Next month will mark the 25th year since Ethiopia made a significant stride in the spirit of freedom of expression and that of the press. For the first time in its history, the very existence and the functions of an undisputedly unpopular office, the Ethiopian censorship office, whose authority had been entrusted with the powers that be, to mind what citizens think and say, was outlawed.
In June 1991, Ethiopia endorsed a transitional Charter and accepted the United Nations Declaration of Human Rights, which incorporates a fundamental provision guaranteeing the right to gather, receive and impart information without the interference of a state. The transitional charter paved the way for the emergence of a private media industry, whose triumph and tribulation in over two decades remains a subject of sharp differences among both friends and foes of the post-Derg order.
No less inadequate is the political climate for the broader exercise of freedom of expression and the right to organise along various interests. Understandably, the freedom of the media and its practitioners assumes it cannot be used in an environment where there are limitations to the broader right citizens ought to have to express their views without fear of retribution.
The private media was born in the post world of "multipartyism" in national politics, and in the most adversarial manner possible in its relationship with the new rulers. In large part, it had assumed the role of political activism.
Unitarist in outlook, many members of the private press corps in the 1990s were selfless in their conviction and steadfast in their position to challenge what they saw was a nation's dismemberment project of the new rulers. Thus the private media (almost entirely of the press) was born in a highly polarised political environment, but with a large dose of commitment and courage. Yet, resources and professionalism were in short supply.
Predictably, the early press corps went through a lot of ups and downs, primarily, to document a dismal tale of failure in attracting meaningful investments to the industry. With resources, skill and experience in greater constraints, the media industry was not as favourable to practice journalism as it should have been.
The EPRDF government, which had broken its promise of institutionalising a democratic order, takes its share of blame for this. It prosecuted the private media and persecuted the many publishers, editors and reporters who had taken the challenge of playing a watchdog role in a state whose roots are in autocracy as its society is deeply conservative and intolerant of dissent.
However, there is always a factor that is conveniently overlooked or unknowingly not talked about by the media industry. The popular narrative fails to dissect professionalism in the media work from that of political activism. There appears to be a convenient omission of the fact that the media industry operates under the guise of the laws of the land and universally accepted codes of conduct.
Needless to say, media practitioners seem to shy from confronting their inherent limitations. There is a fear to look into the inside. There appears to be little courage among practitioners to deal with issues of their professional competence, the commitment they should have that would be answerable to the much demanding public, and of the institutional capacity of the respective media houses.
It has not been helpful to the industry that the media leaders in charge of these houses have been unable, if not unwilling, to see that the media industry is mostly incompetent, un-innovative and regressive. Many find solace in externalising the problems that ail the industry as coming only from somewhere else, particularly of the state and its functionaries.
There has not been that many people trained in practical journalism; the historical trend was that the media industry had been probably among the professions that attracted free spirited souls with the only gut sense of courage and conviction.
The Ethiopian public has been mostly served by those who join the industry with common sense, with little regard to the essential professional traits, such as responsibility and accountability to journalism ethics; loyalty to the truth; and respect to the laws of the land, despite disagreement to some of its letters.
This historical trend still continues although evidence shows a significant number of people are graduating from journalism schools opened under close to 10 universities. None of the media schools in the country is producing a workforce that the industry demands. Neither are the practitioners and media leaders keen to create linkages with these universities to give remedy to the problem.
Because of the poor culture of work ethic and perhaps limited understanding of the role of journalism in society, they do not prepare them for the tough road ahead. It is common to see graduates migrate to public relations, communications, and advertising fields. It is not only because the door to journalism is closed; but partly, it is also because these graduates are not committed enough to overcome the pressure of practising it.
Media institutions, both public and private, and the no less troubling 15 associations formed to advocate the many causes of the industry, face similar problems; they cannot get fresh flesh that would significantly change the status quo. What should be more confusing is that the industry has leaders who are complacent with the business model of the past 25 years, unable to produce thinkers who can foresee what is yet to come.
The business model based on a mass media serving a mass audience has become a thing of the past. The platform centric media model is gone not to return; it is a platform-agnostic media industry that is content driven with the hopes to survive the perfect storm that is on the horizon.
Recognising the impact of these external factors, in as much as putting efforts to develop practitioners' skills, knowledge and their abilities to understand the complex environment in which they work, could have been vexing issues to be debated in the public sphere.
Regrettably, they do seem to have neither the commitment nor the desire to do that either.
Lack of commitment among practitioners in the industry is another painful challenge contributing to the failure of the media to remain relevant to the public it swears to serve. Many hardly have the ability to bear the burden it involves. As many do not admit they lack it.
Sadly, there is a structural problem of competence, commitment and institutionalisation in the media industry. The media has failed to institutionalise itself and create a corporate culture, much less to establish vibrant professional associations as there is an apparent lack of coordination among these advocates, media leaders, universities, and policymakers to respond to such challenges.
However, the first bold measure can be taken by industry leaders to confront the sense of entitlement shared by several practitioners in the industry. Whether it is in the provisions of incentives or subsidies from the state or access to information in different federal and regional entities, the road ahead would not be rough and tough. It is helpful to have a certain dose of realism that the real world does not operate that way. Like everything else in life, the media should earn its rights with the continued and consistent struggle to ascertain its place in the Ethiopian society.
Unfortunately, the importance of bringing the judicial community onboard as a natural ally to the media is perhaps one of the consequential failures by the media industry over the past quarter of a century. No country with an established democratic order has built a voraciously independent media without a fight and in the absence of protection from the judiciary.
Media leaders in Ethiopia have made the tragic mistake of overlooking the importance of investing their time, resources and attention to convince members of the judiciary that they should put the burden of proof heavy on the powerful and the wealthy who tried to persecute freedom of expression and that of the media. Alas, we all have failed, rather miserably, in that respect!