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).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.
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.
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.
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 majorityof 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.
Ethiopian Media Council Bylaws
- Article 7 (2) Regular members include the following:
- Journalist associations
- Publishers and broadcasters
- 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.