Modern History of the Press in Ethiopia

Freedom of speech has been lacking from the country for quite some time. The line between expressing one's ideas and encouraging violence has always been too thin to adequately tell apart. The death of the much-celebrated journalist Negash Gebre Mariam has made most take a closer look at the current status of the media in Ethiopia.

Emperor Haile Selassie’s government, which succeeded that of Empress Zewditu’s conservative one, was noted for its efforts to give the country a taste of modernity in all phases of leadership. Among the vital government bodies the Emperor established, a ministry for information and propaganda played a prominent role.

Among the early ministers, Wolde Giorgis Wolde Yohannes had no equals. His eldest son Dawit Wolde Giorgis, known initially as Lemlem, his younger brother, Getnet, and youngest sister, Elizabeth, were all living in my village, better known as the village of the clergy. The big house was located by the road side, on the way to Kechene Holy Saviour Church, also the place where Yidnekachew Tessema rests.

The celebrated professional journalist Negash Gebre Mariam just passed away, he was in his early 90’s. I would like to pay tribute and express my condolences. I had played a haji’s role in his play entitled Yedil Atbia Arbegna, roughly translated as the “Patriot After Victory”, while the actor Tessfaye Gessesse played an Italian officer, and artist Askale Ameneshewa played the wife of an Ethiopian patriot. Tesfaye Sahlu (better identified as the character Ababa Tesfaye, the protagonist of his long-ago cancelled morning show) was a Memhru (roughly translated as teacher) or priest.

Journalist Negash Gebre Mariam has contributed more than his fair share to his profession, to journalism as we know it. The American-Israeli journalist for the Wall Street Journal, Daniel Pearl, among many others, sacrificed himself in Karachi, Pakistan. The world cannot forget his monumental works; he was one of the most celebrated in his field. The world has established a foundation to honour dedicated journalists who are still being kept behind bars, their crime being telling the truth. We watch reporters on the battlefield in the Middle East.

At different levels and fields, Ethiopia has also produced notable journalists in the field of electronic media also. People like Wubshet Wekalemahu, Berhanu Zerihun, Bealu Girma, Tadesse Muluneh, Almeseged Hriruy, Romanework Kassahun, Meaza Biru, Mulugetta Lulé, Mersie Hazen and others. There were also radio and press reporters who had a religious background, they were known as Debtera. I may also include some of the journalists of the Voice of the Gospel, Yimberberu Mitike and Alemneh Wassie.

Whatever their social and political background may be, journalists have played a great role in the world, including, for instance, the construction of an official governmental building of the Addis Ababa Water & Sewerage Authority (AAWSA). AAWSA is the authority that is now burdened with a blocked drainage system that owes its impact to the heavy flow of the downpour season making it impossible to drive.

AAWSA was or is vitally responsible for the supply of drinking water. The former head of AAWSA headed the project to construct the Legedadi hydro dam by producing the water supply that used to quench the drinking water demand of the urban dwellers. He also had plans to do the same with Sibilu and Gerbi dams. It could not materialise for reasons beyond one’s comprehension. Ethiopia had committed hydrologists able to perform according to their professions, but journalists could have played an important role in determining the problem.

Coming back to our subject of free press, Eskindir Nega is jailed not because he had committed any proven crime but for expressing his views and thoughts as fairly as the word fairness can go. One of his private weekly papers was titled Menelik and provoked the powers that be. His wife, Serkalem Fasil, was also jailed where she spent her days of pregnancy. With the help of God-fearing fellow prisoners, she gave birth to a son whom they christened “Nafkot”. Eskinder was awarded by the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) for professional commitment and paying the price.

I remember having worked with Eskinder as an editor on Menelik, the weekly Amharic paper. I was also the editor of Eyita, the paper that was published by Getachew Paulos. I believe circulation reached 30 thousand at the time, the largest of its kind in that period.

Free press, more than other pillars of any government structure like the Constitution, sovereignty, territorial integrity and the judiciary, helps to give advice and guidance as a representative of the voters of the people. There is usually the problem of rejection directly or indirectly by government officials depending on who the interviewer could be. If it were a question coming from the Voice of Germany for a talk show, for example, either they shun them away altogether or give all sorts of excuses to avoid the show. Interviews by other FM Radio Staff are often rejected for no reason other than the question of the rejection of freedom of expression.

By Girma Feyissa

Published on Aug 01,2017 [ Vol 18 ,No 901]



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