January 30, 2023
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Q&A: Journalism professors discuss media in Ethiopia

On the week of Nov. 7, two journalism professors from the University of Mekelle in Ethiopia — Mebratu Gebremariam Belay, head of the Department of Journalism and Communication, and Zenawi Zerihun, dean of the College of Social Sciences and Languages — visited Ithaca College’s Roy H. Park School of Communications to learn more about its journalism program and student publications.

Over the span of four days, Belay and Zerihun spoke to students and visited communications classes. The media systems in the United States and Ethiopia vary greatly, as Ethiopia has limited press freedoms compared to those of the U.S.

Opinion Editor Celisa Calacal spoke to Belay and Zerihun about the journalism program at the University of Mekelle, press freedoms in Ethiopia and the media system in the country.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Celisa Calacal: How are your student publications run?

Mebratu Gebremariam Belay: In our department, we do have one weekly radio program which is produced two hours a week, and a semiannual magazine. We haven’t made it quarterly or monthly, but it is still a semiannual magazine. And it’s all produced by students. All we do is simply try to help students improvise entire workforces, but they independently contribute and do the journalistic activities. So the only thing that we do: We guide them in their plans and finally evaluate and … show the mistakes they made and the good thing that they achieve it.

CC: What are some things you focus on in your journalism department?

Zenawi Zerihun: I think we have this approach called developmental journalism. What it means is focus is on reporting, what is happening in the public. There are some changes in the social sector, in the economic sector, and you have to be in a position to encourage what is happening in the country. Of course, this does not mean we will not critique our government when there are problems. There is lots of critical journalism, investigative journalism — that’s also one area of emphasis that we focus on, where whenever students experience a problem, they have to investigate. They have to come up with ways and means of suggesting to the government.

CC: Could you talk about press freedoms in Ethiopia and how you talk to your students about how to navigate those press freedoms?

ZZ: Yeah, it’s kind of tricky. When we teach, we teach in accordance with the rules and norms of the country. …  Journalism and communication is about promoting democracy. And if you ask me to compare the Democratic elections in the U.S. and Ethiopia, in the U.S., you have been doing it for the last 150 years. We’ve only started it like two decades ago — so it’s in its infancy, so we have all kinds of challenges. So yes, we would like our students to become very critical … but they should be based in facts, arguments, substance — not based on hearsay, not based on fabricating stories, which is becoming common now. … We don’t tell them, ‘Don’t criticize the government; don’t express any mismanagement,’ … but I think there are certain instances where they have to be abided by the needs of the country. For example, the press law has all very good provisions, but it specifically refers to the situation in the country. For example … where ethnicity can be a cause for conflict, you’re not expected to publish something sensitive that insults one ethnic group or one racial group. … So this is prohibited by law. … But reporting it will have very bad implicationsthat’s what the government saysbecause the next morning, this ethnic group comes and creates a conflict. … So instead of presenting this fact, sometimes political correctness can be more meaningful than pressing the reality. So we have to strike a balance, and this is how we try to train our students as far as this is concerned.

MGB: We are in a socialist media by which censorship was almost legal and no journalist was free to write anything. … Even the legal issues as well almost everything was censored. And then it has been 25 or 24 years since censorship has been abolished, so you don’t expect that much to change overnight over two decades also. So we have … government-affiliated media or public-owned … that supports blindlyalmost blindly supports the government. And we have also the private press … that absolutely and blindly just rejects what the government does or denounces what the government does. What kind of journalism do you expect in this kind of context? So the thing is, we are trying to create a better environment by which professionalism will be the best way out of this mess. And if professionalism doesn’t come up overnight, again, it takes time, it takes training, it takes lots of investment. … As always, we are still focusing on the so-called developmental journalism by which the media can focus on the betterment of the people and can work for the betterment of the people, in which they can still contribute to the democratization process, the free press and awareness.

CC: What are some key differences you see between Western media and Ethiopian media?

ZZ: I think media is a reflection of the level of democratization a country has achieved. So in the U.S., you had a very good and a very bad history to reach at this level. So if I take you back 150 years, back where slavery was being practiced, and if you compare to what is happening now, you can imagine how different the country has moved. … That is a challenge in our case. … Eighty percent of our population are farmers, uneducated farmers, and you can’t imagine what it brings. So when we talk about the press and its contributions to democratization, we have to think about these people. Do they read stories from magazines? No. So what do they rely [on]? They rely on stories that are being told to them by those who read some stories. So the public: One, they don’t have the access to read and analyze by themselves. Two, they don’t have the experience to judge on the potentiality of any given information; they just rely on hearsay stories, fabricated stories — that is the situation we are in. So if you ask me, how different the two are, I mean, it’s beyond comparison.

Celisa Calacal can be reached at ccalacal@ithaca.edu or via Twitter: @celisa_mia