On June 25, when 18 journalists from Ethiopia’s state-run Oromia Radio and Television Organization (ORTO) arrived to start their scheduled shifts, they learned their employment had been terminated “with orders from the higher ups.”
The quiet dismissal of some 10 percent of the station’s journalists underscores the country’s further descent into total media blackout. The firing of dissenting journalists is hardly surprising; the ruling party controls almost all television and radio stations in the country. Most diaspora-based critical blogs and websites are blocked. Dubbed one of the enemies of the press, Ethiopia currently imprisons at least 17 journalists and bloggers. On April 26, only days before US Secretary of State John Kerry’s visit to the capital, Addis Ababa, authorities arrested six bloggers and three journalists on charges of working with foreign rights groups and plotting to incite violence using social media.
Reports on the immediate cause of the latest purge itself are mixed. But several activist blogs noted that a handful of the dismissed journalists have been irate over the government’s decision not to cover the recent Oromo student protests. An Ethiopia-based journalist, who asked not to be named due to fear of repercussions, said the 18 reporters were let go after weeks of an indoctrination campaign in the name of “gimgama” (reevaluation) failed to quiet the journalists. The campaign began earlier this month when a meeting was called in Adama, where ORTO is headquartered, to “reindoctrinate” the journalists there into what is sometimes mockingly called “developmental journalism,” which tows government lines on politics and human rights. The journalists reportedly voiced grievances about decisions to ignore widespread civic upheavals while devoting much of the network’s coverage to stories about lackluster state development.
Still, although unprecedented, the biggest tragedy is not the termination of these journalists’ positions. Ethiopia already jails more journalists than any other African nation except neighboring Eritrea. The real tragedy is that the Oromo, Ethiopia’s single largest constituency (nearly half of Ethiopia’s 92 million people) lack a single independent media outlet on any platform.
The reports of the firings come on the heels of months of anti-government protests by students around the country’s largest state, Oromia. Starting in mid-April, students at various colleges around the country took to the streets to protest what they saw as unconstitutional encroachment by federal authorities on the sovereignty of the state of Oromia, which according to a proposed plan would annex a large chunk of its territory to the federal capital—which is also supposed to double as Oromia’s capital. Authorities fear that an increasingly assertive Oromo nationalism is threatening to spin out of state control, and see journalists as the spear of a generation coming of age since the current Ethiopian regime came to power in 1991.
To the surprise of many, the first reports of opposition to the city’s plan came from ORTO’s flagship television network, the TV Oromiyaa (TVO).
A week before the protests began, in a rare sign of dissent, journalist Bira Legesse, one of those fired this week, ran a short segment where party members criticized the so-called Addis Ababa master plan. Authorities saw the coverage as a tacit approval for public displeasure with the plan and, therefore, an indirect rebuke of the hastily put-together campaign to sell the merits of the master plan to an already skeptical audience. But once the protests began, culminating in the killings of more than a dozen students in clashes with the police and the detentions and maimings of hundreds of protesters, TVO went mute, aside from reading out approved police bulletins. This did not sit well with the journalists, leading to the indoctrination campaign which, according to one participant, ended without any resolution.
In the last decade, the country’s economic improvements have become something of a cliche in the West. In March, Time Beijing correspondent Michael Schuman included Ethiopia in his new development acronym, PINEs—the NextGen emerging markets, namely the Philippines, Indonesia, Nigeria, and Ethiopia. Schuman called Ethiopia “one of Africa’s lion economies,” along with Nigeria.
Ethiopia’s state-controlled media touts the country’s “radical” economic transformation ad nauseum. In analysis after analysis, Western journalists and donors such as the World Bank Group and the International Monetary Fund refer to the country as “one of the fastest growing non-oil economies” in Africa.
There is no doubt that Ethiopia’s economy has improved. But beyond the growth statistics, these reports often miss the widening inequality and corruption that belies the country’s economic progress. Leading private enterprises, including some Addis Ababa-based newspapers, are run by the ruling party or associates with links to the higher echelons of power. While the rich saw fortunes rise over the last decade, the poor have lost their land and ways of life to a ballooning foreign investment scheme. The plan to expand Ethiopia’s capital into the Oromia region is one among such development project.
Over the last few years, while largely a state agitprop, the TVO has become a conduit for hitherto neglected Oromo cultural programming. For the majority of Oromo rural dwellers, TVO and its affiliate radio stations serve as the only sources of information. In the last two years, some of its cultural programs and interviews with prominent Oromo personalities have been well-received even among the vocal Oromo diaspora.
According to former TVO employees, the network’s growing popularity has not always been viewed favorably by the authorities and may have contributed to this week’s mass dismissal. Purges are not new to the ruling party either. It is part of a long tradition of suppressing dissent, be it from within the ruling party or outside. What is new, however, is that the discontent with the party’s practices is reaching new heights.