The Censorship of Journalism in Ethiopia
Journalism emerged in Ethiopia during the early 1990s when the Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF) had passed the Press Proclamation No 34./1992 that established the “right to engage in press activities, the right to access and dissemination of information, responsibilities of the press, and penalties for failure of the press to carry out its duties.” Prior to this act, press laws or proclamations had not existed except in relation to other civil laws (Dodolla, 14). Within the first five years of the proclamation being passed, 265 newspapers and 120 magazines had emerged but many were short-lasting due to scarce revenue and the straining expense of maintaining resources. This lack of accessibility for day-to-day journalistic commodities such as newspapers hinders the purpose of journalism which “is a socially responsible profession, serving the needs of and interest of the society by creating the necessary intelligence they need to live better lives (Biru, 2015).”
This description of journalism is subjective to western values and should not be utilized to make accurate assumptions of journalism in Ethiopia. One of the primary differences between the Western and Eastern values surrounding journalism is the view on freedom of speech. Western values prioritize freedom of speech almost over any condition or event while eastern values possess a tendency to censor “defamatory and false statements” while also putting “racial and religious harmony above that freedom of speech (Hao, 2018).” However, this should not eliminate the necessities for journalism to flourish. Since the wave of journalism first emerged after the passing of the Press Proclamation, poor economies, illiteracy, and lack of infrastructure have all limited the effects and transparency journalism attempted to provide.
In order to compensate for those that could not afford the newspaper or read it, Ethiopia has invested in televisions and radios. The former is still considered a luxury in some communities, but it provides a source of information in public buildings, which still informs those that are illiterate. Radios are more common as they also leap over the literacy barrier and are cheaper but it is still expensive for the average citizen, especially in the rural communities, and requires long term investment as the batteries needed to support the radio would pose a financial burden to low-income households. Regardless, those that could afford it, such as social establishments, would be able to utilize it for larger audiences but the information that was being supplied was generally being influenced by the government.
The government had owned “23 federal and regional government papers'' while also maintaining an implicit oppressive force through their own journalists. By providing their own watchdogs to the public through cheap newspapers, the government was able to secure their political positions. Some argue that this was in good faith to combat different conflicts and ease tensions within the country as shown through the advertisement behind the Hate Speech and Disinformation Prevention and Suppression Proclamation enacted in March of 2020. The government had proclaimed the purpose of the act was to address the threat of hate speech and disinformation posed to “social harmony, political stability, national unity, human dignity, diversity, and equality.” Although at surface value, the act possesses good intentions, the broad language of the act allows for the government to have large discretion to oppress “speech that promotes hatred, discrimination, or attack against a person or an identifiable group, based on ethnicity, religion, race, gender, or disability.” The act does not establish an objective process to identify what speech would qualify for one of these categories and further applies a subjective standard to the criminalization of “dissemination of information” while knowing that the information is “false” (Nairobi, 2020). To clarify the seriousness of the situation, a government worker could impose punishment to an individual who simply liked a comment that is believed to be “false” by the government. The subjective and highly opinionated process of what the government wants released provides leeway or stretch in interpreting what would count towards the vague language the act covers.
This reflects back to the eastern values of journalism where censorship of media is not as controversial and in the instance of Ethiopia, not very possible with the general public being fueled by misinformation from the government. Despite the warnings of international bodies such as the United Nations that the act should be revised, it has continued to be exercised in ill will as scheduled elections are near. In a recent article by Dahir and Walsh from the New York Times, Mr. Abiy, the current prime minister of Ethiopia, had begun to “revert back to the old ways, shutting down the internet during political protests and detaining journalists under laws that had been introduced by the previous government.” This is not only censorship but ironic as Mr. Abiy Ahmed was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 2019 for freeing journalists from incarceration and unblocking hundreds of websites. This progressive inclusion of journalism would soon be revoked as there have been recent reports that journalists have had their licenses revoked, had their houses “ransacked,” had death threats, and have been arrested over the last few months (Dahir and Walsh, 2021).
Despite the temporary journalistic environment that had existed within Ethiopia, rapidly growing ethnic tension and acts of violence have prompted the government to administer harsh policies to reduce the spread of disinformation and hate speech. Rather than administering harsh legal punishments to deter disinformation and hate speech, Ethiopia should attempt to administer more non-punitive means of addressing the issue. Even more passive approaches such as hosting localized community events to promote awareness would be mo
re effective than restricting speech. As Ethiopia’s journalism continues to recede back towards an oppressive regime, both the transparency and confidence in the parliaments will be tested in the upcoming election in early June where Prime Minister Aiby Ahmed will seek re-election.
Biru Tesfu Tewedaje, Journalism in Ethiopian Context, ECADF Ethiopian News & Views, October 2015, https://ecadforum.com/2015/10/14/journalism-in-ethiopian-context/
Dahir Latif Abdi, Walsh Declan, Journalists Under Threat in Covering the Tigray Region of Ethiopia, New York Times, May 14th, 2021, A11
Doolla Nutman, Ethiopian Media Industry, August 2019, 10.13140/RG.2.2.33768.42247, https://www.researchgate.net/publication/335014389_Ethiopian_Media_Industry
Ethiopia Press, Media, T.V. Radio, Newspapers, Press Reference, http://www.pressreference.com/Co-Fa/Ethiopia.html
Hao Bin, What are the characteristics that differentiate Eastern style democracy from Western style democracy? Quora, 2018 https://www.quora.com/What-are-the-characteristics-that-differentiate-Eastern-style-democracy-from-Western-style-democracy
Hate Speech and Disinformation Prevention and Suppression Proclamation, No. 1185/ 2020 file:///C:/Users/owner/Downloads/Ethiopia_Broadcasting%20Proclamation_1999.pdf
Mesert Elias, Hate speech and disinformation concerns escalate in Ethiopia, Devex, May 2020, https://www.devex.com/news/hate-speech-and-disinformation-concerns-escalate-in-ethiopia-97095
Nairobi, Ethiopia: Bill Threatens Free Expression Revise Draft Law on Hate Speech , Disinformation, Human Rights Watch, December 2019, https://www.hrw.org/news/2019/12/19/ethiopia-bill-threatens-free-expression#
Taye Berhan, Ethiopia’s hate speech and disinformation law: the pros, the cons, and a mystery, accessnow, May 2020, https://www.accessnow.org/ethiopias-hate-speech-and-disinformation-law-the-pros-the-cons-and-a-mystery/