Walking on eggshells
African media institutions reporting conflicts are viewed with utmost scrutiny; and hence have to adhere to extra strict regulations while doing their jobs. At times, this regulation could be over extended and create impediment to the smooth functioning of the media. In that regard, it appears that some media institutions in Ethiopia are being tested in relation to the recent political unrest explores Brook Abdu.
For the past two years, the country had been rocked with violent political unrest resulting in the death and displacement of many people. The protests that started in Oromia in November 2015 expanded to the Amhara Regional State to claim the lives of hundreds in both regions.
Business halted and innumerable property was damaged because of the frequent violence that erupted here and there in the country.
Then came the state of emergency (SOE), the first of its kind in the country, with the immediate cause for it being the deadly and tragic stamped on October 2, 2016 at the annual Irrecha festival in Bishoftu town, Oromia Regional State and the violent protest which ensued.
Fast-forward to the end of 2017, while the protest and demonstration in Amhara region has calmed down considerably, the one in Oromia is rather gaining momentum.
During this time, the way different stakeholders portray these violent episodes has been of particular interest for many including the government. The government has been quite vigilant in monitoring the media in relation to the reports of the unrest; perhaps a tad too vigilant. Not surprisingly, many media houses from print and broadcast had received notices from the Ethiopian Broadcast Authority regarding the way the unrest was reported.
In general, there was a haze of doubt on how to report such incidents. To the most part, clear guidelines, on how to cover these fast unfolding and at times quite destabilizing stories, were lacking. The dilemma was not on professionalism or the standard journalistic practice. It was rather about the impact these reports could have.
As far as the authorities are concerned the standard journalistic practice of “telling it as it is” would not cut it since the nation was dealing with a potentially destabilizing political episode. The sensitivity of the ethnic aspect of the unrest in some parts of the country is not a material suited for an Ethiopian media at this time, according to authorities.
“In principle, rigid thinking such as ethnic conflicts should not be reported at all is not something that makes any sense,” Zerihun Teshome, Zami FM’s CEO and a renowned political commentator, argues.
At the same time, it is also irresponsible to depict clashes between some neighboring youngsters as an ethnic conflict, he elaborates.
Nevertheless, the government, usually a united front when it comes to the media, was represented on the media by potentially opposing political views regarding the unrest. There was no clarity in this regard, to say the least. Although many in the government preferred the media not to report the incidents as they happen, at least not until they reach some sort of a milestone, there were also others wanting the unfolding stories to hit the press unreserved.
The recent violent demonstrations in Buno Bedelle woreda of the Illubabor Zone in Oromia Regional State was one such political episode that triggered the same discussion among the media houses, professionals, practitioners as well as regulators. And perhaps, this was also a rare incident where the difference of views among government official has become apparent to the public.
The issue was triggered by one local TV broadcaster and one FM radio station in the capital. The commercial television broadcaster, Ethiopia News Network (ENN) news report which aired last week was the more controversial of the two. The breaking news story, which interrupted a popular football match, reported of a spiraling conflict in Buno Bedelle and Chorra woredas where ethnic minorities (those who came from other regions) were targeted by the locals. Meanwhile, report by Zami FM at the same time was accused of making similar insinuations in its popular talk show.
Head of Government Communications Affairs Office with the – Oromia Regional State, Addisu Arega, was quite ferocious to react to the two media houses appearing both on the Voice of America (VOA) and the state-owned broadcaster, the Ethiopian Broadcasting Corporation (EBC).
“Some local media houses, especially those attached to rent-seeking interest groups that have been sucking the blood off the community for a long time, such as Zami 90.7 FM and ENN TV have been broadcasting orchestrated content using sensitive language which is meant to create doubt on brotherly peoples. Especially, the report by ENN, which is managed by Beniyam Kebede, was meant to intentionally fuel the violence and this is very saddening and irresponsible on their part,” Addisu told VOA.
“As well as Zami 90.7 FM, in its Journalists’ Roundtable show, has been transmitting messages that promote further unrest and incite violence.”
Although Addisu specifically mentioned the two broadcasters and alleged that they have incited violence and ethnic strife via their reporting, he generally refrained from going into the details.
This very point was later picked up by Mimi Sebhatu, the host of the Journalists’ Roundtable show. Mimi argued on the next episode of her show that the Bureau Head has failed to mention which facts and phrases constitute the incitement charges and what were the mistakes committed in reporting the incident that happened in Buno Bedelle.
ENN, on its part, in its statement issued later this week, admitted that only the still image of a blazing house that it used in its reporting was not that of the violence in Buno Bedelle but mistakenly taken from an accident in New Zealand.
Similarly, in her reply to the same coverage of the story by VOA, Mimi stated that the comments made by Addisu were subjective and all activities by her news organization are done within the legal frameworks of the country.
“He said what he felt and we have the responsibility to deliver information to the public. We work according to the legal frameworks of the country. Hence, we can’t protest his opinion. We should only be judged by the truthfulness of our reports and that applies to all of our stories,” Mimi asserted.
“Such expressions are highly subjective and comments like that directed against media houses, which are carrying out their responsibilities, amount to nothing but intimidation and is intended to put pressure on the media.”
She also vowed that her media house will continue to do its job and that if the Bureau Head “demands legal recourse, it is his right”.
In the following day, Government’s Communications Affairs minister, Negeri Lencho (PhD), seconded Addisu’s concerns regarding the two media institutions. In his press statement, he expressed his concern that some media outlets have been irresponsible in dealing with the violence that has taken place in the Buno Bedelle woreda. He also indicated that his government is of the view that some measures have to be taken on the responsible media outlets and said that “the Broadcast Authority would act accordingly”.
Needless to say, media houses as well as practitioners in Ethiopia have been prone to pressure and strong measures by the government regarding their reporting. The coming of this debate at this time – at a time when the media is facing severe challenges from the political order even in counties like the United States – has resulted in creating doubt in the whole industry.
Nevertheless, the story is far from over. Towards end of the week, it was the turn of the Ethiopian Broadcasting Authority (EBA) to reflect on the matter. The comment by EBA director, Zer’ay Asgedom, rather unusually, stood at a stark contrast to the statements made by the two heads of communication.
Apart from encouraging the media to report incidents on the ground and rebuking them for not reporting the deaths in the Somali-Oromia boarder conflict and for being surpassed by the social media, Zer’ay said that “what the head of communications [Negeri] said was his own stance and not that of the government.”
“When a media outlet breaks any provisions of the law, there are specified mechanisms which enumerates which, when, how and what the punishments will be,” he refuted.
These contradictory ideas by the different executive branches of the government shows that they are not one and the same, according to Zerihun and that is not necessarily bad, he says.
“This shows that the government establishments are not going in concert against the media,” he analyses.
Social and online media platforms operators in the country, even though they were not targets in the current reference of the communications heads, they also have issues regarding how they have been challenged by the frequent government campaigns against them. An online media operator and the founder of Horn Affairs, Daniel Berhane, shares this sentiment.
“The target on the online media by the government has been much more than imaginable and there have been intentional campaigns against us especially on social media,” Daniel argues. “Everyone wants to drag the media to its own benefits.”
Regarding the case with Oromia, Daniel stated that it was in the best interest of the government if nothing was reported about it.
But, the primary question that remains unanswered now is what does the future hold for conflict reporting in Ethiopia?
“Professional journalists do not set out to reduce conflict. They seek to present accurate and impartial information. But it is often through good reporting that conflict is reduced,” Ross Howard quote opens his handbook titled ‘Conflict sensitive journalism’.
He introduces his handbook that journalism at good times, even in the absence of conflicts is difficult. But in conflicts “Opposing sides seek to control the media. Information can be unreliable or censored. There is personal risk. But this is also when good journalism is most important.”
Howard indicates that avoiding lies, not just repeating what others already said, understanding that news can ruin lives, and cleaning oneself from corruption should be followed while reporting conflicts.
Although the role of journalists is to report what is on the ground, this role has grown apart from telling the public what happened like football match commentators.
Including solutions to conflicts beyond bare facts, providing background information, representing all the voices involved, and treating all parties equally saves all from unwanted consequences of reporting conflicts, according to Howard.
In a country where there is limited access to media outlets to compare and contrast reports, the journalist has the possibility of being biased but, the journalistic responsibilities should not be left out in conflict reporting, Howard states.
Zerihun says that when reporting conflicts, the principle should be measuring the benefits that the society could get out of the reporting.
“We reported the incident in Buno Bedelle as it came out with all of its ugly features. And no one can reproach us for doing that – be it an individual or a government body,” Zerihun argues. “If we are found to be in breach of the law, we are legally accountable as an institution that stands for the rule of law.”
Zerihun observes that the root of these recurring incidents is the government itself, be it at the federal or regional levels, and both the Oromo People’s Democratic Organization (OPDO) and the Ethiopian Peoples’ Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF). The incidents were caused by the failure of the government to give proper replies to the demands of the public.
“The media is not the one fueling the incidents; the solution lies within them and this should be taken seriously.”
Prime Minister Hailemariam Dessalegn, at his first parliamentary appearance of the year, indicated that the media has an important role to play in the democratic system and the government should work towards openness to the media, equally without any discrimination between private and public outlets.
“We have to work to widen the media space,” he asserted replying to a question raised by one member of the parliament. “We have to prepare ourselves well and use the media for the development and democratization of the nation.”
He hopes that the media reform that the government is implementing will bring significant change in the media especially in regards to capacity building.