing the political environment, then changing ownership interest and interventions in the profession, then we will bring some good change in journalism. You know ownership is not only about business but also about politics, ethnic politics. So, if they are hiring someone, you will not be offered a job in that particular organization unless you are supporting the ideology or ownership of that particular organization. Your excellence sometimes doesn’t have an impact on your employment. So, everything is determined by ownership. These ownerships are determined by the political environment in the country. So, capacity building can be one of the solutions, but it will not be the ultimate solution. Capacity building is very important for some technical issues, but it cannot bring change in the attitude of the journalists.
Incidentally, while we are still talking about capacity building, Addis Ababa is one of the five African cities that recently hosted workshops of the Africa investigative journalism conference this year. Let’s talk about investigative journalism in Ethiopia and what hosting workshops in this conference means for the journalism profession in the Horn of Africa?
Well, there are some media organizations or journalists who are trying to practice investigative journalism. I have seen some critical stories that are focused on the corruption of the people in the government offices. However, considering the extent of corruption and the maladministration in the country, plus the performance of the government, I can’t say that the media is aggressively working on investigative journalism.
The first thing is that investigative journalism is a very demanding task. It’s one of the toughest genres in journalism. It needs skill, knowledge, commitment, finance and time, etc. So, given the demanding nature of investigative journalism, I can say that most journalists are not that much interested in investing their energy, knowledge, etc, in probing issues thoroughly.
The other issue that I wanted to mention is that I can classify the investigative reporting trend in the Ethiopian media based on the platforms. The first one is the public media. Unless it is the interest of the government, any form of ill-administration or maladministration, etc, cannot be investigated because the corruption is done by the people who are working in the government system. So, if there is some kind of leak between the officials and the corrupt people, the media cannot report it [unless] the government insists that journalists should report that particular corruption.
The second group is the commercial media. They are patient enough to take time to investigate issues and they try to report some corruption. However, most of the commercial media in Ethiopia are not economically or personally well-equipped. They have a limited number of staff and they have limited finances. And yet investigative journalism, by its nature, needs time. So, the commercial media, if they want to investigate a case and it takes longer than a journalist is allocated for that particular issue, it means they will not report other issues.
So, all in all, taking the Ethiopian media situation to account, investigative journalism is of interest to the journalists. However, I can’t say that it’s applied in a very proper way.
At this point, I want to appreciate the organizers of the African Investigative Journalism Conference in Ethiopia. I believe it has its own impact on the media in Ethiopia. At least, it will be a venue for the local journalists to know and be motivated to do investigative journalism.
Let’s talk about what’s happening around the world at breakneck speed, the digitization of the media. Most of Africa is catching up with the rest of the world, especially in this multimedia and social media era. How much of this is happening in Ethiopia? Are there visible efforts to digitize and get people to enjoy the media in different forms? Is there an effort to improve on what is already there?
Yes, digitization is currently a new phenomenon in Ethiopia, and people are really enjoying the free flow of information on digital platforms. The mainstream media are working under gatekeepers so information will be synchronised and sifted in line with the media organization’s editorial guidelines. But when it comes to digital media, they don’t have gatekeepers, they report the information they have got. So, people are now moving from mainstream media to digital media. However, due to the political tension, due to the ethnic nature of the political system, in most cases some hate speech and fake news are becoming another frustrating issue in relation to the digital media. There are so many cases that can show that digital media are a centre for hate speech, disinformation, and a centre for division. But all in all, people are enjoying digital media, since not all information is circulated in the mainstream media.
You have mentioned that misinformation and disinformation are becoming a problem. In a restrictive environment such as Ethiopia, what dangers lurk when fake news is pervasive? And are there efforts to nip its prevalence in the bud through awareness creation?
It’s very important to educate the Ethiopian community on what we call media and information literacy. Most of the Ethiopian community is not educated or they might have the skills of writing and reading but they are not that critical to look at which information is right or wrong. They even don’t know the right source of information. So, due to the nature of the people that are uneducated and uncritical, in most cases, people are consuming the stories that are distributed on the online media. But it’s really important to train and to make people aware of the media and what information literacy is.
These days, there are so many organizations that are projecting ideas and providing training about the media and information literacy, which I believe is very important in the current Ethiopian context. However, if this is not strongly applied, most of the stories that are circulated on online media are almost all fake news. So, it’s very important to invest [a considerable] amount of money to make people literate about the digital platforms and make them know whether the stories are true or not.
In addition to that, it’s also advisable to have a large number of fact-checking organizations. Right now, we have two fact-checkers in Ethiopia. They are good, but they are not doing it in a massive way.
One thing that I want to mention here it that the Ethiopian government has endorsed anti-hate speech and fake news law in 2020, which is very important to curb their prevalence. You know the law is applied to punish those who are posting fake news. This is a more reactive measure. It is important to invest in changing the attitudes of the writers and enhance the understanding of the large public about information literacy have become significantly important.
Now, if things continue the way they are without much change, could you give us the picture of what you think the media could be, say, five years or 10 years?
The Ethiopian media is not project-able, honestly speaking. For instance, when there is political transition, then they will become very liberal, very professional, and vibrant. When the political system changes, automatically they will change their quality.
When Abiy came to power in 2018, the Ethiopian media became extremely democratic and extremely liberal. People were sitting and watching the news stories from the public media. So, it’s very difficult to project what kind of media will be in Ethiopia in five years.
But all in all, since you asked me to paint a picture of the Ethiopian media after five years, the first condition is if the political issue continues like it is [today], then, taking the current political situation into account, the Ethiopian media after five years will not be that much strong, it will not be vibrant, it will be totally submissive and stories will be reported in line with, and in favour of, only the government, only the ruling party and only some particular ethnic groups. So, I am not all that much optimistic to see changes in the Ethiopian media landscape, particularly the professionalism unless political liberalization has been done.
You have painted a picture of pessimism…
Not too much pessimism as such. You know, I am an educator, I am a researcher, I am doing a lot of things on the development of the Ethiopian media, but still, I do not see clear changes because, for instance, journalists are coming to the training centre to attend the training sessions, but I do not see their motivation to apply what they have learned from the training sessions. So, what kind of change should I expect after five years if things are going in such a way? That’s my concern. But if the political situation changes and the attitudes of the journalists towards the profession are changed, then we will see a different scenario after five years.
Reporting for this story was supported by a micro-grant from Jamlab Africa
Benon Herbert Oluka is a Ugandan multimedia journalist, a co-founder of The Watchdog, a centre for investigative journalism in his home country, and a member of the African Investigative Publishing Collective.