ADDIS ABABA, Ethiopia — From a collection of modest offices in a half empty high rise, one of Ethiopia’s most prominent journalists publishes his weekly paper with a staff of just four.
The country has imprisoned U.S.-educated Eskinder Nega multiple times, most recently for six years. But under Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed’s government, he and some dozen other jailed journalists have been released and are free to write.
His new weekly Ethiopis takes a strident tone, especially against the city administration and activists from Ethiopia’s Oromo ethnic group, newly empowered by their fellow Oromo, Abiy. He sees his paper and his activism as part of his long struggle for democracy. Others see it as a danger to Ethiopia’s delicate political state, part of a wave of news outlets that are taking sides and worsening tensions in the country’s many conflicts.
“Who’s to say what is extreme?” Eskinder said from his tiny office, adorned with portraits of the Virgin Mary and an Ethiopian emperor known for uniting the country. “Do we have a consensus on what extreme is?”
Upon becoming prime minister a year ago, Abiy embarked on reforms that brought home exiled politicians and armed opposition groups, freed political prisoners, made peace with Eritrea and opened up a heavily restricted media sector.
Ethiopia has been a rare bright spot of increased rights and democracy on a continent more known for leaders overstaying their mandates. Its progress in media freedom — there are no longer any imprisoned journalists — has been so dramatic that it was chosen to host World Press Freedom Day on May 2.
The changes have also prompted conflicts and unearthed long-buried grievances, often revolving around land and ethnicity. To many, a newly polarized press is making things worse.
“It’s a familiar story to what we’ve seen in other countries undergoing a rapid and messy democratization, and it will require a massive effort to ensure that high-quality journalism and civic dialogue prevails without compromising freedom of expression,” said Nicholas Benequista of the Washington-based Center for International Media Assistance.
In the 2019 World Press Freedom Index compiled by Reporters Without Borders, Ethiopia rose 40 places, from 150 out of 180 countries to 110 — the biggest improvement this year in any country.
Ethiopia will hold its first free elections in 15 years next year, and there are fears that the toxic media environment could lead to violence.
“This opening up is sort of an ultimate test for us, and we are failing it I’m afraid,” said Tsedale Lemma, editor of the English-language Addis Standard. She was forced out of the country years ago. “That is damaging, not just to the industry, not just media, but to the social cohesion in a country that’s deeply polarized, ethnicized and going through a fragile moment of transition.”
She said the extreme views that had long proliferated on social media, especially among Ethiopians living abroad, are being reflected in the media.
In a recent issue of Eskinder’s weekly Ethiopis, the front-page accused Oromo politician Bekele Gerba, also recently freed from prison, of promoting ethnic cleansing because of a speech he made encouraging the use of the Oromo language.
The article compared young Oromo activists to perpetrators of the Rwandan genocide, suggesting Oromos could carry out such atrocities. While there has been outbreaks of ethnic-related violence and displacement recently in the country, there has been nothing on the level of what happened in Rwanda 25 years ago.
Other articles in Ethiopis accuse the city government of giving ID cards only to people of the Oromo ethnicity or evicting only non-Oromos from their homes — charges repeatedly denied by the municipal authorities.
The cover of a recent issue of Habesha Weg, another weekly, claimed Oromo activist Jawar Mohammed had encouraged Oromos to launch a “Islamist militant war” against the rest of the country. There is no evidence that he has done so.
“I think you could argue that part of this is inevitable, people were not free to openly express themselves for many years, now they are and it’s this cathartic release of anger and frustration,” said Felix Horne, senior researcher on Ethiopia for Human Rights Watch. “And in many cases that release is happening in a complete security void, there’s no limits in what people are able to say, so that’s a big problem.”
The prime minister himself has expressed a degree of frustration over the press that he has allowed, noting once that everyone in the country seemed to be an activist rather than work in a profession.
Billene Seyoum, the prime minister’s spokeswoman, said in response to emailed questions that “the government remains committed to opening up of the media space as part of its democratization process.”
The government has also announced plans to professionalize the state media, which under previous regimes was just a propaganda organ trumpeting the government’s achievements.
So far, though, the official media largely just continued to reflect the government’s views. In the case of the Oromo regional broadcaster, Oromo Broadcasting Network, efforts to make it more independent ran into opposition from local politicians.
Mohammed Ademo, who worked as a journalist in the United States, accepted a job with the broadcaster with a mandate to turn it into something like America’s NPR.
A few months later, however, he was pushed out.
“There were people who felt we were bringing about these changes too fast and they also felt they couldn’t take full advantage of having a regional broadcaster,” he said, expressing doubt about the commitment to restructure the state media. According to the broadcaster, Mohammed was offered a better position at the Foreign Ministry.
Stemming the tide of hate in the media while not restricting it is one of the government’s big challenges. There are two laws being drafted: one to regulate media and the other to combat fake news and hate speech.
The latter has set off alarm bells, with many worrying that an overly stringent hate speech law might be used to curb the nascent press. Billene said the government is aware of those concerns.
“In defining what constitutes hateful speech, the law would ensure that the definition is precise, clear and narrow to ensure that it does not burden freedoms of speech,” she said, adding that it was also up to the people to become more discerning and hold media “accountable to higher standards of reporting.”
That might be slowly happening. As opposition media outlets have returned to the country after fleeing it under the previous regime, their reporting has in some cases mellowed, said Zecharias Zelalem, an Ethiopian journalist and commentator based in Canada.
“Ethiopians will start to demand more from their media outlets, the ones that we have currently are going to have to change their approach, are going to have to be less focused on propaganda, rebuttals and vitriol, and they are going to have to up their game,” he said. “They will have to cater to an audience that shares the same taxis as them, that shares the same sidewalks as them, that walks the same streets as them.”