“In the interest of the free flow of information, ideas and opinions which are essential to the functioning of a democratic order, the press shall, as an institution, enjoy legal protection to ensure its operational independence and its capacity to entertain diverse opinions

ATTEMPTS TO SELF-REGULATE UNDER THE ETHIOPIAN MEDIA COUNCIL​

In January 2016, a decade-long joint endeavor by media professionals, associations and international partners culminated in the establishment of the Ethiopian Media Council (EMC).[1]A consortium of 19 media houses and journalist unions agreed to honor the code of conduct and abide by the organization’s bylaws. Since then, 29 legally registered state and private media organizations joined the EMC.

The EMC set out to provide industry-wide accountability and ethical practice through voluntary self-regulation of media institutions. Members pledged to abide by a publicly transparent accountability mechanism that includes a code of conduct and a complaints commission headed by ombudspersons.[2]    

Three years after the official establishment of the media council, the organization was still not legally registered. Amare Aregawi, the council’s president and publisher of the most influential biweekly newspaper in Ethiopia, is hopeful the organization will finally be registered now that the civil society law has been revised.[3]   

Legal and Regulatory Hurdles

The protracted journey to build industry consensus on the formation of the media council took place at the backdrop of repressive legal and regulatory frameworks that had devastating effects on sectoral growth and independence. Media associations had been severely weakened due to financial and regulatory limitations under the civil society law. Government crackdown on the private sector had diminished the number of publications from nearly 300 in the 90’s to barley a dozen over the past decade.

Constitutional guarantees of freedom of speech and information had been eroded by laws and directives that govern the media and access to public information.

The criminalization of defamation under the 2005 revised criminal code, and the broad use of the Anti-Terrorism Proclamation to stifle dissent sent many journalists to prison or exile. As a result, media organizations in Ethiopia started operating in a state of fear and self-censorship.

The media council aimed to do away with a regime of severe penalties granted by courts that lacked the independence to render true justice. By taking responsibility, investigating complaints and ruling on corrective measures on contested media reports, the council hoped to pave the way for self-regulation. “If only we were allowed register,” Tamrat Haile, a founding media owner said.[4]

Registering and assisting the media council to function independently as a sector wide self-regulatory body is a critical step to the development of professionalism. A well functioning council helps build credibility of the media industry, provides accountability and builds trust with the public. For a country like Ethiopia undergoing an ethnically charged political transition through the social media era where false information travels fact, associations can help create a media-literate public. Providing funding for project specific capacity building efforts of the council helps Ethiopia’s transition ensures long-term institutional success.        

The Debate Over Representation

All interview and survey participants agree Ethiopia needs a media council. However, the majority[5]of reporters and editors interviewed and surveyed for this study say the Ethiopian Media Council has practical representation issues to address. Four out of five current executive committee members are media owners. The remaining seat is taken by the president of the Ethiopian Journalists Association, representing only state media journalists. Out of 29 current members of the council, 26 are media institutions and three are media associations.

The issue of representation was raised during stakeholder consultation forums prior to the formation of the council. “We were told we can be represented by our associations since the council allows legally registered media institutions as members,” said Asrat Siyoum, editor of The Reporter newspaper.[6]   

Ethiopian Media Council Bylaws

  1. Article 7 (2) Regular members include the following:
  2. Journalist associations
  3. Publishers and broadcasters
  4. State and private journalism schools

The rationale for media owners and managing editors to take an active roles in the establishment of media councils comes on the basis that self-regulation can help them avoid lengthy trials and hefty fines. Under the Ethiopian law and the media environment at the time, they were the primary targets of lawsuits. But media self-regulation works effectively when practitioners trust the credibility of the media council and accept its codes of conduct.

[1] Un.org January 12, 2016. The United Nations hosts historic Ethiopian media council establishment conference.   

[2] Ethiopian Media Council bylaws, Article 11 and 27.

[3] Amare Aregawi president of Ethiopian Media Council, in an in interview with MERSA Media Institute, March 2019.

[4] Tamrat Haile, EMC founding publisher, in an interview with MERSA Media Institute, March 2019.

[5] 80% of respondents to interviews and participants of a sample survey.

[6] Asrat Siyoum, editor, The Reporter newspaper, in an interview with MERSA Media Institute, March 2019.

Verbatim: On the Ethiopian Media Council28 ​
“People think that the media council is another form of an advocacy professional association. It is not.”

More than 10 journalists and editors interviewed for this study fear journalists could face sanctions through rulings passed by complaint investigative committees. This skepticism could subside if credible associations represent the interest of their members in the decisions of media councils. Establishing credible associations, as discussed in the previous chapter, requires active involvement of journalists to organize themselves. 

28Befekadu Hailu, opinion editor, Addis Maleda newspaper, Tamrat Gebregiorgis, Managing Editor of Addis Fortune, in an interview with MERSA Media Institute, February 2019.   

Sample survey conducted for this study in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, February and March 2019.

The complaints investigation panel shall include 15 members who have deep understanding of media, socio-political dynamics of the country and a commitment to contribute to the development of the media sector. Journalists that have been recently released from prison and diaspora-based media institutions that are returning home feel left out and want to be a part of the council. The president of the council, Amare Aregawi said, any media organization that is legally registered has the right to sign up for membership “as long as they honor the code of conduct and our bylaws”. Two bloggers from the Zone 9 group that were recently released from prison suggest a different approach. They are convinced a stakeholder discussion on the bylaws and code of conduct could end the debate.[1] The bylaws could then be amended since the council is not legally registered yet. “This attitude reminds me of the saying perfect is enemy of the good,” Tibebu Bekele, a journalism educator said. “Why discard the process that took a long time to mature and restart from zero? After all, it is possible to amend changes through participation in the council.”[2] EMC’s bylaws state a motion to amend the rules governing the council could be entertained if a quarter of its members sign a petition. Proposed amendments pass with a majority vote of the general assembly.[3]

[1]Befekadu Hailu, and Abel Wabella, Zone 9 bloggers, opinion editors, in an interview with MERSA Media Institute, February and March 2019.  

[2] Tibebu Bekele, journalism educator, Independent News & Media, in an interview with MERSA Media Institute, March, 2019.

[3]Ethiopian Media Council bylaws, Article 36, Amending the council’s bylaws. (translation from Amharic)

The government regulator​

“Freedom of expression and information can not be limited on the account of the content or effect of the point of view expressed.”

                                  The Constitution of the Federal Democratic Republic of Ethiopia, Article 29

“The authority shall have the powers and duties to ensure that the broadcasting service is conducted in such a manner that contributes to the proper social, economic, political and cultural development of the country.” 

                                                                  Broadcasting Service Proclamation No. 533/2007

Amending the structure and function of EBA

The Ethiopian Broadcast Authority (EBA) was established in 1999 to regulate broadcast operations in the country.[1]There are three broadcast media ownership structures in Ethiopia: government, private and community. All broadcast operations are regulated by EBA, which was legally established to be autonomous. In practice, EBA serves as an arm to the government and is bureaucratic in its operations. This is mostly because the organization was originally setup to be accountable to the government; its director general and board were recommended by the Ministry of Information and appointed by the government.[2]

Power and duties of EBA[3]

  • Issue, suspend and revoke broadcast service licenses and FM frequencies 
  • Determine the standard and types of equipment used for broadcasting and transition
  • Investigate complaints and pass decisions on stories and other broadcast content
  • If a broadcaster is criminally convicted, confiscate broadcast property and equipment

To put it in plain language, a federal government agency whose leaders are appointed by government spokespersons and are approved by the leader of the country has the right to issue or not to issue a broadcast license (Article 9). If you are lucky to get the license, the government tells you what equipment to buy and issues a certificate of approval for your purchases (Article 7). Then, if a government official or a member of the public complains about the content of your broadcasts, you are investigated by government officials who probably have never worked as journalists. At best, you get a pass, a notice or a hefty fine of USD350–3,500 (Article 45). At worst, a state official decides to press charges and a government-salaried prosecutor takes you to court under the 2005 criminal code—where you’ll be forced to defend your case before a court that is heavily influenced by the government. Finally, a guilty verdict puts you behind bars, giving the broadcast authority the legal mandate to confiscate all your broadcast equipment and property citing Article 46 of the Broadcasting Proclamation. 

The Ethiopian media today are welcoming proposed legal reform of the broadcast proclamation to amend these overreaching legal mandates and inefficiencies in the practice of the government regulator. A working group of 15 journalists, lawyers, government officials and scholars has identified provisions in the Broadcasting Service Proclamation that contradict constitutional guarantees and other regulatory encroachments.

[1]Initially called the Ethiopian Broadcast Agency, officially changed to Ethiopian Broadcast Authority by the Broadcasting Service Proclamation No. 533/2007.

[2]Broadcasting Service Proclamation No. 533/2007, Article 9 (2,4).

[3]Broadcasting Service Proclamation No. 533/2007, Articles 7 and 46.

VERBATIM: ON REFORMING BROADCAST REGULATION​

Case Study: on Media Regulation Kenya and South Africa

Kenya has a relatively vibrant and developed media landscape in Africa, but its media regulatory mechanism is not one to emulate. A self-regulating and independent Media Council of Kenya was established in 2004 by voluntary industry participants. The council was composed of media owners, journalist associations, relevant trade unions, consumer protection groups and journalism educators. However, the council became a statutory body in 2007 by government decree.

The co-regulatory legal arrangement brought government representatives into the council’s leadership and the executives were hired and paid by the state. The council was mandated to grant credentials for journalists, investigate complaints and issue and enforce codes of conduct. 

Do you think government should regulate the media?

Sample survey conducted for this study in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, February and March 2019.

Press freedom and human rights groups urged the government of Kenya to do away with government involvement in the council. Defiant of the calls for change, the government enacted the Media Council Act of 2013 that reasserted the duties and responsibilities of the council.
Subsequent reports by the State Department and Committee to Protect Journalists highlighted concerns stating that the law increased broad government oversight of media operations. It does this “by creating a complaints tribunal with expansive authority, including the power to revoke journalists’ credentials and levy debilitating fines,” states the 2014 State Department country report on Kenya.
Co-regulation of media could be seen as an infringement on the industry. Voluntary self-regulation could provide similar accountability results without resentment of enforcement mechanisms. South Africa has a functional regulatory mechanism independently co-regulated by a press council, a public advocate and a press appeals panel.

Recommendations

The Media Council

It is recommended that leaders of the media council:

  • Open the stage for stakeholder forums to build consensus across industry leaders and practitioners. The council’s credibility is its currency in the face of those it serves—the public, government, civic groups, and most importantly journalists. Facilitate discussion forums focused on membership, the structure of the organization and awareness creation on the roles and responsibilities of the council and the sector. In order to show commitment to address criticism, these discussions should take place prior to registering the council.
  • Understand that quality journalism is the rationale for the very existence of the council. Voluntary members of such an organization are institutions who are committed to the development of professionalism, high ethical standards and accountability. Others may have a different agenda.
  • Maintain dialogue with the public by delegating independent ombudspersons to investigate complaints. It is suggested that the ombudspersons include respected members of the public, journalism professionals and academicians.
  • Engage in media literacy projects that facilitate the public’s understanding of journalism.
  • Create strategic partnerships with research and capacity building institutions, donors, civil society and government to address structural and internal capacity gaps in the media, its institutions and practitioners.
  • Design a clear roadmap for partnerships to address capacity building needs of the organization and the sector. Voluntary self-regulation is a constant learning process for media institutions and journalists. Enforcement is elusive and can be perceived as infringement unless the development of professionalism in the sector is fostered through training, mentorship and editorial guidance.
  • Learn from other African countries and nations that have similar political, socio-economic and cultural relevance to Ethiopian contexts. Self-regulation can be a painful and overwhelming process. It is a tremendous undertaking that takes time to mature; but it has been done before.
  • Assist in the creation of independent journalist associations that represent the interest of journalists in the council.

Government

It is recommended that branches of government:

  • Design a media policy strategy and engage in a positive dialogue with the sector and its leaders to implement policies, laws and regulations.
  • Facilitate cross-functional cooperation and understanding between the media and government offices to eliminate institutional resistance and normative practices that hinder freedom of speech, information and association.
  • Reform the government media regulatory regime and foster voluntary self-regulation. In doing so, the powers of the Ethiopian Broadcast Authority should be limited within the bounds of the constitution. EBA should be given autonomy by law and in practice and its leadership should be vetted and approved by parliament.
  • Allow the media civic space to thrive. Permitting the sum of individual interests to be represented in responsible civil groups is a better strategy than mob-bargaining in political transitions.

Donors

It is recommended that donors:

  • Help build the capacity of media institutions through technical, material and financial assistance.
  • Assist in the development of a self-regulating media landscape. Support and facilitate awareness raising campaigns and media stakeholder consultation forums to build consensus and public confidence in the Ethiopian media council and journalist associations.
  • Partner with the Ethiopian Media Council and credible journalist associations to facilitate training for journalists and media managers, and help build the internal capacity of these institutions to manage projects.
  • Forge partnerships with media think tanks and research and academic institutions that can provide critical support for the development of media institutions.
  • Provide assistance to design curriculums for hands-on professional development trainings of journalists, in-house media training facilities, as well as journalism schools.