Clampdown in Addis: The Private Press: The Challenges Facing Independent Journalists

The economic challenges facing private publishers include competition, a small pool of advertising revenue, and the fluctuating price of newsprint on the international market. Publishers also complain that they are crippled by an informal “ban” on advertisements placed by state-owned institutions in the private press, by the refusal of government media to accept paid promotional advertising from private newspapers, and by the reported warnings that private businesses have received about the repercussions of placing advertisements simultaneously in both the state and private press.

Technologically, the private press is more advanced than the state press, but this advantage may be short-lived because the government is now three years into a major modernization program for its news organs.

Operating on shoestring budgets with skeleton staffs, many private newspapers and magazines lay out their publications themselves on personal computers equipped with outdated desktop publishing programs that are modified to work in both the Amharic and English languages. Using laser printers to prepare camera-ready page proofs, self-taught production staffs produce the most basic graphics. These publications would greatly benefit from access to more sophisticated technology and production training.

The independent press publishes products that vary in editorial quality and political analysis. English-language newspapers reflect the decline of English-language instruction in the educational system. And both Amharic- and English-language publications reflect the negligible editorial skills of the majority of practicing journalists.

Some newspapers, like the Addis Tribune and The Monitor, which have been accused in the past of treading too carefully to avoid the perception of criticizing the government, are now covering more local and political issues, as well as press freedom and human rights. However, the bulk of the criticism directed squarely at the government can be found in publications like Tobia and Urji, which are regarded as political opposition papers by the government and its supporters. There is some justification for the government’s view: some independent publishers and journalists were partisans of Col. Mengistu; others of the late Emperor Haile Selassie; and others still of various ethnic insurgent groups. This, however, does not justify the state’s intolerance of the expression of opposing viewpoints.

English-language newspapers targeting the Addis-based international community have created a new segment of the market. 7 Days Update and Addis Digest excerpt major stories from both the state and private media, providing translations of articles from Amharic-language publications. Entrepreneur and The Sun are weekly newspapers that extensively cover business issues.

Reporter, an Amharic-language weekly, has also carved out a niche for itself, offering investigative reporting in the form of exposés of government corruption and mismanagement. Many of the best-selling independent Amharic-language publications plan to publish English-language editions in the near future.