African Media Leaders Forum and the chronicle of the elephant in the room

A look into the three days event from the eyes of the host country 

Tsedale Lemma

For what is believed to be a punitive handling of the free media by the government in Ethiopia, the mere fact that the country was picked up to be the venue to host this year’s African Media Leaders Forum (AMLF) – held between 6 -8 of November here in Addis Ababa – was a clear betrayal of the fundamental (and universal) nature of freedom of the press. After all, the world is convinced that Ethiopia is where seven journalists are condemned to languish in its notorious jails, making it the third jailer next to the two politically and economically worse off countries in the continent: Eritrea and Somalia. It is also a country where countless print media outlets have been systematically gagged; a country that has the highest number of journalists in exile; and a country, regrettably, where in the 21st century electronics media is still under the unyielding grip of the state.

All the same, what exactly had taken place in the three days gathering of Africa’s high profile media personalities, its officials and policy makers, media rights activists and the academia that affects the way free media functions in Ethiopia?

The elephant in the room I

AMLF kicked off its program at an afternoon public debate held on Wed. Nov. 6th at Eshetu Chole building of the Addis Ababa University (AAU) with a theme that probably came as a luxury to the media in Ethiopia: “Are African media capable of transforming the continent?” Chaired by Paschal Mihyo, executive director of the Organization of Social Science Research in Southern and Eastern Africa (OSSREA), three panelists gave their side of explanations to a packed full audience. Out of the three, Robert Kabushenga, CEO of Vision Group in Uganda, dared challenging the question with a question of his own: “Should we?” Kabushenga’s fascinating question is digestible to the media in countries where freedom of the press has gone many steps ahead than that of Ethiopia’s. The rest of his explanations make the theme a complete oddity with the current context of the free media in Ethiopia.

However, Abdissa Zerai, head of the School of Journalism at AAU, came out as the only panelist who rang the alarm bell closer to home when he said African media failed the continent both in the post-colonial and post-cold war eras. Reason? A revolutionary theory that promoted state control of the media in post-colonial era, and a mixture of a hybrid democracy and draconian media laws in post-cold war era. Bingo.

Fast forward the post-colonial era. For the survival and growth of freedom of the press in today’s Africa, nothing comes as bad of a threat as a mixture of a disfigured, incomplete democracy coupled with draconian media laws.  Nowhere can this fits perfectly than the host country of the debate itself – Ethiopia. A democratic republic of Ethiopia-turned-a developmental-state-of-Ethiopia of today has no stomach for any model of journalism but “a developmental journalism”, as the country’s Deputy PM Demeke Mekonnen told an astonished audience on Friday Nov. 8th.

Robert Kabushenga was under no illusion, however, that if the media in Africa continues to fail the public, “they will look for leadership in pubs.” Of course, he wasn’t talking in particular about Ethiopia, a country where a free media has never been in a position to provide leadership in the first place thanks to that cocktail of hybrid democracy, draconian media law and, of course, paltry professionalism.  Kabushenga’s and Abdissa’s were messages that reverberated very close. Alas, calling a spade a spade eluded not just them, but all the panelists, and the participants on the spot. The elephant in the room number one.

The Elephant in the room II  

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The most interesting part of the second day of the forum was when the participants discussed the theme ‘building a strong and resilient Africa – tackling the infrastructural and institutional deficit of the continent: what role can the media play?’ When Robert Kabushenga answered the question for the theme at the public debate with a “should we?” he gave the answer himself: “yes we should. And we have to.” He was right. If there is any country that is fast becoming the next concrete jungle in the continent, it is none other than Ethiopia. But has the free media in Ethiopia been in any position to ask critical questions to make this ‘breathtaking’ infrastructural and institutional transformation work better for the people, let alone be a part of an effort to tackle infrastructural and institutional deficits?  Which media has unlimited access to such information and which doesn’t? Which media is using its access to this information and which one is abusing it? What role, in the first place, should a free media whose function is reduced to become just “a developmental media,” play to ensure “that institutions deliver on their promises and that citizens are better able to understand the functions of such institutions”?

The leadership at the African Media Initiative (AMI), the organizers of the forum, along with members of the National Organizing Committee, must have been pleased by the presence of Ethiopia’s Prime Minister Hailemariam Desalegn earlier in the morning to give a speech that kick started the formal opening of the forum. In his speech PM Hailemariam candidly admitted allowing the development of freedom of the press was a job left unfinished by his government but said a giant reform was being undertaken to improve that; preached his government’s effort to create an enabling media environment; and pointed at an ongoing national consultative meeting with all the media stakeholders (that not every media including this magazine knows anything about). PM Hailemariam finished his talk without a single mention of why, in its 22 years, the free media in Ethiopia is not in a position to provide leadership, let alone hold institutions accountable to deliver on their promises. And mention of jailed and exiled journalists and gagged newspapers? Well, let’s just take that as the elephant in the room number two.

The elephant in the room III

Planned topics of discussions on Friday Nov 8th, the last day of the forum, saw tensions boiling between two groups who were determined to show Ethiopia’s free media intolerant environment and those who argue differently. Breakaway sessions dealing from media funding to why African media laws need reform were the battlefields where everyone wanted to come out the winner and no one did.

The climax of the forum was a head of states roundtable to reflect “on enabling a conducive media development environment in Africa: funding, ethics, technological innovation and freedom.” It was not a roundtable per se, and it was not attended by PM Hailemariam and President Uhuru Kenyatta of Kenya as was expected. However, it turned into a funny stage where high flying politicians and diplomats orated on how the media in Africa should create its own (and alarmingly single) narrative in telling the continent’s success stories. In attendance were Kenya’s deputy president, William Ruto, Ethiopia’s deputy PM, Demeke Mekonnen, Chairperson of the AUC, Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma, UN ECA chief, Carlos Lopes, and president of the African Development Bank, Donald Kaberuka. Save for William Ruto’s captivating speech in which he systematically navigated through the red line demarking freedom of the press and responsibility, and the absolute need for the existence of a strong free media without compromising the need for states to keep a loose leash, none of the speakers were interested in discussing the theme of the agenda; least the conspicuous case for Ethiopia.

And when at some point Demeke Mekonnen declared that in Ethiopia of today there were no journalists jailed because of what they wrote, the elephant in the room number three crawled into the conference center, but stayed invisible to those its presence should have mattered most.


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