An Interview with Zecharias Zelalem on the Ethiopian Media Landscape

Zecharias Zelalem is a journalist with Addis Standard, “a monthly social, economic and political news magazine published and distributed by Jakenn Publishing Plc”.

A cover story written by Zecharias Zelalem

Puntland Post Monthly: A peaceful transfer of power took place in Ethiopia in 2018.  How has the liberalisation of PM Dr Abiy Ahmed affected the media landscape in Ethiopia? 

Zecharias: One of the things we must accredit the current government with is the changes permitted in the media landscape. Prior to 2018, media outlets were clamped down upon and Ethiopia was one of the world’s top jailer of journalists. So many writers and bloggers were given sentences ranging from 6 or ten years, to even life in prison for charges such as terrorism and treason. Today, this is no longer the case. My own outlet, Addis Standard was forced to shut down its magazine production in 2016 when the government appointed command post threatened to take action against any outlets publishing news critical of the government. The likes of OMN and ESAT were banned and anyone caught giving information to these outlets would be arrested. Today this is no longer the case. These outlets and many more are allowed to operate openly in the country. This was a very encouraging initiative when ushered in.

Puntland Post Monthly: The Ethiopian Parliament has passed a law about dissemination of hatred. How can the Ethiopian Government prevent the use of this legislation as a tool to stifle debate? 

Zecharias: The Ethiopian government is in the process of passing the law via the parliament but it hasn’t been officially written into law yet. How will this be prevented from being used to stifle debate? This is very much in the hands of the government. Ethiopia has had such a dark history of governments using loosely interpreted litigation to muzzle internal dissent. The most infamous example of this is the 2009 Anti Terror Proclamation. This proclamation was on paper designed to punish those who preach hate and terrorism. But in the end, the 2009 Anti Terror Proclamation was used to arrest activists, journalists and plenty of outspoken scholars who criticized the government. This is what we are accustomed to in Ethiopia. Hopefully, with the new government promising to be one that implements true reform and calls for accountability even at the state level…we will see a change in attitude among the country’s leaders. As I said, it is in the hands of the government and of this I am cautiously optimistic. 

Puntland Post Monthly: There are several diaspora-owned media outlets  such as Zehabesha, Borkena, Oromia Media Network and Tigrai Online. They wield much influence partly because their messages are aimed at specific nationalities. How can the Ethiopia-based media houses offset polarising messages without unwittingly becoming a mouthpiece of the Ethiopian Government?  

Zecharias: About the media outlets, there needs to be increased professionalism in the domain. The four media outlets you listed are known for spreading propaganda and for their biased reports. They are mouthpieces for various sides of the Ethiopian partisan political sector. They aren’t outlets that follow the norms of journalism. They have large followings among those who believe in and espouse their political ideologies. Media outlets must be able to respect the norms of journalism to avoid being either government mouthpieces or political propaganda bullhorns. Right now, many Ethiopian so called media portals are having trouble respecting this and today, a select few are considered credible. This I believe is due primarily to the government’s restrictions on free speech and media freedoms over the past three decades. Hopefully, over the next few years, the credible outlets will be filtered out and rise to increased relevance and those who spread inflammatory messages and pander to divisive politics will be identified by Ethiopians as being lower level tabloid media outlets.

Puntland Post Monthly: As far you know are there local newspapers in local languages other than Amharic? 

Zecharias: About the newspapers, I know of some newspapers in languages other than Amharic, but they are very few. There aren’t enough papers in Afaan Oromo, Somali, Tigrigna and other languages, especially in Addis Ababa. For much of the last 50 years, initiatives to see papers in languages other than Amharic thrive were quashed by the Ethiopian state. The Imperial era Ethiopian government for instance, frowned upon any sort of sincere effort to see an increased availability of literature in languages other than Amharic. In some parts of the country today, such as Tigray, it is still impossible to start independent media outlets, as the regional government continued to prohibit locals from engaging in any sort of journalism that is unaffiliated with the region’s controlled outlets. But elsewhere in the country, there are greater freedoms and hopefully we will see changes in this regard. One aspect we must take into account is the fact that the print media production is being slowed due to the widespread availability of online alternatives. This is the challenge newspapers are facing around the world of course. The increase in costs and the difficulty of luring readers away from their phones for a brief read make the task at hand much more difficult. But at least today, greater freedoms for journalists and media outlets have been won thanks to the change in administration and above all, thanks to the countless youths who protested and died between 2015-2017 to bring an end to authoritarianism. I do hope with these newly gained freedoms we will see an increase of Oromo, Somali, Tigrigna newspapers and magazines who uphold the values of ethical journalism.

Puntland Post Monthly: How easier is it for an investor to launch a  media enterprise or  buy shares of newspapers or TV stations in Ethiopia? 

Zecharias: I don’t have detailed knowledge to provide you with in depth answers to these questions. But I do know that its quite difficult and costly to simply establish such outlets. When Abiy Ahmed came to power last year and announced that there would be reform allowing media freedoms, many diaspora based media heads announced their intentions to return to Ethiopia and start up their own networks. But most of those I know who planned on operating television outlets have instead transitioned to basing their televised content on YouTube channels. Among those who returned home and planned on opening TV channels but were forced to settle for YouTube, Abbay Media. There are a number of newspapers and magazines who halted production after merely months. Such endeavours require extensive research and finances. Something that most weren’t prepared for when they made the move to Ethiopia. I am unaware of how much it might cost to buy shares in media, but it is quite evident that for certain outlets with larger followings, it would cost hundreds of thousands, perhaps even millions of Ethiopian birr. What was widely reported in Ethiopian circles is that renowned activist Jawar Mohammed purchased local television outlet LTV for something like 75 -80 million Ethiopian birr, which is around 2.5 million $US. LTV has a large following. But other than this, my information as to how much the transaction of shares of specific media companies might cost is quite minute.

Puntland Post Monthly: What are challenges facing local media houses? 

Zecharias: The problems and challenges are many, but above all Ethiopia lacks a media culture. Due to decades of authoritarianism and an embedded cultural inability among Ethiopians to tolerate criticism, we have yet to really see the surge of hard hitting, unbiased, professional journalism that a country like our’s really needs. This is something that I hope will change as the years go by. Right now, most so called media outlets are really fronts for political propaganda. This needs to change but I’m optimistic about what I notice. Other than that, most media outlets are based in Addis Ababa and rarely do they send correspondents to rural areas of Ethiopia. The country is an extremely diverse one with diverse mindsets, mentalities and points of view. Too many Ethiopian media representatives report on stories from Addis Ababa without making a sincere effort to reach and communicate with the people affected. This in itself is a form of erasure. There is so much in terms of understanding and context that one can gain by travelling to affected areas and communicating with locals, but this is all too often lost when a city dweller in a cafe in Addis Ababa writes a story and then adds a picture he/she found on Facebook to it. Often this is done to suit a narrative and not to air the views and opinions, desires and aspirations of the subject in the story. Because of this, we rarely get a glimpse of what people in areas like Dessie, Deghabour, Moyale feel, hear and aspire to see, as rarely is the effort to include them in a story made, beyond the bare minimum. For me, these are the greatest challenges news media face. They are challenges brought upon by our upbringing, culture and attitude but also our common history.

© Puntland Post Monthly, 2020