Press freedoms are improving in Ethiopia, but progress is being held back

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The Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) has been vocal about press freedoms in Ethiopia for many years – particularly the suppression placed against journalists and members of the media under previous regimes.

Under the rule of Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed, things are changing in Ethiopia and press freedom is just one of many areas the new leader has implemented progressive reforms. CPJ recognises this positive change and commends the country’s PM for taking positive steps in such a short space of time, since coming into power April last year.

However, challenges remain in the East African nation where a difficult political past and complex ethnic divides make press freedom a challenging topic to address, no matter how progressive Abiy Ahmed will prove to be.

As CPJ puts it, “Ethiopia’s media have more freedom but challenges remain” and addressing these challenges will be more difficult than many outsiders might appreciate.

Positive change in Ethiopia

Before Abiy Ahmed came into power, Ethiopia was one of the most censored nations in the world and one of Africa’s most notorious for imprisoning journalists. The dramatic reforms implemented by Ahmed are astounding given the context that preceded them, especially when you consider how quickly he was able to instal those changes.

Under previous regimes, even criticising the state of press freedoms in Ethiopia was enough to fall foul of the authorities. Now, the government is actively trying to open press freedoms and topics such as human rights – that were previously restricted – are being spoken about in mainstream TV.

New publications are emerging in Ethiopia, journalists talk about positive reforms and journalists from previously banned media outlets sit side-by-side with their state media counterparts at press conferences.

More importantly, for the first time in 14 years, CPJ found that there were no journalists being held in prison in Ethiopia.

The extent of change itself has been staggering but the pace in which it has been delivered only makes the progress under Abiy Ahmed more astounding. However, the consensus among many journalists and rights groups such as CPJ is that this kind of progress needs to continue and implementing it will only become more challenging.

More challenges ahead for press freedom in Ethiopia

Speaking to journalists and rights defenders in Ethiopia, CPJ has found that many are still concerned about the risk of attack and arrest, especially in restive regions. This is where Ethiopia’s federal state structure provides the first political challenge to implementing real change. Assuming that local governments will enact the policies set out in Addis Ababa is naive and Abiy Ahmed coming into office has only highlighted the challenges of implemented nation-wide change.

The new PM has attempted to address this issue head-on. In August last year, the former president of Ethiopia’s Somali region was arrested on live TV over alleged human rights violations that took place under his leadership. It was a clear message to local governments across the country that the law must be abided.

The warning was sent out but this doesn’t necessarily mean it was received.

There’s a bigger problem at the root of Ethiopia’s federalist state system that threatens the entire political environment and Abiy Ahmed’s leadership itself. While most federalists states are divided by geographical features or administrative conveniences, Ethiopia’s states are defined by the country’s many ethnic groups.

This means the nation is politically and socially divided by ethnicity – quite literally.

Ethiopia’s new-found press freedom has given journalists more rights but it has also allowed people with divisive intentions to publish content. In the worst cases, toxic content is being published about ethnic groups in a country where tensions are historically charged and still raw. Press freedom is coming with some nasty side-effects and there’s no easy solution to this problem.

In an attempt to curb division, the government has drafted a proposed law to criminalise hate speech, but this comes with other problems. Under previous regimes, anti-terror laws were used to censor publications and jail journalists leaving many uncomfortable with the idea of hate speech laws that could be used to do the same.

Another tactic used by previous regimes was cutting off internet access and Ahmed’s government is known to have done this at least twice in local areas during unrest – once in the capital, Addis Ababa, and also in the Somali region.

Speaking to the general public, CPJ found that many people accuse the media of flaming ethnic tensions and want to see better professionalism – something that would probably require further regulation.

Like many of the problems Abiy Ahmed has to face, either direction he takes will prove problematic.

Featured image: By Odaw – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=66598891

About Aaron Brooks

Aaron Brooks is a UK journalist who wants to cut out the international agendas in news. Spending his early years in both England and Northern Ireland he saw the difference between reality and media coverage at an early age. After graduating from the University of Chester with a BA in journalism, his travels revealed just how large the gap between news and the real world can be. As Editor-in-Chief at East Africa Monitor, it’s his job to provide a balanced view of what’s going on in the region for English-speaking audiences.