You don’t have to spend more than a couple of hours talking with an Ethiopian journalist to learn that it’s a daily challenge to ply your trade in a country that calls itself a democracy. The conversations involve a lot of forlorn looks, head shaking and some pent-up anger.
What I’ve come to learn in my handful experiences with African journalists (Sierra Leone, Zambia, Uganda and Ethiopia) is that democracy in theory usually doesn’t translate into a free press in reality. Ethiopia is no exception.
The press is free to work in many of these countries so long as its coverage is complimentary of the government and its usually corrupt politicians.
Threats of imprisonment are common, but, so too are tactics that keep information from the hands of the press and public or officials asserting overwhelming support for state-operated TV, radio and print at the expense of the independent press. All of the tactics to keep the press at bay are in full force in Ethiopia. Couple that with an undertrained workforce of journalists, low pay and an avoidance of standards, and it becomes a bit overwhelming.
Perhaps the greatest among these challenges now is the proliferation of fake news stories either from foreign influencers or the state media. Aided by a population that readily shares unverified information and, the desired effect of manipulating the minds of the masses is a daily occurrence.
The media landscape is similar to many African countries, but there is a strong online presence from expatriates who want to disseminate questionable news in hopes of staging uprisings against those in power. The government, for its part, denounces most news it doesn’t like as fake and metes punishment against legitimate news organizations in some cases.
Whatever the source or the motives, media literacy is needed to help the more than 100 million of the country’s residents sift through the profound static noise that passes for news.
When I traveled there for four days in November my mission was to help scratch the surface of these challenges. I’m thankful neither the U.S. Embassy staff in Addis Ababa
nor the journalists themselves expected a magic bullet solution to the litany of problems. My goal was to help inspire journalists to rise up in voice and to train them and the public on ways to combat the disinformation flooding their daily news feeds.
First, we went after the public and, thanks to a robust U.S. Embassy team and its Facebook presence, we were able to get before 140,000 people on an afternoon to educate them about why fake news is effective, what its intentions are and how to recognize, challenge and defeat its presence on social media.
Later in the week we drilled down on the subject with the journalists and shared with them tools they could use to improve their work, engage the public with transparency about their role and responsibilities and regain credibility.
I also met with representatives of nearly all of the Ethiopian media associations and after three hours of productive discussions, I think some strong alliances were formed. The goal is to join their resources and strengths to work on a nationwide media literacy program that should keep a consistent message in front of the populace for some time.
Despite the obvious up-hill-battle for greater press freedoms many of the Ethiopian journalists I met were decidedly optimistic about their roles, their work and the effect it has on their fellow citizens. Their resolve to tell the truth and be responsible and credible journalists is strong.
I hope with some new ideas, some renewed spirit and inspiration they will move forth a stronger and more viable press. That’s not a magic bullet, but it’s a game plan worthy of execution.