chapter-1

Chapter One

In March 2019, Ethiopia’s oldest journalist association called members of the media for a press conference to commemorate its 50thanniversary. Ethiopia Hotel, founded within the same decade as the association, was the chosen venue. Two service staffers were busy handing out golden jubilee banners—a last-minute effort to get the conference room ready. 

Meseret Atalay, president of the Ethiopian Journalists’ Association, settled into a chair at the far end of the room. Only one reporter from the state media showed up for the event. Later, he was joined by another reporter from the city government. The two sat next to each other at the end of a long conference table, flanked by empty seats on each side. 

Meseret pulled out his black-rimmed glasses and began to read a statement to the near-empty room: “Founded during an absolute monarchy where freedom of speech and association were not respected, Ethiopian Journalists’ Association today celebrates 50 years of service under three regimes,” he said, pausing before a camera.

Ethiopian Journalists Association (EJA)

was established in 1969 following two failed attempts to set up a professional union during emperor Haile Selassie’s regime. Some 70 state media journalists and public relations practitioners gathered at a YMCA gymnasium on Adwa victory day to announce the formation of the association. Members elected Kebede Anissa, a famous radio show host, as the organization’s first president. At the time, the government Ministry of Pen directly supervised the association, ultimately serving at the will of the emperor.

During the Derg military regime, EJA’s leadership was under the payroll of the socialist government, and looked east for support and guidance. During this period, all journalists were obligated to be members of EJA and made membership contributions through involuntary payroll deductions.

After the end of the military rule in1992, EJA revised its bylaws to focus on protecting journalists, enhancing journalistic standards through codes of ethics, and developing the capacity of professionals. Its current membership is composed of nearly 450 voluntary state media journalists.1 

The 50-year-old Ethiopian Journalists Association has a history of state affiliation since its foundation, an organizational track record that it struggles to shake off until today.

EJA’s current president, Meseret Atalay, openly professes his past political membership of the ruling EPRDF. “I don’t feel any shame for supporting EPRDF, I still support them. I believe EPRDF has positively contributed to the development of this country,” he said.[1]  

EJA is not an isolated case of state capture of journalist associations. Many national organizations face co-opted leadership through coercion, imprisonment of defiant leaders, and forced exile of leaders.

[1] Meseret Atalay, president of EJA, in an interview with MERSA Media Institute, February 2019.

The Private Media Forms Unions

Something unprecedented happened in Ethiopia in 1992 — private ownership of media was allowed by law. A year later, Ethiopian Free Press Journalists Association (EFJA) was founded. Its members were journalists, editors and publishers of the newly flourishing free press. Not so free in reality, as the leadership of the new association was composed of state media managers and journalists from the socialist era, who were sidelined by the new EPRDF regime. For eight years, the association and its 80 members from the private media, struggled to register formally as a non-profit entity with the Ministry of Justice. 

EFJA showed solidarity with journalists as the government’s tolerance dwindled for the 300 plus publications. More than 15 journalists were arrested in 1998.[1]The following year, 45 journalists appeared in court for violating the press law. EFJA set up legal defense funds for journalists and openly and vigorously advocated for their release.

When the state-owned publishing house that printed all private and public newspapers and magazines decided to increase printing price in 2000, EFJA led a week-long resistance that had most publications cease printing in protest.    

EFJA is credited for facilitating trainings to improve the professional skills of its members. “Most journalists did not have formal training at the time, since there was no journalism school in the country,” said Wondossen Mekonnen, current president of EFJA and member since the early ‘90s. “We facilitated practical journalism trainings in partnership with the Thomson Foundation, Friedrich Ebert Stiftung and the British and U.S. embassies.”

EFJA also issued a professional code of conduct for journalists in 1998. The code highlights the role of the journalist as a watchdog in search of the truth and holding those in power accountable. Accuracy, balance and objective reporting of news and information in a comprehensive manner are listed as the hallmarks of good reporting in EFJA’s code of conduct.

Controversies and Ban 

In 1994 and 95, some EFJA members began to criticize the decision of the association’s leadership to participate as observers, and later as voting members of a coalition of political opposition—the Council of Alternative Forces for Peace and Democracy.[2]Two of four former members of the association interviewed for this study had left after this decision.

Such involvements and the leadership composition of EFJA made the association and its members a target for government harassment, imprisonment and ban. In 2003, EFJA faced a government ban for allegedly failing to file audit reports and its properties were confiscated. The association won the ensuing court battle, but its victory was short-lived; a splinter group from within the ranks claimed legal recognition bearing the same name and the Ministry of Justice allowed it. According to a State Department human rights report (2004), new executives were elected in January at a meeting facilitated by the Ministry of Justice. The original leadership went to court again and won the case. The following year, EFJA’s president, Kifle Mulat, was one of the people wanted by the government on charges of treason and genocide. The president and 40 other members of the association fled the country.

The new EFJA continued operating under the leadership of Wondossen Mekonnen, a former private media publisher whose two newspapers folded due to financial problems. Since then, Wondossen has been working in the state media.[3]Today, the association does not have an office or any known members, and its registration has not been renewed in years.

“We were not able to fulfil our duties under stifling laws and financial restrictions,” Wondossen said in an interview for this report, adding “the organization is as good as dead.”    

Special Interest Media Associations

The Ethiopian Media Women Association (EMWA) was founded in 1997; it was officially registered two years later. EMWA worked to improve the working conditions of women journalists and advocated for the creation of a media landscape that includes women’s voices in the development of a vibrant, diverse and inclusive public discourse in Ethiopia. To this end, EMWA challenged conventional cultural norms, held leadership and communication structures accountable and demanded gender inclusion in the media sector. 

Its membership was open to all women journalists and students: Ethiopian, foreign correspondents, university students and high school girls working in mini-media. With solid organizational structure and transparency, EMWA managed to attract more than 200 members.[4]Leaders of the association communicated with members through a quarterly magazine featuring articles that members contributed on journalism, gender policy and norms, and even articles challenging the EMWA leadership.[5]

The association worked closely with local, regional and international government and non-government groups. EMWA’s exchange programs with African and Scandinavian compatriots helped develop the capacity of its members and those of partner organizations. Female Ethiopian journalists enjoyed a one-year exchange program in Uganda, Kenya and Tanzania.

EMWA had an impeccable track record in raising reporting standards by training its members, as well as formulating numerous codes of conduct on gender sensitivity, sexual harassment and child abuse reporting.

CSO Law Deals a Crippling Blow

On a hot, sunny afternoon in February 2019, retired journalist Tekabech Assefa was busy dusting furniture at the offices of the Ethiopian Media Women Association. Rolls of dusty curtains were gathered at the conference table in the center of the largest room. There are no chairs. Dust particles floated amid the sunlight peeking through the windows.

Once a busy office with 16 staffers and 200 members, the headquarters of Ethiopian women journalists is in a grim state.

“No one comes here anymore,” Tekabech said, “they are all gone.”

The nearly 70-year-old retired journalist keeps the doors open every day in honor of her late friends who had worked diligently to establish the women journalists’ association.

“We had so many bright young female journalists working with us; but the money is gone, there are no projects, so they all disappeared one by one,” she added.[6]

The phone lines are cut. The computers are out of order and belong in a museum. The rent is six months overdue and eviction is a real possibility. This is the impact of Ethiopia’s civil society law that passed foreign funding restrictions on media associations, as well as other civic groups.

A Worker’s Union  

In 2003, the Ethiopian National Journalists Union (ENJU) came into existence as a workers’ union  that excluded media owners as members. Journalists from both the private and public media were eligible for membership. 

In its bylaws, ENJU vowed to represent the interests of journalists, protect them from abuse by their employers and enhance journalistic standards by facilitating training for its members. From the onset, ENJU’s formation was heavily contested. Outside advocacy groups dubbed ENJU as a union of Ethiopian government cadres masquerading to be journalists.[7]

ENJU’s last known leader, Anteneh Abrham, said in an interview for this study he fled the country escaping abuse from security officials who allegedly harassed him because of an article he published in a newspaper.[8]Anteneh faced criticism during his tenure for statements he made on state media saying there are no journalists arrested in Ethiopia in “connection with their journalistic work”; while the country was reported for being a leading jailer of journalists and bloggers by Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ), Reporters Sans Frontières (RSF) and other international media rights group reports.

ENJU has not renewed its license since the leader fled the country three years ago.

Ethiopian Environmental Journalists Association (EEJA)

In 2007, a group of journalists set up the Ethiopian Environmental Journalists Association to advance specialized professional reporting on climate change, agriculture, food security and sustainable development in Ethiopia. Initially an association, EEJA was re-registered as a foreign NGO when the 2009 CSO law came to effect. “If we had resisted as a local association, we would have been subjected to foreign funding restrictions,” EEJA’s founding director Argaw Ashine said in an interview for this study. “Our existence depended on it.”    

Special interest media associations enjoy relative freedom because they tend to be politically neutral. Membership in these associations is quite robust and active. The Ethiopian Media Women Association, Ethiopian Environmental Journalists Association and Ethiopian Sports Journalists Association are good examples of local institutions that had a demand-initiated, bottom-up mobilization of professionals in the media sector.

EEJA faced government scrutiny when its founding president fled after his name was exposed in a WikiLeaks cable, resulting in government intimidation and harassment.[9]EEJA members elected a new leader and continued to operate under scrutiny.[10]But the weight of regulatory restrictions under the CSO law, and being under the microscope of government security officials, pushed away members. EEJA’s went though a period of decline, and finally ceased to exist in 2017.

During its brief existence, EEJA created numerous professional development opportunities for its members, including travel abroad in exchange programs. Through competitive funding of environmental reporting projects, EEJA contributed to the enhancement of beat reporting standards in Ethiopia[11].


[1] State Department human rights report on Ethiopia 1999.

[2]Tamrat Gebregiorgis, Melaku Demissie, Wondossen Mekonnen and Issayas Mekuria, in an interview with MERSA Media Institute,    February and March 2019.

[3] Wondossen Mekonnen, president of EFJA, in an interview with MERSA Media Institute, February 2019.

[4] Selome Desta, EMWA founding and current executive committee member, in an interview with MERSA Media Institute, February 2019.

[5] EMWA magazine. December 2000. Is EMWA executing its stated goals? By Tewodaj Kebede.

[6] A visit at EMWA’s office by MERSA Media Institute, February, 2019

[7] Teshome Debalke, 2013, Ethiopian National Journalists Union: A front for the ruling regime? ECADF forum.

[8] Anteneh Abrham, President of ENJU, in an interview with MERSA Media Institute, March 2019.

[9] The Guardian. September 15, 2011. WikiLeaks-named Ethiopian reporter in unredacted cable flees country in fear.

[10] Argaw Ashine, EEJA founder and director, in an interview with MERSA Media Institute, March 2019.

[11] EEJA-Fellowship grant available for journalists, public notice.

Association Established Year Membership Registration Status
Ethiopian Journalists Association (EJA)
1969
State media journalists
Registered
Ethiopian Free Press Journalists Association (EFJA)
1993
Private media journalists
Expired
Ethiopian Media Women Association (EMWA)
1997
Women journalists
Registered
Ethiopian National Journalists Union (ENJU)
2003
Reporters and editors of private and public media
Expired
Ethiopian Environmental Journalists Association
2007
Environment beat reporters
Expired
Ethiopian Photo Journalists Association
2015
Photo journalists, private and public media
Expired
Ethiopian Sport Journalists Association
xx
Sports journalists, private and public media
Registered
Ethiopian Publishers Association,
xx
Private publishers
Registered

A number of internal governance issues, coupled with adverse government pressure, have hindered media associations from being stewards of free speech and contributing to the overall progress of the industry. Over the past two decades, annual State Department reports, CPJ, Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International have all documented systemic state harassment, intimidation and imprisonment of journalists and their association leaders. For instance, two leaders of the Ethiopian Environmental Journalists Association fled the country on the basis of abuse and fear of being tried under the ill-reputed Anti-Terrorism Proclamation of 2011.  

The remaining associations are either politically co-opted or self-censored. In both instances, they lose credibility in the face of their members and the media community. The other group is composed of associations that engage in special interest advocacy on gender, the environment, and sports. Most independent journalists distance themselves from the former, and some seek active membership in special interest media associations who are perceived to be politically neutral.

More than 90 percent of influential journalists and editors interviewed and surveyed for this report say they are not members of journalist associations.

Independence, Organizational Culture and Structure  

Most journalist associations in Ethiopia suffer from a credibility crisis due to state interference, politically appointed leadership and serious accountability issues that alienate their constituency. Associations created to advocate for the protection of journalists failed to show solidarity with journalists and writers, especially in the past decade when Ethiopia ranked top amongst the worst jailers of journalists by international media advocacy groups.[1]

The overwhelming majority of respondents interviewed for this study said they have decided not to be members of journalist associations in Ethiopia because they do not feel these groups represent their interests or show solidarity.

“The rationale behind the existence of such associations was not a need-based bottom-up drive,” said one veteran newspaper publisher. “Passive members are usually called to elect leaders who are unaccountable to them. Often, the leaders leave their day jobs and focus on making a living out of international funding, travel, and per diems.”[2]

The newly appointed progressive director of the government regulator, Ethiopian Broadcast Authority, shared the same concerns in an interview for this study, stating: “The associations existed to serve the personal interests of their leaders; not their constituency or the profession. That is why they have very few members, squabble amongst themselves and journalists have given up on them.[3]        

Political, Legal and Regulatory Pressure

Over the last decade, professional organizations and rights based civic groups in Ethiopia operated under stifling legal restrictions. The Charities and Societies Proclamation of 2009 dealt the Ethiopian civil society a crippling blow through mandatory funding and registration requirements. The government regulated the formation and function of professional and business associations, trade unions and charity and advocacy groups. These groups were required by law to finance their operations and projects with a 10 percent cap on foreign funding. To ask the civil society to raise 90 percent of their funding locally, in a country whose economy is driven by state control and where the majority of the population lives on less than dollar a day, was a death sentence. As resources dried up, the civic space shrunk.

Research on Ethiopia’s CSO law indicate that at the core of the rationale to close the civic space lies power consolidation by authoritarian rulers. The explanations are self-serving in the name of keeping foreign interests out of the nation’s domestic affairs.[4]Regulatory pressures were not limited to journalist associations; Ethiopian Lawyers Association was split into pro- and anti-government stamping by regulators following a statement that denounced extrajudicial killings and arrest of opposition leaders and journalists in the aftermath of the 2005 elections. Government regulators had denied the Ethiopian Economic Association reregistration for three years.

Such legislative encroachments left journalist associations to rely on part-time volunteer workers. They saw their capacity severely diminished in the development of a vibrant, responsible, pluralistic and sustainable media sector.   

[1]CPJ Special reports, 2012, 2014, 2015, https://cpj.org/reports/africa/ethiopia/2012/#19982

[2]  Tamrat Gebregiorgis, publisher, Addis Fortune, in an interview with MERSA Media Institute, February 2019.

[3] Solomon Tesfaye, Director General, Ethiopian Broadcast Authority, in an interview with MERSA Media Institute, February 2019.

[4]  Debebe Habtegebriel, lawyer, media and civil society policy consultant, in an interview with MERSA Media Institute, March 2019.

SWOT Analysis of Journalist Associations in Ethiopia

Ethiopia  is reforming its repressive laws as part of an effort to strengthen independent, robust, and responsible democratic institutions. In February 2019, Ethiopia’s parliament approved a revised draft law governing civil society organizations. The new law incorporates fundamental improvements that annul funding restrictions and regulatory hurdles on registration and membership. The new CSO law has laid basic building blocks for a system of participatory democracy where organized and informed civic groups can lead citizen participation in formulating public policy and safeguarding accountable governance.

Major Improvements of the CSO Law

  1. Lifting of foreign funding restrictions
  2. Lifting of membership eligibility by nationality and residence
  3. Lifting some regulatory and licensing powers of the Charities and Societies Agency
  4. Lifting of sanctions on foreign members and CSOs to engage in advocacy work with the exception of activities related to election observation, voter education and lobbying political parties, unless legally allowed.  

Journalist associations and other CSOs have a lot to gain from these legislative improvements. Many of the national and special interest associations are amending their bylaws to re-register and resume their operations. Some journalists and editors are already forming working groups to deliberate on the formation of new associations. The political space in Ethiopia is opening up for civic engagement and the developments are critical for growth in the media sector. Amid the excitement, there are important considerations to be made so as not to repeat past mistakes and squander new opportunities.  

Need-Based Grassroots Drive: The Herculean Task

Most of Ethiopia’s media associations are created from a top-down drive, in which a few professionals who get along get together, recruit passive members to get themselves elected and register the entity. Some founders have special political interests and affiliations while others focus on advocacy and capacity building on specialized issues such as gender, the environment, or other beat reporting. 

In most journalist associations, membership is rather passive. The leaders assemble members for elections to fulfil legal obligations or when foreign funding is secured for training of journalists. Tamrat Gebregiorgis, a veteran publisher who used to be a member of one of these organizations, said, “some associations take the names of conference and training participants and claim broad membership base.”[1] 

One long-time member of the Ethiopian Free Press Journalists Association says he has never been an active member but participated in elections and trainings organized by the association. “I’ve never paid my membership fees. In fact, nobody asked,” he said.  Another member said, “I don’t even know where to pay the fees. We don’t know where the office is located; do they even have one?”[2] 

This is not particularly the case with special interest and beat reporters’ associations. For example, the Ethiopian Environmental Journalists Association required candidates to have worked in the areas of environment, agriculture and food security. Membership applicants are given an associate status and given an opportunity to show their commitments to become full voting members.[3] 

The bottom line is that the rationale behind the creation of media associations should be defined by the need of members. Active participation of members is critical for the effective organization, articulation, and translation of sectoral and individual necessities into meaningful policy action. Internal accountability mechanisms such as separation of power, conflict of interest, audits and whistleblower clauses should be incorporated into bylaws and respected in practice. Procurement of goods and services and allocation of benefits to members require organizational manuals and transparent decision-making guidelines. Donor organizations and governments should place accountability at the top of funding requirements and commission independent monitoring and evaluation of project impact.          

Moving Forward: Consolidation vs. Fragmentation 

Out of eight media associations this study assessed, half have expired registration.

“We don’t have resources to hold general assembly meetings.” 

Wondossen Mekonnen, EFJA.

“Our president fled the country.”

 Member, Ethiopian Photo Journalists Association

“I am not sure when our registration expired.”

 ENJU’s leader in exile.

“Funding restrictions and government pressure shut us down.”

 Founder, Environmental Journalists Association of Ethiopia.

Political pressure and funding restrictions had been stifling but lack of coordination and fragmentation amongst journalist associations has certainly made the impact severe. “I think plurality of associations is positive for media sector development, as long as the focus is on professionalism,” said Abel Wabella, a newspaper publisher and blogger who spent nearly two years behind bars. “The end would justify the means only if there is a strategic alliance between the different associations to advocate for common goals” Abel said. 

Many journalists feel now is the time to form strong media associations that are respected by the media community for their commitment, integrity and independence from political influence.[4]

The drive for these changes should come from journalists, weather through the formation of new unions, merging of old associations, or creating a consortium of associations through some sort of agreed-upon structure. Organizing forums for such deliberations could play a key role in the road to success. 

Recommendations

Media Association Leaders

It is recommended that media association leaders should:

Build institutional capacity and independence to defend freedom of speech and association through effective policy advocacy, protection of journalists, and enhancement of professional standards.

Work to represent the interests of members and the overall improvement of the media sector. Remain politically engaged, influence policy but stay politically neutral.

Create an internal accountability regime by revising bylaws and putting them to practice. Incorporate term limits, separation of powers, conflict of interest and whistleblower clauses to establish rule of law. Hold general assembly meetings and elections on time.  

Design membership recruitment strategies and assign volunteer groups to do the task. Inspire service and volunteerism through leading by example. 

Give members a reason to pay their contributions; collectively bargain for press credentials, access to information, and other interests that benefit journalists.

Organize effectively and create strategic partnerships with other associations, the media council, governments, and donors.

Build internal capacity before taking on projects to train others. Incorporate effective project management tools to successfully administer impactful media development projects.

Design effective internal and external communications strategies for traditional and social media. Regularly update codes of conduct to make them relevant to journalistic practice.

Engage in media literacy projects to create public awareness about the roles and responsibilities of the media.

Members

Members of media associations are encouraged to:

  • Become active members, by paying their monthly contributions in order to sustain the association, and demand financial accountability from their leaders.
  • Organize themselves under credible associations. Voice their concerns, demand accountability and transparency from elected leaders.
  • Ensure term limits, audit reports, general assembly meetings, and elections are conducted according to bylaws governing the association.
  • Take ownership of projects that advance the professional development goals of journalists and their safety through collective bargaining and advocacy.
  • Abide by personal ethics, editorial guidelines of news organizations they work for, and their association’s code of conduct at all times.

Government

It is recommended that government:

  • Consolidates current media reform to clear hurdles hampering growth in the sector by designing implementation strategies. The government should Involve media institutions as strategic partners to uphold the respect of constitutional freedoms of expression and information.
  • Considers media institutions as independent monitors of governance accountability. By allowing the media to fulfil their role in the creation of informed and self-governing citizens, democratic governance can be insured.
  • Allows the media civic space to thrive. Showing restraint from direct or indirect political interference on the workings of media associations is vital.
  • Eases strict regulatory controls to pave the way for self-regulation.
  • Considers further amendment of the CSO law to make allocation of funds by civic groups a non-binding honor system.

Donors  

It is recommended that donors:

  • Seek partnerships with media businesses, think tanks, and academic institutions to help associations develop their internal capacity.
  • Support media associations and assist in the development of structural changes that enhance efficiency, accountability, and financial sustainability of media associations.
  • Require binding accountability standards in bylaws and in practice (audit reports, timely elections, independent monitoring and evaluation of projects, etc).
  • Require bidding manuals for purchase of goods and services and a transparent decision making guideline.
  • Refrain from pushing direct or indirect national interest and special interest agenda outside the advocacy scope of organizations they fund.

[1] Tamrat Gebregiorgis, Managing Editor of Addis Fortune, in an interview with MERSA Media Institute, February 2019.

[2] Issayas Mekuria and Melaku Demissie, EFJA members since the 90s, in an interview with MERSA Media Institute, March 2019. 

[3] Argaw Shinnie, founding director of EEJA, in an interview with MERSA Media Institute, March 2019.

[4] Kaleyesus Bekele and Asrat Siyoum, The Reporter newspaper, in an interview with MERSA Media Institute, February and March 2019.