In March 2019, Ethiopia’s oldest journalist association called members of the media for a press conference to commemorate its 50th anniversary. 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 re-gime. 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 pe-riod, 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 pro-tecting 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.
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.
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 1998.2 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.