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Ethiopia’s Civil Society and the Current Media Environment
by Lourdes Margarita Caballero

Two new repressive laws regulating the press and civil society organisations in Ethiopia threaten the independence of this country’s fledgling community broadcasting industry. Although the government has legalised community radio and announced plans to liberalise the airwaves, the new press law places additional restrictions on media ownership and access to information. And it imposes stiffer sanctions.

Meanwhile, the law on Ethiopian Charities and Societies will prevent civil society organisations from working on human rights issues, conflict resolution, government accountability and democracy if they rely on foreign donors for more than 10 percent of their funds. Because of these restrictions, CSOs planning to apply for community broadcast licenses, but who are heavily dependent on foreign aid, will be not be able to address critical political and social issues in Ethiopia.

The situation creates undue hardships. The laws appear to infringe on Ethiopian people’s freedom of expression and association, both of which are featured in Ethiopia’s Constitution. They could further limit citizen participation in the public sphere through the media or increase government control over civil organisations. More importantly, the laws suggest the government’s deep distrust of the media as a partner in achieving what Lars Rudebeck calls substantive democracy.

Substantive democracy focuses on accountability and emphasizes engaged citizens as the building blocks of a government by the people. Ethiopia’s two new laws have been crafted to give people only conditional freedom.

The government has the power to check on the media. But the media cannot be a check on the government.

True, the channels through which people can get information are expected to increase in number because of community radio. Plus there has been talk that private television stations might start up within two years. But the catch is that the government does not consider these channels legitimate venues for debate and dialogue. They are primarily for information, education, entertainment and cultural enhancement—in other words, one-way communication.

So people can participate only if they play by the government’s rules.

Wide Information Gap

Ethiopia’s media environment is tightly controlled, and there are few alternative sources of accurate, balanced and diverse information. The government runs two TV stations and a handful of radio stations. Private broadcasters were not allowed until 1999 when the Broadcasting Law was approved. However, it took five more years before the government invited applications in 2004, and only two licenses for radio have been granted since then.
Besides that, only five international broadcasters have been allowed in the country and Web sites critical of the government have been blocked. Such delays and restrictions have helped mute the voices of dissent within Ethiopia and from citizens in exile who want to participate in national issues.
Advocacy groups scored a victory in 2007 when they helped pass Broadcast Service Proclamation No. 533. This law allowed stations to operate in Dire Dawa and Yirgalem as well as the Kore community radio and the Dutch-supported Radio Jimma in Southwest Ethiopia. There has also been increasing interest in starting up radio stations from such groups as the Ethiopia Media Women’s Association and Propride, an HIV/AIDS organisation.

Impact of New Law For CSOs on Community Radio

Since community radio is relatively new in the country, it requires tremendous financial assistance as well as outside expertise to jumpstart operations. However, the Proclamation for the Registration and Regulation of Charities and Societies, which was passed in January 2009, says that CSOs have to “redefine their areas of operation.”

If a civil society organisation gets more than 10 percent of its income from foreign sources, they can work only on such service delivery activities as disaster prevention or poverty alleviation; economic development and environmental protection; animal welfare; education; health; arts, culture, heritage or science; amateur sport and youth welfare; relief of those in need by reason of age, physical and mental disability, financial hardship or other disadvantage; and advancement of capacity building on the basis of the country’s long-term development.

This means that if there are CSOs who are hoping to get funding from international donors to set up their community radio stations, which would give them the ability to tackle critical topics other than those mentioned above, they would be engaging in illegal activities. This contradicts the government's claim that it supports community radio: It cuts off the lifeline they need to survive and thrive. The law almost ensures the extinction of fragile community organisations.

The provisions do not make sense unless the government's aim is to lay the groundwork for trampling citizens’ rights to free expression and association. The government fails to see that social issues are related to one another and cannot be discussed in isolation. How it is possible to talk about youth welfare without touching on gender equality or to talk about health issues but not human rights? Why make it unlawful for certain organisations to discuss challenges Ethiopians face simply on the basis of how they’re funded?

The closest to an explanation we can get is from the Minister for Cabinet Affairs, Berhanu Adello, who said that “the right to association and to oppose are political rights left for citizens alone without any external influences or interference.” He also said that the strict provisions on financial management were meant to prevent corruption. A government statement issued in September 2008 further justified the “redefinition of areas of operation” of CSOs by saying that political activists have used charities to work on "other issues" and not "catastrophes that required aid and assistance."

These statements suggest the law regulating CSOs is a deliberate move to extend government power, since the government fears CSOs will gain strength through foreign aid. It shows lawmakers’ short sightedness: They appear not to have considered the law’s impact on other areas they claim to support, particularly community radio.

Flaws of the New Press Law and the Broadcast Proclamation

In spite of the legalisation of private broadcasting, the new press law and Broadcast Proclamation No. 533 both ensure that community radio will be under strict control. The provisions have banned a wider range of people and organisations from starting a broadcasting service including religious organisations, leaders of political organisations and citizens who have been deprived of their civil or political rights by court decision. Organisations incorporated abroad or whose capital or management are from foreigners have also been excluded.

Besides strict rules on media ownership, both the new press law and Broadcast Proclamation No. 533 impose harsh penalties. For instance, the fine for operating without a broadcast license and defamation can reach up to Birr100,000 (about US$11,000). The press law gives the government far-reaching powers to regulate the broadcast media and the press. These include:

  • Allowing the government to prosecute defamation cases against the media, even if the government official in question does not initiate legal proceedings;
  • Providing the Ministry of Information arbitrary powers to use registration and licensing procedures as a punishment for dissent;
  • Authorizing the government to stop distribution of a newspaper if the attorney general deems a news item to be a criminal act; and
  • Permitting lengthy delays for journalists trying to access critical information.

Although the new press law bans censorship of private media and the detention of journalists, many government and private reporters routinely practice self-censorship to avoid confrontations with the government. To date, many have been subjected to harassment and imprisonment. Some have been forced to go into exile.

Flaws of Provisions Regarding Community Broadcasting License

While it is true that Broadcast Proclamation No. 533 recognizes community radio, it does not explicitly recognise that the medium should be independent and is a legitimate venue of free expression and debates. The Proclamation says it covers community information, educational and entertainment needs, serves political parties, announces government strategies and “enhances the cultures and artistic values of the public.” The only mention of citizen participation is in providing help in preparing radio programmes.

The government therefore defines media as a mere tool for information dissemination and community radio as a means for token participation. In fact, when Ethiopian Broadcasting Authority officials were asked if the watchdog function of community radio could be added, they said it falls under the same category as providing information. This suggests they do not recognise its role to ensure government accountability.

The Ethiopia Broadcasting Authority reserves the right to reject licenses based on programme contents and social needs covered by the programme. This vague provision opens the possibility that applicants who have programmes potentially critical of the government will not get licenses. Besides content, the EBA can also reject applications if funds and equipment are insufficient, or if it decides the applicant's organisational capacity, knowledge and experience to render the service are insufficient.


Many critics have condemned these laws because they violate human rights and democratic principles. We hope that the Ethiopian government will realize that freedom of expression and freedom of association generally promote healthier citizenry and stronger governments, and as such, should be encouraged. It is frightening that the laws might lead to further violence and to closing the few small openings Ethiopians have to raise their voices to power.

The government has a narrow view of participation: It says citizens in Ethiopia have the right to oppose the government, but when they do, the governmentprosecutes them harshly. The government says that citizens should not need any outside help if they want to have the freedom to discuss important problems, yet the truth is local organisations do need outside help particularly in areas that the government itself has identified as outside their area of their expertise, such as community radio.

The Ethiopian Constitution guarantees freedom of expression, access to information, and it acknowledges the role of media in development, so it is disappointing that these restrictive laws were passed with little consideration for what they will do to paralyse civil society. As it is, the government will only support citizen participation in the broadcast media as long as it limits itself largely to information, education, and entertainment purposes. It will support local CSOs in tackling critical issues, but only if they do not get very limited financial assistance from donors.

The biggest losers in this situation are the 75 million Ethiopians, including those in political exile and in the Diaspora, whose desire to participate in the public sphere have intensified. Fortunately, alternative modes of participation, for example, blogs, the U.S.-based Ethiopian TV network, discussion forums in social networking sites and YouTube videos showing social problems have mushroomed as powerful testaments of people's desire to be heard and to be part of decision-making.

In Ethiopia, private radio broadcaster Mimi Sebhatu continues to be optimistic. In spite of government restrictions, change will come and the radio will play a big role in making it happen. “It [private radio] will have a big impact as a way to create diversified opinions,” she says. “Radio in Ethiopia is very strong, as more people are listening than reading in this country. That's why there has been some reluctance [to open up the air waves] and fears on the side of the government." Sebhatu has been able to air a debate among representatives from the opposition in her first programme—a hopeful sign for other future broadcasters that radio could be used to initiate dialogue with a wider audience.

These forms of expression, no matter how few or how limited, are examples of what media scholar Graham Murdoch was referring to when he said that “people must be able to recognise themselves and their aspiration cultures, and lifestyles in representations offered by the media and they must also contribute to extending those representations.”

The case of Ethiopia is proof that in spite of the political repression, media will continue to play a significant role in democratisation. It is a call to local activists as well as members of the international community to persist in pressuring the Ethiopian Parliament to revise its laws. Unless the government upholds freedom of expression and gives citizens the right to participate and to hold their officials accountable, Ethiopia will not achieve substantive democracy.

Instead, it will be a government of the people only on paper.


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