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Subtler Censorship through Discrimination

February 1 , 2020
By Sileshi Yilma Reta

The last three decades have witnessed the rise in the number of media outlets in Ethiopia. However, not all were lucky enough to go through the tough journey, which has been full of hurdles and hardships. Those that persisted are facing immense challenges.

During all these dramatic years, one feature remains constant: discriminatory practises between state and affiliated media houses and the independent ones. The latter receive preferential treatment by getting exclusive access to cover events or conduct interviews with high ranking government officials.

In contrast, the private outlets are sidelined and more often than not denied access to information and resources that are vital to their day-to-day tasks.

The government has invested tremendously to expand its media power. This is despite private media organisations suffering from lack of resources. Few of them that survived the hardships were able to make it to this day due to a commitment and respect to the profession as well as the generous support extended from the private sector in the form of advertisement and sponsorship.

Unfair practices are also evident during most press conferences. Whenever there is a press conference by government officials, the preferred attendees in most cases are state-run media houses.

Government’s preferences during these events are the usual suspects: journalists from media houses like Ethiopian Broadcasting Corporation (EBC), Fana Broadcasting Corporate (FBC), Walta TV and Ethiopian News Agency (ENA). As a result, officials are not asked the kind of challenging questions from media representatives that they could be.

Although the EPRDF is credited with opening up the space for the private media some three decades ago, its relationship with the media has always been hostile. To an extent, the current administration had shown positive signals toward the media at the beginning. The discourse about the private media was somewhat positive. Doors of the executive branch were also opened to some local outlets.

Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed (PhD) has thus far given at least three exclusive interviews: one to a private radio station, the other to VOA Amharic service and recently to an entertainment TV talk show. This is interesting. For a person a little over two years in power, that is not bad considering previous experiences.

Prime ministers before sat for exclusive interviews with non-government affiliated private media outlets only rarely. To his credit, former Prime Minister Hailemariam Dessalegn did give an exclusive interview to one of the private Amharic bi-weeklies. The record of the late Prime Minister Meles Zenawi is even less impressive.

Access to resources, privileges and exclusive interviews are not the only features that manifest in past and current administrations’ unfair approach towards the media in Ethiopia. Discrimination among the media goes beyond these elements.

Though it may seem minor to the developed world, trips abroad with government officials has been somewhat of a tool of discrimination. Foreign trips of the successive prime ministers and other senior government officials has always been covered mostly by journalists from the state-run ETV and in recent times by journalists from party-affiliated media houses.

Such privileges have traditionally been monopolised by the government’s media apparatus, while at the same time have long been restricted territories for those in the private media camp. The private media houses on rare occasions might have enjoyed such opportunities probably with generous hands extended by embassies or foreign institutions.

Although the incumbent has shown encouraging signs when it comes to its treatment of the media in the beginning, there still has not been a major shift of practice in transforming the media landscape. Extending fundamental support to the private media has remained a matter of rhetoric.

The government does not consider the private media as a genuine stakeholder of the country’s developmental endeavours and the journey to democratise the transition. There has been a deeply entrenched mistrust and enmity between the government and the private media establishments. The government has also harassed journalists in ways more subtle than just shutting them down. Those who withstand the pressures are now attempting to survive the hostile environment, which is still not welcoming and encouraging for vibrant media environment to flourish.

The government and the ruling party have highly invested in expanding the infrastructure of state-run as well as party-affiliated media outlets. On top of this, or as a result, there has not been a commitment to allow them to operate independently and be critical. They remain echo chambers and propaganda tools dedicated to advancing the agendas of the incumbents.

Despite promises to the contrary, state-run and party-affiliated media outlets, as always, continue to show their unreserved loyalty to whoever is in the driving seat. They carry on praising the incumbent and smearing previous administrations that they once worshiped and were devoted to serve. They have been resolute in ensuring the government’s fantasy of listening to its own sound bites.

To the contrary, the government has weakened the private media using a wide range of mechanisms, one of the most glaring being its discriminatory practises. As a result, the private media did not reach the heights it could have reached by now. Its financial and human resource capacity is poor even compared to the immediate neighbouring countries.

It is long overdue that government re-considers its attitude toward its own as well as the private media organisations. It has to take concrete steps to avoid the discrimination among the media institutions.

This is crucial given how, even under the circumstances, private media outlets continue to be instrumental in criticising and exposing the government’s wrongdoing, abuse of power and violation of human rights. They have managed to strive with greater integrity and professionalism.

The government should have the courage to allow the private media to operate in freedom and with equal opportunities as that of public media. If indeed the administration believes in democracy, it should realise that it is the independent media that makes up for a large part of the fourth estate.

PUBLISHED ON Feb 01,2020 [ VOL 20 , NO 1031]

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