introduction

Ethiopia’s prime minister Abiy Ahmed assumed power in April 2018 following three years of anti-government protests and violent government repression that threatened to plunge the country into failure. On his inaugural address, Abiy signaled his intention to introduce liberal reforms. He highlighted the urgency to build independent and vibrant media that inform, lead the conversation, and uphold accountability in the transition towards democracy. 

“Building democratic institutions is a matter of survival for us,” Abiy said, shifting from his party’s ideology that reducing poverty and improving healthcare and education outweigh the development of an independent media sector. In his nationally televised address, Abiy promised his new administration will communicate effectively, listen to critics, and ensure accountability. 

Since then, Abiy’s administration has embarked on reforms to overhaul the country’s media and communications policy and legal framework. A press secretariat has been established under the prime minister’s office to enhance effective government communication. A working group comprising journalists, lawyers, government representatives and scholars has been formed, and it is working with the Ministry of Justice to amend draconian media laws. Hopes and expectations are high on account of a revised civil society law adopted by parliament in February 2019 that lifted overreaching administrative and funding restrictions on professional associations and other civic groups. Despite legislative improvements, the state of media remains dismal, due to past funding and structural limitations. 

As the prime minister moves to fulfill his promises, he is confronting challenges to transform a sector that was built for authoritarian control in a political environment fractured by deep ethnic and political divisions. 

Ownership and funding are important considerations if the media landscape in Ethiopia is to thrive. The majority of Ethiopians rely on state-run or party-affiliated terrestrial or satellite broadcasting. Dissemination of news and information is polarized along political, ethnic, and other allegiances. The media’s watchdog role has diminished through structural, economic and legal challenges. 

Truly independent media in Ethiopia is rare, and growth is either stifled or driven by political agendas. Efforts should be focused on building the capacity of media houses and creating a level playing field where their business gains are determined by a free marketplace. Journalist associations should be strengthened to become good stewards of professional standards and self-governance. 

The Fundamentals: Why Support Independent Media Institutions?

Ethiopia is at a critical juncture. Africa’s second-most populated country nearly slipped into chaos, despite two decades of sustained, double-digit economic growth. The threat still lingers, with deep ethnic undertones shaping political discourse, amplified by government- or political-affiliated mainstream and social media. 

However, there are positive developments in the media sector, inspired by a new, optimistic attitude and reform efforts by the government. Over the past year, scores of print and broadcast media have emerged, initiated mainly by recently freed journalists and bloggers. A number of exiled media institutions have returned home to set up shop. Journalist unions that survived more than a decade of political pressure, funding and regulatory restrictions are rising from the ashes. This has created an urgent need to strengthen the capacity of media institutions to enable them to be independent, professional, pluralistic, and financially sustainable.   

About This Report

This report is the result of a study conducted by MERSA Media Institute, in partnership with the Foreign and Commonwealth Office of the United Kingdom, with the aim of examining the role journalist associations play in the development of professional standards, regulatory mechanisms and advancement of free speech in Ethiopia. The study identifies existing professional associations, legal and political restrictions limiting their functions, and their capacity to fulfil their civic duties. 

The study has two main analytical contexts: understanding the roles of government, civil society, media owners and journalists in media policy and regulation under existing laws and planned legislative reforms; and identifying replicable local models and relevant regional paradigms.   

This report provides sets of recommendations for media stakeholders involved in policy and regulatory reform efforts currently underway in Ethiopia. Our goal is to help create an understanding of the media and civil society landscape in Ethiopia, and the potential impact of reforms in these sectors. To achieve these goals, the study does the following:

  1. Reviews existing media and civil society laws, impacts of legal reforms and new opportunities for sectoral organizations. 
  2. Provides contextual analysis on reforms needed by media associations and journalists and identifies capacity-building support that industry leaders, unions and practitioners hope to get from potential partners. 
  3. Provides a comparative analysis for replicable and relevant models from local and regional experiences, and identifies lessons to be drawn for Ethiopia.    

This document could serve as a reference to guide future partnerships to support the development of robust, independent and responsible media and professional associations in Ethiopia.        

How The Study Was Conducted 

Field research was conducted in Addis Ababa throughout four weeks in February and March 2019, and includes more than 35 hours of in-depth interviews with media association leaders, media owners, journalists, government regulators, and academics. Forty-two media stakeholders were interviewed in person and by phone; they also participated in a survey designed to identify gaps, opportunities and threats to the sector.  

This report maps out journalist associations and media councils registered in Ethiopia, and those pending registration. 

A desk review of existing legislation and regulatory mechanisms was also conducted to analyze the possible impact of key provisions under Ethiopian law that adversely affect media businesses and associations.

Assessment Method 

This study analyzes strengths, weaknesses, opportunities and threats (SWOT) to determine what journalist associations and other key institutions require to be effective stewards of the reform and transition process in Ethiopia. This method helps identify various opportunities, risks and challenges that exist in the process of developing professional associations and journalistic standards in Ethiopia. Information collected from interviews with influential media owners, association leaders, journalists and scholars was used as a building block for the SWOT analysis on media associations. An in-depth look into the media accountability ecosystem is an essential component of this study. 

Scope

The field research was conducted in Addis Ababa, where most national media organizations and associations are based. Studies incorporating the perspectives of regional media in Ethiopia are essential to achieving a more accurate understanding of the national media landscape. Comprehending policy, regulation, and other capacity challenges to regional media can provide fundamental feedback on sectoral reform and capacity-building efforts beyond the scope of this study.