The Voice of America and its Horn of Africa service, with languages in Amharic, Afaan Oromo, and Tigrigna occupy a special place in the history of media reporting and analysis on Ethiopia and the Horn region. Amharic, launched as the first of the three languages in September of 1982, was one of the few independent sources of news reporting and media analysis during the Derg regime (1974-91.) In July of 1996, Afaan Oromo and Tigrigna followed, allowing broader coverage and wider reach to Ethiopians, and Eritreans, from all walks of life. VOA, noted for its credible and balanced analysis through the years continues to cement itself as one of the most trusted sources of news in the region.
True to its ilk, the VOA Africa Division held a panel entitled “Ethiopia’s Reform: The Free Media in a Budding Democracy” on April 2nd, 2019. With media professionals, state officials, political analysts, and others in attendance, the event, taking place a year to the date of PM Abiy Ahmed’s inauguration, generated various viewpoints and insights as a panel of experts, moderated by VOA Africa Division’s director Negussie Mengesha, gave their scorecards on Abiy’s first year, highlighting the challenges that lay ahead OR took stock of developments unfolding in Ethiopia since the coming of the new Ethiopian Prime Minister Dr. Abiy Ahmed.
The panel, consisting of renowned scholars and Ethiopia analysts, Prof. Terrence Lyons, Dr. Yohannes Gedamu and Dr. Menna Demissie gave succinct summaries and reflections on Abiy’s tenure. Each of them applauded the transformative changes ushered in Ethiopia including the release of all political prisoners, the relaxation of stringent media laws, and the return of many opposition parties from exile and the consequential rapprochement of Ethio-Eritrean relations. Negussie Mengesha added that VOA’s Horn of Africa service has been a beneficiary of these changes, notably with the addition of 12 stringers across the country. A far cry from a time when the language service was limited to only 3 reporters on the ground.
Each speaker then zoomed in to what they consider are outstanding challenges to Ethiopia’s democratization effort. Prof. Lyons pointed at the need to hold the governing EPRDF coalition intact to be able to build upon the positive changes which already are underway. He also indicated how ensuring peace and security throughout the country and abating such crisis like internal displacement is of paramount importance. Dr. Menna applauded Dr. Abiy’s role to be more inclusive and bridge the yester gulf between the Ethiopian Diaspora and the government. She also highlighted how remarkable and consequential his decision to appoint women to half of the cabinet appointments was. She continued that it remains to be seen whether the cabinet and female appointees themselves would follow policies that ensure women’s political and economic empowerment in an institutionalized and sustainable fashion. Dr. Yohannes began by acknowledging the gains and positive developments that Prime Minister Abiy helped usher in. He then pointed out that the political headwinds from a garden variety of ethno-nationalist forces have made it difficult for the administration to build national consensus and to consolidate the reforms. The breakdown of law and order in many parts of the country, the existence of low-intensity violent skirmishes with armed dissident groups, and a restive youth, he added, are some of the major challenges of the Abiy administration.
Dr. Derese Getachew, a discussant, added that Dr. Abiy Ahmed’s primary challenge remains to be democratic consolidation. He lauded the reforms currently underway to ensure the independence and competence of the National Electoral Board of Ethiopia, the Justice System and to revise the draconian laws that stifled the media and civil society in the aftermath of the 2005 election. But these, he added, are the “procedural minimums” and the most fundamental challenge remains to be forming a constitutional architecture where the role of ethnic identity as the sole register of access to state power and resources is reconsidered. All participants agreed that the upcoming election needs to be postponed to provide the Abiy administration the time to consolidate the reform gains, restore peace and order, and build a nationwide electoral infrastructure.
The panel discussion also underscored the urgent need to build the capacity of Ethiopia’s emerging media in a bid to stamp out hate speech, labeling, and other editorial malpractices. Here, there was broad consensus that the VOA can and should play a leading role in equipping both print and electronic media journalists in the country. A challenge heeded by moderator Negussie Mengesha who highlighted the agency’s willingness to engage with its local and international counterparts during this critical time. Plans to open a bureau in Addis Ababa are underway, complemented by an upcoming increase in Afaan Oromo, Amharic, and Tigrigna programming, nearly doubling the Horn of Africa service’s current output levels. Noting the importance of VOA’s role in covering what are expected to be historic elections in the country, the Division Director ended the panel with a promise to successfully duplicate the division’s coverage of elections in countries like Nigeria, the DRC, and Senegal in Ethiopia.