For an Ethiopia in transition, guarded hope for freer journalism
By Beno Muchler, The New York Times | May 22, 2012
ADDIS ABABA, Ethiopia — On a beautiful morning in late March, Alemtsehay Meketie rushed up the hill to the United Nations Conference Center in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia’s capital. Ms. Meketie, a 32-year-old reporter for the Ethiopian News Agency, was running late for the minister’s opening speech at the 21st annual meeting of the Ethiopian Statistical Association.
What was the conference about? Ms. Meketie didn’t know yet. But “jiggeri yellem,” as people here say for “no problem” in Amharic, the official language. “We’ll see when we’re there,” she said, gasping.
Changing almost at the speed of its marathon runners, modern Ethiopia is a far cry from what it used to be. The government’s new Growth and Transformation Plan (the subject of the conference Ms. Meketie was hurrying to) proposes to boldly remake Ethiopia into a middle-income country by 2020 and leave behind a painful history of terror, poverty and two famines in the 1970s and ’80s.
The plan foresees change in the business sector, agriculture, infrastructure, health and education. It also proposes the development of mass media and changes in the practice of journalism. Some of those are already happening at the Ethiopian News Agency, the most important news agency in the country.
The organization, based in a decrepit concrete building in the north of Addis that is guarded by heavily armed police forces and has windows that have not been cleaned for a long time, is planning a 24-7 TV news channel in four languages: Amharic, Arabic, English and French. Broadcast in the entire region, it would make the agency one of the biggest news outlets in East Africa — if the channel wins government approval.
“We want to become the most quotable source in the region,” said Teshome Negatu, who is the head of the multimedia and information department at the agency.
But whether this will mean more tolerance of the free press in a country notorious for cracking down on critical journalists remains to be seen. The news agency has been state-owned since its start 70 years ago and has never been free of censorship. Few of the pieces it writes or translates (from sources like the BBC) are remotely critical of the government. Even criticizing the new Growth and Transformation Plan, for example, is taboo.
Many of the agency’s employees spoke openly of the self-censorship they must practice and of their frustrations.
“It’s very difficult sometimes,” one employee said, speaking on the condition of anonymity for fear of being fired or arrested. “Covering the prime minister involved in a massive case of corruption would be impossible.” Another staff member recounted the recent case of a bush fire that the agency’s local reporter had refused to cover because he was worried it could be perceived as too critical of the government.
Yet many of the employees said the situation had improved and was nothing like the experience under the communist Derg regime during the 1980s, when one had to fear for one’s life.
“I don’t think that E.N.A. is unable to produce objective, truthful stories,” said Tadesse Zinaye, the agency’s director, who was chosen by the government. “We try to produce stories that can also be published by the private media.”
So far, only a few of the agency’s approximately 50 dispatches a day are published through other media; most are on its own home page, which looks static. Following big news agencies like Xinhua and Reuters, the Ethiopian News Agency wants to shift from a pure content provider to an independent media outlet, complete with new computers and a bigger staff. The new, fancy Web site is already finished.
Its chief competitors are the state-owned Ethiopian Television and two independent newspapers, The Reporter and Capital, that are among the most popular media in the country. But they too are subject to government censorship.
During his 30 years at the agency, Mr. Negatu has witnessed its ups and downs. A high point was the first computer in 2000, a low point the reorganization two years ago that left it without a director until recently. That made it a daily struggle to cover a country almost twice the size of Texas at the national, regional and local levels with a small staff of around 120 reporters and editors.
While Mr. Negatu would like to become one of the agency’s first foreign correspondents, Ms. Meketie dreams of working as a news anchor. As a teenager, she read news pieces aloud in her room, and later she studied broadcast journalism at Addis Ababa University. Ms. Meketie now tries to cover women’s issues.
Some employees considered the appointment of Mr. Zinaye as a sign of a more understanding government because Mr. Zinaye was a journalist like them. Mr. Zinaye worked for the state-owned radio and used to be the director of Addis Ababa University’s journalism program.
The only thing missing for meeting the agency’s television goal is the government’s approval. The project matches well with the government’s desire to make Ethiopia a beacon at the Horn of Africa and across the continent. But does modernizing an old news agency mean a new era for greater press freedom in Ethiopia? “I’m not sure,” one of the agency’s longtime editors said, rolling his eyes.
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