Ethiopian Herald: Do Ethiopian journalists abide by professionals?
Mohammed: I am afraid the boundary is blurred. The presence of journalists who strongly feel about journalistic ethics and principles is evident. There are journalists that display professional and personal integrity. But the Ethiopian media landscape is now dominated by opinion Journalism. Obviously fact-based reporting is lacking. There are lots of conjectures and rumors. Literally, writing fake news is common among some Media.
That might have something to do with the deterioration of quality of education and erosion of journalistic principles. The environment was not convenient. Opposing a government was not an option. It was a necessity in the past. A lot of people saw it as a struggle. What we had was a lot of activists and people who were doing advocacy journalism. Now, when the media opened up, these people are starting doing what they see as serious journalism.
But they are being influenced by their activism in the past. As a result of these notions of struggle they still do not feel full freedom. Generally, when one considers the Media’s capacity as a country, one looks at the media organization’s limited revenues streams, there are too close to the government neither to those who has money. There are professional journalists who take side and propagate the idea of those that financially backs them up.
Herald: what must be done to promote journalism down the road? Mohammed: We need to do lot of trainings in terms of upgrading the capacity of media organizations. Both the government media and private media need more training on how to develop pure journalism. The other thing is, there has to be some kind of stands on which everyone agrees. There are international standards; maybe all of them may not be applicable in the Ethiopian context.
But as media professionals, we need sit down and agree on some basic standards such as whether sharing resources and contents. There are Media who pick contexts from each other. Pertaining to these things, there has to be some standards. This can be set by media houses. This can be done by coming together and forming regulations. In the other way, there has to be government regulations.
I do not want see a regulation when the government comes with some laws to muffle us. But a government has to set a very good example in the process of the review of the media law. There has to be a broad-based consultation with the different sectors of the society. So, they need to come up with a regulation of some kind with a special focus on the social media that promotes hate speech and divisive things as well as crates a hot bed for a highly partisan political environment related to opinion journalism.
Let us agree, have a consultation with citizens who have been pushing these laws. One can’t tell people what to do and not to do using the law. It is a very difficult and slippery slow. When there is agreed up law in the form of code of conduct, you will use it as a detail. In general, training, peer mechanism and government regulation can lift the quality of Ethiopian Media as a whole.
Herald: What is your take on the press freedom and freedom of expression, because some are misusing the terms? Mohammed: Freedom of speech and press freedom are overlapping. “Currently, you have the right of speech doesn’t mean full verbal speech! It does not also mean the right to write what you believe. There is a press law which has set the plain field where journalist and media houses operate.
It entails set of rules by which one is governed under the law of country. But I think what we have now is press freedom but we don’t have a law for that creates a vacuum. What is in abundance in Ethiopia today is freedom of speech. For example one can Photoshop the Prime Minister’s face on something else and nobody is going to ask him/her for that. But think for us for Ethiopians, we want freedom we want democracy but we don’t have a strong democratic culture.
We are in a country bouncing from one authoritarian regime into another one. We never really had a democratic system and a democratic government. So, I think it is very difficult to get where we want to go without democratic ethics. We need to educate the people about democracy and the rights and obligations that come with it. We know about rights but we forget responsibilities that come in tandem with it. We have to know a notion of responsibility comes with democracy.
As a media, we have a responsibility. In doing journalism for public consumption, one has to make a good editorial and a moral judgment to check the facts and sources. We need more discussion and forums on this context with different media houses and different sectors of society. As media houses we have to come together and communicate on what is to be done.
Herald: How did you see the role of social media in actualizing democracy in the country?
Mohammed: It is a tricky balance. I’m always for an open society where there is free market of ideas. As long as there are people who are aggrieved, even if one tells them “…don’t write and publish this and that!I” It doesn’t take the fact away within the society. But the problem is one also wants to be careful that is not going to engender conflict. So, it is a very delicate balance. That is why we need a lot of education, conversation and awareness.
In general, I’m worried that social media is becoming a global threat. Look at the American election, Brexit and among others. It is a global threat. Law makers in developed country are coming to the realization that this media organization cannot selfregulate.’ So, in London, Washington DC, and among others, people are talking about how to contain this monster called social media.
Because any one can open fake accounts using fake names and addresses and calls for war with different group. In addition, one can also target advertisement on specific group to influence public opinion. Ethiopian media organizations are already doing that. For example, ESAT is now targeting its content to specific group. So that they can advance their agenda. A lot of dark forces and hidden agendas lurk behind it.
Though it is a global threat, it is more threat for us. Because in London and Washington, they have laws and institutions through which they can hold these companies accordingly. But here we don’t even have the access and mechanism. So, for us the risks are much more. We are going to an election which is likely to be a very chaotic episode because of the many actors. We need to see it as a serious concern.
When we talk about social media, there is a tendency to focus on a Facebook. Today by far, the most popular social media in Ethiopia is Telegram. So, when we talk about the social media we have to talk about Telegram, Facebook, WhatsApp, twitter, Messenger, Instagram and others. We need to have holistic view of what constitute social media and how we can deal with it.
Today, I can tell you a lot of fake news gets started in telegram groups and WhatsApp groups. From there it gets to Facebook and other social Medias. It is a big problem but I don’t advocate shutdown. Shutting down is not a solution by any means.Rather we should come with some guidelines. In addition, we need to do conversation with Facebook, telegram among others social media platforms to minimize the harm. It is a useful tool but it gets abused by users. One thing we encourage is, to use their real name and real picture. When we do that, we take responsibility. We are ultimately responsible for what we wrote and what we post.
Herald: How did you asses’ Ethiopian politics past and present?
Mohammed: Ethiopia in its long history has been an authoritarian state. It was a state where the leaders came to power through blood line or by use of force. So, we are now in an era when a peaceful power transition is effected. Our last prime minister is not a fugitive in a foreign country. He is living here freely as a citizen, because he handed over power peacefully. Now, the problem has to do withr last twenty seven years, when the EPRDF was formed.
There were two forces. One was the force to maintain the unitary system and while another to uphold the identity question since the 1960s student movement and the armed struggle like Oromo Liberation front, Tigrean People Liberation Front, among others. Then, federal system was developed and allowed different ethnics groups to develop their culture, language and identities. That was a very positive leap forward for Ethiopia. But the problem was with the party that was leading the country for the last twenty seven years .It never really applied the constitution.
The promises for devolution for selfrule remained a paper tiger one. The system weaponised the multinational federation. Basically, it weaponised to maintain the power to extend their term in office. Because of that, it led to lots of division on the borders between the states. Boundaries, identity, constitution, and multinational federation were politicized and even called ethnic federalism, where the constitution doesn’t characterize as such. Now, we have a very unique opportunity to turn a page for the good and transform to a democracy where people can elect their leaders accordingly.
Most importantly, we have institutions that are free from government and parties. We have an opportunity to build a democratic state and all-inclusiveness. We had a lot of opportunities in the history. This is another monumental time in Ethiopia’s history. We have to discuss on how to transform the country. Now, the problem lies in not talking to each other, we talk over each other. We all need to deescalate ethnic and political tensions. We don’t have to agree on everything, we need to stick to a common ground.
There are peoples from two groups called Ethio-natinalist and ethno-nationalist. We are siting by far and the middle was boycotted. Let us sit for discussion and set a common ground. We have a government really engaged and patient.It has a vision to transform the country. Let us stand by each other’s’ side.
The Ethiopian Herald Sunday Edition, May19/ 2019
BY AMBO MEKASA