Ethiopia’s New Media Law Opens Sector for Investment and Self-Regulation

February 2, 2021

February, 2021, is shaping up to be one of the most instrumental periods in the history of the Ethiopia’s media sector. How? On the 2nd of February the Ethiopian legislative body has taken a monumental step in adopting a new media law; a piece of legislation considered to be the most progressive and liberal media laws to come out of an Ethiopian parliament. Better yet, the day Ethiopia’s new media law was passed, MERSA Media Institute (MMI) held a sideline event to build consensus on operationalizing media self-regulation in the county. 

Consequentially, the new law is also the first of its kind to incorporate provisions that explicitly recognizes and gives legal support to Ethiopia’s media sector to self-regulate under a national media regulatory framework of co-regulation. This aspect alone is a seismic shift to the media-state relations and the overall media landscape of Ethiopia. But, only if this legislative break through can be carried forward by the appropriate institutional setup.           

That is why influential editors, media owners, journalists, experts in media regulation and development, journalist associations, civil society organizations, and government have shown keen interest to participate in this workshop, which aimed at assessing challenges and opportunities under the new media law to build and operationalize an independent self-regulatory body.

As they say, ‘if you build it they will come’. Well, figuratively speaking, the new media law has built the metaphorical IT, and media stakeholders were equal to the task as they spent one full day discussing the ways of operationalizing this newly reinvigorated media self-regulatory platform.    

Strictly speaking, the event was a research validation workshop for a study conducted by MERSA Media Institute entitled: ‘Operationalizing Media Self-regulation in Ethiopia’. The findings presented at the workshop leveraged extensive desk reviews, benchmarked country-experiences, and key stakeholder interviews to model an Ethiopian media self-regulatory system. Four research articles written by invited Ethiopian experts representing various stakeholders and one article exploring the experience of other countries on operationalizing self-regulation, complementing the research output, and the debate on the journey of Ethiopian media Council (EMC) were some of the highlights of the workshop.

Among the speakers were Solomon Goshu, the lead researcher in the comparative study, Fasika Tadesse, leadership of Editors Guild of Ethiopia, Tamrat Geberegiorgis, member of Ethiopian Media Council, Dr. Getachew Dinku, Head of Ethiopian Broadcasting Authority, and Dr. Harun Mwangi of the University of Rwanda. 

Executive Director of MMI, Henok Fente, in his opening remark, stated the workshop is mainly dedicated to validate the study and gather constructive feedback from participants as a part of a consultation process to complete a handbook on operationalizing media self-regulation in Ethiopia. “The workshop aimed at exploring contemporary issues on media self-regulation in Ethiopia from different perspectives, mainly: media professionals, academia, legal experts, and other stakeholders,” the Executive Director said. 

“Operationalizing media self-regulation is a herculean task that requires robust stakeholder engagement,” Henok added, highlighting the challenges of strengthening independent and self-regulating media organizations in the backdrop of decades of authoritarian control. “Now is the time to capitalize on the opportunities created under the new media law and the reform in Ethiopia,” he said.  

The head of Ethiopian Broadcast Authority, Getachew Dinku (PhD), on his part, reaffirmed government’s readiness to see a functional media self-regulatory system in Ethiopia. “Our commitment to build a self-regulating media sector is reflected in the government media policy and most consequentially prescribed by the new media law. However, getting the job done requires a series of rapid and resolute actions from all media stakeholders,” he stated. 

In Ethiopia, media self-regulation is a very recent phenomenon although several players in the media sector and international donors have attempted to get a self-regulatory mechanism off the ground for many years. One of these initiatives led to the establishment of the Ethiopian Media Council (EMC), established in 2016. However, the media self-regulatory mechanism did not become operational even after the establishment of the EMC due to a number of structural and regulatory challenges. The Council indubitably garnered the attention of at least three of the four articles written by local media experts and that of the stakeholders’ convened at Sapphire Addis.   

Tamrat Gebregiorgis leads one of the founding institutions of the Ethiopian Media Council. In his article, “Media Self-Regulation: Misplaced Priorities, Missed Opportunities”, he argues that media sector has failed to institutionalize a self-regulatory regime capitalizing on recent spaces created in the country’s institutional, legal, and regulatory reform efforts. He laid the blame squarely on the leadership of the EMC. 

“What I see is a complete leadership paralysis in the Council. It is a crises; a crises of value that the leadership is suffering from,” he told participants in his zoom presentation. Recounting his organization’s recent decision to withdraw its membership from the EMC, Tamrate underlined the responsibility of member organizations and associations to hold The Council’s leadership to account and reclaim their organization.         

Sebsibe Kebede, the Executive Director of the EMC, chose to focus on the glass half-full and argued, despite the challenges, the self-regulatory body has achieved a number of important milestones from legal registration to winding its membership base and the establishment of a much anticipated complaint investigation and arbitration panel. 

“Although, the global health menace—COVID-19 pandemic—has played a role in complicating the work of the Council, especially its task of establishing an Arbitration Panel, the subcommittee in charge of selecting candidates for this Panel has taken an important step in having the 18-member Panel constituted by facilitating voting in the General Assembly, electronically,” Sebsibe contended in his article. And yet, he also argues that any amount of institutional strength is no substitute for aggressive awareness raising work to promote the role of the organization. 

During his presentation, Solomon reflected on good practices and the major challenges of media self-regulation and options for operationalizing self-regulation system. One of the leader’s of the Media Council of Kenya, Haron Mwangi, as well focused on comparative analysis of Ethiopia’s media regulation with a particular focus on Kenya. Among other things Mwangi bid caution on the selection of Panel members, drawing on Kenya’s experience, that meritocracy should ultimately come first as selection criteria for arbitration of media matters requires in-depth knowledge and experience of the craft. 

Secretary of Editor’s Guild of Ethiopia, Fasika Tadesse, on her part, underscored the vast universe of media self-regulation that start from media houses and extends to journalist associations and the Council. As a result she insists on a bottom-up drive to media self-regulation in Ethiopia and strengthening the in-house editorial structures as the basis for self-regulating media sector. “Setting-up an independent news ombudsman in each media houses could be a good starting point to slowly build towards a self-regulated media,” She argued. 

The full-day workshop explored issues of self-regulation in the Ethiopian media and went beyond to consider larger questions of media and institutional transformations. Key stakeholder institutions which participated during the workshop forwarded their valuable recommendations regarding future action plans and taking the deliberations on self-regulation a step further to frame the final study. 

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