It has become quite obvious early on that the independent press in Ethiopia and the government are not going to be cordial with one another. As the new Ethiopian Peoples’ Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF) government started to settle in the capital back in early 1990s, an unanticipated challenge was posed by the newly mushroomed private press in Ethiopia. However, little did they know that their engagement at the time would cast its shadow on their relationship for decades to come and eventually determine the fate of print media, writes Asrat Seyoum.
Speculated to have been coined by Emperor Menelik II himself, Aemero (loosely translated to mean brain) is a name given to what might have been the first Ethiopian newspaper written in local language (Amharic). The four-page newspaper is said to have started circulating in the Emperor’s court around 1901; having a circulation of not more than 25 copies and all handwritten. Later on, with the introduction of the printing press, Aemero upped its circulation to 200 arguably marking the very inception of the first public-owned newspaper in country.
After many interruptions and revivals, Aemero was succeeded by another government paper, Berhanena Selam in the 1920s following the establishment of the printing press with the same name by Haile Selassie I. In spite of limited circulation and print quality, Berhanena Selam represented the first organized press publication in Ethiopia entertaining pertinent progressive domestic issues. However, it was after the Italian occupation that household names such as Addis Zemen and The Ethiopian Herald came to the scene and soon after they were followed by another daily, Yezareytu Ethiopia, in the early 1950s. The former two became the first daily papers in Ethiopia, and those which managed to sustain in the market until the present day.
One century and two regimes later, to the dismay of many, the Ethiopian print media industry has very little to show for. In 2017, there are total of four English and three Amharic language independent newspapers in Ethiopia with the combined weekly circulation of 51,000 copies in addition to three sports newspapers. While the biweekly Reporter (Amharic) stands as the largest circulating followed by another Amharic paper, Addis Admas, pumping 11,500 and 7,200 copies, respectively in the market, Fortune (an English weekly with business orientation) comes in third with 7,000 copies barely scratching the potential market.
The oldest dailies, Addis Zemen and The Ethiopian Herald, still have their hats in the ring with 15,317 and 9,165 copies daily flooding most government offices all over the country. The Oromiffa language newspaper Barissa and the Arabic Al Alem are still in the list of public periodicals although they have a limited circulation, each not more than 500. Studies estimate that the current per capita consumption of newspaper in Ethiopia is languishing at a disappointing 4.65 per every 1000 people.
According to a masters’ thesis written by Wondossen Girma, a communications expert at the Government Communications Affairs Office (GCAO), much of the Imperial and Derg periods were marked by an excruciatingly sluggish growth in the print media industry. The situation appears to be much dire as far as the independent media is concerned, he noted. But, things changed abruptly with the coming to power of the current EPRDF government and the ratification of the transitional government charter in 1991.
Expressive of the euphoria of the day, some even say that the private press did not even have the patience until the promised press proclamation comes out in 1992. Hence, Eyeta became the first independent newspaper to hit newsstands in Addis Ababa way ahead of the enactment press law. In fact, these handfuls of papers at the time were also pushing for the ratification of the same law which would provide for their formal existence in the market. In fact, most did not even have formal legal registration except the commitment made in the charter to freedom of speech and hence abolishment of the censorship.
What came next is still one of the most controversial histories of the press in Ethiopia. Right after the ratification of the press law, the country experienced massive mushrooming in private press. The streets of the capital Addis Ababa were soon flooded with newspapers of all genres: politics, business, social, entertainment, sports, romance, religion, health and the like. According to data from authorities, in the period expanding from 1992 to 2015 a total number 1,360 newspapers and magazine have seen the light of day. Out o this figure, 843 were newspapers while remaining 517 were magazines.
Perhaps what is more interesting is to see the trend in licensed publications in the immediate period following the 1992 press law. In 1992/93 EC some 103 publications – 38 newspapers and 65 magazines – were registered to operate in the newly found press environment. The following years, Ethiopia saw the highest number of overall publication, 119, where the 82 were newspapers and 37 magazines publications. In the coming years, this strong growth was continued in the newspapers aspect and on average 30 to 60 newspaper publications continued to animate the streets Addis until the turn of the new millennium.
Interestingly enough, in the same period between 1995 and 2000, growth in magazine publications took a much slower pace with only handful of them circulating in the market. This period might have coincided with growing apprehension of the public in the mushrooming romantic/erotic magazines in the market and measures taken by the authorities. Later on, magazine publications bounced back from 2000 onwards with a new found political tone co integrating with newspapers. The next five years up until the controversial election of 2005 the market consistently entertained 70 and 80 publications, newspapers tipping the balance in their favor.
The press played an instrumental role in aiding the opposition garner support and win the highest parliamentary seats in Ethiopian opposition history in 2005. The next five years, which was also a turbulent political environment for the country, has seen consistent growth in publications both newspapers and magazines peaking a total of 94 (44 papers and 50 magazines) in 2008, where the Mass Media and Access to Information Proclamation was ratified by the Ethiopian parliament.
Following this proclamation, all publications active in Ethiopian were reregistered and this automatically brought down the numbers of publication to 56 (26 newspapers and 30 magazines). This trend, however, continued in the coming years but at much accelerated pace where growth in newspapers in particular started to plummet to date. For example, the growth of newspaper in 2015 was limited to only four additional newspapers; where as it was only three papers (Ethio Mihidar, Lielina and Business Mind), all of them now defunct, which have joined the sector.
Both the government and those in the industry seems to have noticed this declining trend in the sector. In fact, this year’s Press Freedom Day was commemorated giving a special attention to the declining print media sector in Ethiopia. The one question on the minds of many people today is ‘how did the sector get to this point?’ Well, there are many working theories but one feasible explanation it would seem is the combination of both internal and external factors. Low level of professionalism, partisanship, low capacity, low level of institutionalization and the like can be mentioned as the main internal factors for declining media. Meanwhile, the external factors such as government pressure and print cost have also taken their toll on the sector, according to industry players.
Dawit Taye, currently working as senior editor at Reporter (Amharic), is someone who has wealth of experience in the print media industry. In his 26 years working in the media, Dawit has seen it all. He started his journalism career as a high school student and went on to launch his own media startups: Financier and Genzeb. Both have failed owing to the turbulent media environment in run up to the 2005 election, Dawit told The Reporter.
In a nutshell, he is of the view that the early growth sprout in the private press between the period 1992 and 2015 and its upbringing during this time is a decisive factor which has shaped the relationships among the press, the society and the government. “The press has itself but no one to blame for most of what went wrong with the sector in those days,” Dawit argues. Granted there was a series difference in opinion between the members of private press and the government, Dawit says; however, the series of mishaps that befell the sector in the run up to the 2005 election were quietly in the making since the birth of sector. For one, he says, the serious lack of institutionalization and sheer disregard to the ethical standards of the profession was widespread in Ethiopian private press from the very beginning. Formal organization like proper payroll, employment contract, plans and budget, organizational hierarchies were conspicuously absent from most of these media entities. “It is like individual writers were journalists and media organizations themselves at same time and that gave way to serious breach to ethics and code of conduct of the profession,” he says.
“I remember some of the earlier newspapers sharing a communal office and other facilities although their outward appearance might project an image of competition,” he reminisces. Most of these communal office facilities were actually provided by newspaper distributors who at that time held an immense power over media entities and the journalists. For all intents and purposes, the distributors were the ones calling the shots regarding what is reported on the press or not. “They hold a tremendous sway as they have the financial means to make or break the media house,” he says; and having that much power most of these entities had a political agenda or two which they are not afraid to push.
Hence, journalistic ethics has seen one of its lowest points in Ethiopian history, in his opinion. When you go through some of the content published in such papers at the time it would be very difficult to come across stories which meets the basic standards of journalism. “It was quite difficult to find proper voices and attribution in this stories; it was a big No,” Dawit argues. Rather high degree of editorializing in news contents and fire spitting news headlines became the order of the day, he remembers. “What was more disappointing was the fact that most of these press outlet were bent on sourcing new items from broadcast outlets like VOA, public newspapers like the Addis Zemen and foreign outlets reporting about Ethiopia; and of course with an added twist to these stories to fit their brand of militant journalism,” he explains.
For Ayalew Asres, veteran journalist affiliated with the now defunct newspaper Negadras, this is not the point. What defines the engagement between the press and government at that time was a serious disagreement and difference of opinion regarding the overall direction of the country. For one, most in the private press at the time were champions of unity and arch opponents of self determination of nations and nationalities, an ideal fought for by the EPRDF (the ruling party). “It was the clash of opinions and the media is there to struggle for ideas it believes in,” Ayalew argues forcefully.
In this regard, Ayalew has no doubt that the opposition parties in 2005 election could not have gotten such support without the then political media. “The media was playing an instrumental role in rallying the pubic around the political ideals that is espoused by the opposition camp,” he told The Reporter. Although Ayalew says that he did not subscribe to heightened sensationalization in reporting, struggling for an idea that the newspaper believes in is completely legitimate since the government was also doing it in the public media.
Nevertheless, the highly polarized media in the wake of the newly found press freedom has far deeper consequence than anticipated, Dawit argues. Once such strongly opinionated reporting reached the readership, he says, it started to shape the taste of the audience considerably. Then, press outlets implementing the neutral media model had no place among the readership. “Generally, neutral media outlets were less interesting in the face of these sensational hardcore outlets; and hence were forced to leave the market,” he elaborated further.
Another silent character of the press in the past was the fact that it was led by some landmark events or crisis. For one, Dawit remembers how, the crashing of Ethiopian Airlines plane in the Comoros Islands, the Tigrayan People’s Liberation Front (TPLF) split and the like are one of the few leading events which has seen a serious spike in newspaper copies during that time. “In the run up to the election, for example, Addis has seen copies going as high 180, 000,” he exclaims. And there is something fundamentally wrong with that picture, Dawit says.
Both Ayalew and Dawit agree that the unnatural escalation of the cost of printing owing to the fast increasing paper and paint prices and the services of the one and only capable printing press Berhena Selam has done its part in forcing many publications to throw in the towel. Dawit remembers that in the 1990s, the average print price for newspapers having eight pages was around 30 or 40 cents. This has gone up many folds over the years, he says, and is a serious deterrent to the growth of the print industry and accessibility of newspapers.
Ayalew’s experience with Negadras is telling in this regard. According to him, the investors associated with newspapers have decided to pull the plug owing to the decision taken by the print press that it was no longer possible to operate thanks to Berhanena Selam’s new directive. The contract sent to each organization to sign was unfair to the media outlets in such way that it retains the right to refuse print if it felt that the content will bring legal liability. That, Ayalew says, has driven them out of the market.
The lack of advertisement revenue is also another debilitating factor noted by both Dawit and Ayalew. According to industry players, most publishers have given little to no attention for attracting ads to their newspapers. This has gradually affected the financial strength of the publishers, which eventually led to the demise of a number of newspapers, industry players say. This point has caught news headlines in recent months and private outlets including those in the broadcast isle are pushing for fair advertisement revenue allocation by public institutions. Currently, the claim is that largely most public enterprises give advertisement contracts exclusively to the public media.
Looking at the broader picture, the government disenchantment with private press is expressed by the serious lack of any form of support mechanism for those investing in the sector, industry players say. In fact, even the tax structure treats print raw materials quite harshly, mostly as luxury goods. By the government’s own admission, the early controversial press growth period has traumatic effect; and whatever tension there could be traced back to that turbulent period.
Both Wondossen and other scholars agree that both government and press have to move pass the past misgivings for Ethiopian press and the media in general to be able to imagine any hope of having a brighter future. But, the fact remains that the history of the birth of the independent press in Ethiopia is also a history of destruction; destruction of a delicate relationship between the government and the press.