Clampdown in Addis: State Media: The Government Press and the Broadcast Monopoly

The Ethiopian government currently publishes four major newspapers and owns and controls all broadcast media. The primary challenge facing the state-run news outlets is a public perception of irrelevance and lack of objectivity. As one journalist who has worked for both the private press and the state media told CPJ, “The government press is not even serving the government. People have stopped watching television. There is no journalism in the government media.”

State journalists still practice self-censorship learned over decades of having to give all stories a pro-government slant. For this reason and for economic ones, it is not uncommon today for a state journalist to write for a private publication, under a pseudonym, to earn extra income and to take advantage of the opportunity to work on stories not covered extensively in the government media. And many state journalists have moved permanently to the private press because the salaries are higher.

In 1993, the government implemented a five-year reorganization and decentralization plan aimed at rendering state newspapers and broadcast outlets semi-autonomous. Although the government will continue to cover all costs of production, including salaries, as the plan is institutionalized, its publications and broadcast stations are expected to generate advertising revenue and create additional income sources to become entirely self-sufficient by 1998.

The government has shown little willingness to give up control of the airwaves to private ownership in Ethiopia, where the adult literacy rate is 22.8 percent, where fewer than one percent of the population of approximately 55 million reads newspapers or magazines, and where an estimated 10 million radios are in use.

The role that private radio will play in the development of the media in Ethiopia is a significant one, especially for the large segments of the population that have little or no access to news of the country outside their own regions. Radio remains the medium that is most effective at reaching a geographically dispersed and linguistically diverse population. Until licenses are granted to private broadcasters, the state monopoly of the dissemination of information will continue to restrict Ethiopian citizens’ ability to make informed decisions.

CPJ’s questions to top government officials about the state monopoly of broadcasting yielded unsatisfactory responses. Officials vacillated between asserting the hard-line position that Ethiopia can ill afford to allow unrestricted access to radio frequencies lest it become another Rwanda, to admitting that the government has been undecided about how to set up a regulatory framework within which to organize and grant licenses.

Recent technological advances aside, the relatively low production values and editorial quality of Ethiopian Television (ETV) and Radio Ethiopia support private investors’ beliefs that the government is wary of opening up the marketplace to competition from private broadcasters who may offer superior programming.

As independent journalists pointed out to CPJ on several occasions, the press law allows for open access to broadcasting, and the government’s current denial of licenses to independent journalists constitutes unlawful restriction of fair competition.

Officials told CPJ that when Parliament reconvenes in October, it is expected to nominate semi-autonomous boards that are supposed to take over all government-controlled media, including newspapers, radio, television, and the national news agency. The implementation of a law authorizing private broadcasting, however, is likely to take at least two more years.

Access to satellite dish technology and hardware, previously available only to foreign embassies and high-ranking government officials, was granted to private citizens on Aug. 7, 1996. Importation of satellite dishes for commercial purposes, however, remains illegal. And restrictions on the movement of satellite dishes within the country are also in effect.

ETV was launched in 1963 with a staff of 29 people. Today its staff of approximately 570 produces ETV’s programming in antiquated studios on much of the organization’s original equipment. Currently the station is undergoing a modernization effort as part of the government’s restructuring program, and it expects to relocate to a new building, with modern studios and transmitters, in central Addis Ababa.

Of all the state media, ENA, Ethiopia’s official wire service, is the most poorly equipped technologically. Yet its 100 young and poorly trained journalists countrywide generate the bulk of the domestic and international news stories reported in government newspapers. During CPJ’s tour of the ENA facilities, general manager Tekle Tesfahdet said that most of the wire service’s journalists, who are recruited from local high schools and Addis Ababa University, have not received proper training, and are writing their news stories longhand because of a shortage of typewriters. Regional reports from international wire services, such as Reuters and AFP, are incorporated into the ENA English wire, but the source of most of the service’s local-language output originates from 37 regional bureaus located throughout the country.

The state’s largest surviving newspapers–the English-language Ethiopian Herald, the Amharic-language Addis Zemen, the Orominga-language Berissa, and the Arabic Al Aleni–are little more than repositories for ENA wire stories. But in late 1995, in a reversal of its historical tendency to attack the independent media, the Ethiopian Herald began including excerpts from independent newspapers in its weekly overview of top stories.