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Media Self-Censorship: Has It Gone Too Far in Ethiopia?

By Seble Teweldebirhan

Addis Ababa, ( – One of the most important fundamental human rights guaranteed under both the Ethiopian constitution and international human rights instruments, which Ethiopia accepted and ratified, is freedom of expression, information and free press. The Ethiopian constitution in clear and certain terms provides everyone with the right to expression without interference, including the freedom to seek, receive and impart information and ideas of all kinds regardless of frontiers, either orally, in writing or in print, or through any media of one’s choice.

The constitution further elaborates this right by extending the freedom to press and the media. Especially the most important element for the freedom of the press and the media, freedom from censorship is boldly guaranteed. The Ethiopian constitution, agreeing with international human rights instruments, provides that censorship in any form is prohibited. The constitution takes a firm stand on the limitation of these rights saying they can only be limited through laws which are guided by the principle that freedom of expression and information cannot be limited on account of the content or effect of the point of view expressed. Legal limitations can be laid down in order to protect the well-being of the youth, and the honor and reputation of individuals. Any propaganda for war as well as the public expression of opinion intended to injure human dignity are also provided as a ground for the limitation of the right to expression.

The subsequent Freedom of Media and Access to Information proclamation, domesticates these principles by providing that censorship in any form shall be prohibited. Laws issued in accordance with the constitution shall only make restrictions on the freedom of the mass media. This, in short, guarantees the media that no one is empowered to control and edit its outlet beforehand. The only limitation on the media is when the law specifically prohibits the topic or subject, in which case, of course, the media should not have an outlet on those areas since its illegal in the first place.

Though the Ethiopian government, to a certain extent, respects this fundamental right and presumably does not censor any of the publications of the media beforehand, the issue of self-censorship is now widespread among media professionals. In fact, self-censorship is not bizarre for media institutions even at the international context. The American media’s behavior in certain periods such as during the Iraq war is a case in point. The case is the media avoids or softens the tone of the story for reasons including when the story lacks fond evidence, becomes complicated, financially damaging, compromises the interests of the country, or when it adversely affects the interest of the advertisers. In addition, media self-censors when the story might endanger the organization and the reporter.

For any of the reasons mentioned, in Ethiopia, the media in the present context is outrageously engaged in actively censoring itself out of fear that appears to have no legal ground. The problem with this is that, gradually, it seems the danger zone drawn by the media in restricting its content, avoiding or softening news is notable than ever. As a journalist from one of the private presses tries to articulate it Media in Ethiopia instead of setting the agenda, it is revolving itself around the agenda that is already set. Looking at most coverage closely, it is obvious to observe unnecessary fear and care from the reporters and the editors. This applies to both the private and public media in Ethiopia. This brings us down to the ultimate question: can we really blame all of this on the government and say that it is in violation of the constitutionally guaranteed freedom from any form of censorship, or does it have something to do with the media’s own insecurity?

The private media institutions and journalists working for them often complain that they are forced to censor their work beforehand considering they might not please government officials. Here, the indication is that government and its officials indirectly force the media to censor itself. “You can’t say we are free from censorship,” said Abraham, a reporter for one of the private press in Addis Ababa. “Whenever we do a story, the first thing we check is whether it gives unpleasant impression to the respective public bodies. Editors cut most of our statements in the fear that it might be interpreted to something unintended. I know the constitution guarantees freedom from any sort of censorship, but in practice, that is hardly respected.”

Media institution owners and professionals complain that the arrest of journalists for several reasons, the seriousness of the punishments for the violation of both the press and information law, and the discretionary anti-terrorism proclamation are the main reason for the self-censorship. “I believe government follows a systematic approach to censorship. It tells us we are free from censorship legally but intimidates us to do anything meaningful in practice,” said Selam, a reporter.

According to some journalists, the mistreatment they receive from irresponsible officials whenever they cover matters unpleasant is the main reason for thinking twice before going to print or broadcast.

However, some journalists strongly argue that government should not take all the blame for this. “It is hardly the government’s fault,” said Tadele, an editor. “Media, on its own terms goes to the extreme and blames the government for it. There is a law that protects the media from such violations. Using them and fighting for their right should get a priority by the media rather than complaining all the time and doing nothing about it. It is true that Journalists do violate the law now and then. Their arrest for such violations should not catch the political buzz that it gets currently. There might also be officials who do anything to intimidate journalists in order to cover their backs. Fighting these with courage is why we need the media in the first place. So, by self-censoring, the media is disparaging the very first objective of their existence.”

Media owners have their own fear when it comes for approving self-censorship. “If you write or broadcast things against government you are labeled as anti-government in which case you will hardly find any business organization willing to advertise on your media outlet. The organizations have their own fear that advertising in media considered anti-government will ruin their relationship with the government. Now I can’t tell if this is a mere fear from business owners or, in fact, a problem from the government,” said Mohammed, former newspaper owner.

“I don’t think government is the one to be responsible here,” said Kiflu who runs an advertising agency in Addis Ababa. “The problem with business organizations is that, in most cases, they are not confident. They do not believe that they are in business because they are competent. They think they are here because of government blessing. This attitude is making them obsessed with pro-government activities. I say this is hardly the government fault. There might be a challenge, but, if they had the slightest confidence, knowing that they are also powerful and crucial for the country as much as the government, I think they would have made a lot of their decisions differently,” he said.

The point is the media seems to have drawn a line by itself and created a danger zone and refuse to cover many critical matters. By just assuming they might offend government officials, with apparently no logical and legal ground, journalists in Ethiopia are shifting their horizon to a direction they consider less critical and safe, mostly entertainment and sport news.

“I prefer to do an assignment on entertainment and less critical issues, but not because they are my area of interest,” says a journalist from Ethiopian Radio. “They are much easier and you don’t get to confrontation with the editors or administrative stuffs for such story,” he said. “There is more self-censorship in public media than the private media in my opinion. The main problem in the government media is the fact that there is a visible lack of capacity. Editors, in most cases are chosen based on political affiliation rather than merit. They have no idea what the law says or what they can or cannot do. The only thing they understand is outlets should not oppose the government in any manner,” he explained.

Many journalists working for the government media share the same opinion. According to them, their editors challenge them if they come up with anything unpleasant for any organ of the government.

“This is not even in the best interest of the government,” said another journalist working for ETV. “Our channel is now somewhat boring and, I think, not very trusted in the country. If people trust the public media then, that means, they trust the government. However, people with no background with journalism and the ethics that comes with it are running the media. Sometimes I think they are more worried about their own personal interests than the public or even the government. They have no idea how to defend themselves and the outlets if something goes wrong. For that, they take extreme and unnecessary censorship before broadcast. That is what happens when people are incompetent in the positions they assume,” he said.

The bottom line here is, in both public and private media, there is self-censorship that emanates from extreme but perhaps unwarranted fear. This concept goes against the principle of human rights provided both under the Ethiopian constitution and international human rights instruments that prohibits censorship in ‘any’ form. It is possible to understand if the government has in fact created this pressure and placed the media in a position to censor itself. This is, of course, one form of censorship.

This contravenes to not only the right of the press as an institution, but also another fundamental human right of the public – the right to get information. Whether the media, in its own timidity is barring the information or the government prying to the degree claimed by some, it remains to be seen.

***Seble Teweldebirhan is Addis Ababa based Reporter for

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