Klein Essay: “Speaking Out”: Press Freedom in Ethiopia

photo of Tim Klein
Tim Klein

When Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in October of 2019, it was in part for “granting amnesty to thousands of political prisoners,” including many journalists and bloggers, and “discontinuing media censorship.”[1] A ban on more than 250 websites, TV, and radio stations was removed, and dozens of new licenses were given out for newly formed news organizations.

This was not the first attempt at liberalizing the media and establishing freedom of expression in Ethiopia. Two other historical moments in Ethiopia’s recent past—one from the revolution in 1974 and the second in the early and mid-1990s—offer meaningful points for reflection on the expansion, and the restriction, of journalism independence and free expression.

Constitutional Guarantees

In 1994, in the years following the defeat of the authoritarian Marxist military regime known as the “Derg,” a new constitution was adopted that called for “the right to freedom of expression without any interference” in “any media” and a “Prohibition of any form of censorship.” The constitution required that any state media be “operated in a manner ensuring its capacity to entertain diversity in the expression of opinion.” It went on to state that “the press shall … enjoy legal protections to ensure its operational independence and its capacity to entertain diverse opinions” and that “information cannot be limited on account of the content or effect of the point of view expressed.”[2]

These constitutional guarantees of free expression were far more detailed and explicit then the protections in the U.S. Constitution’s 1st Amendment, with nearly 6 times as many words used (266 words vs. 45 words). In the years surrounding the adoption of the 1994 Ethiopian Constitution, hundreds of newspapers and magazines were created. But as the ruling party, the Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF), consolidated power throughout the 1990s and 2000s, licenses for operating media organizations were revoked, newspapers were shut down, journalists and political bloggers were jailed, and dozens of others fled the country.[3]

A 2009 Anti-Terrorism Proclamation stated, “Whoever publishes … a statement that is likely to be understood by some or all of the members of the public … as a direct or indirect encouragement … of an act of terrorism … is punishable with rigorous imprisonment from 10 to 20 years.”[4] The highest profile cases involved members of the “Zone 9” blogging collective, some of whom were tortured and held without trial. Journalist Eskinder Nega was also sentenced to up to 18 years in prison for writing about a banned group. Why did the explicit constitutional protections fail to uphold their stated guarantees to protect speech?

Among the numerous factors that are needed to guarantee free expression, one critical element is the need for a balance of political power, and another is an independent judiciary that can play a relatively disinterested role in settling political questions. In the 2015 elections, the EPRDF coalition won all 546 parliamentary seats.[5] It is doubtful that any nation could adequately protect minority political views or maintain judicial independence if the governing party held 100% of the legislative seats, no matter how strong the constitutional protections.

Declaring Independence

The effect that a balance of political power—even a temporary and fragile balance—can have on press freedom is evident in the brief nine-month period in 1974, after Emperor Haile Selassie’s autocratic monarchy was starting to lose its grip on power, yet before the military Derg had ruthlessly squashed the potential for democratic governance and consolidated power in the military. As hundreds of thousands of students, teachers, and workers went on strike, and tenant farmers rebelled against their serfdom, a chasm opened up between the Emperor, the military, and the governing nobility. Within that precarious and shifting balance of power there was enough room for journalists working at the Emperor’s own state newspapers to declare their independence from the state and to take the opening steps towards establishing a culture of free and responsible journalism.

The full story has yet to be told, but it appears to begin with an Ethiopian journalist named Tegegne Yeteshawork, who wrote a column in the government owned Ethiopian Herald on March 5, 1974 titled “Speaking Out.” The article began by stating that while the government “insists that the press is a dangerous monster, the tentacles of which must be constantly trimmed to size,” the author declared that, for the good of the country, the press must be a “forum of national guidance and a watchdog of the government.” Instead of being a source of propaganda, “The press should inform the public not only what the government wants to make known but also what the people want to know.”

He questioned why the government of a poor nation paid eight million dollars a year to foreign media organizations and wire services like Reuters to re-publish international news, when they refused to publish relevant news from their own country. Tegegne made an open call for all journalists: “Let us manifest seriousness of purpose and make the press so good that anonymous leaflets shall have no market,” referencing the unauthorized publications that were circulating around Addis Ababa, largely among the student movement. Paraphrasing the late U.S. President John F. Kennedy, he boldly stated that “history is taking place before our very eyes and this is the moment of truth to ask, not what Ethiopia can do for us but what we can do for Ethiopia.” This was no anonymous letter to the editor—Tegegne’s name was boldly printed at the top of the column—a rarity as most news stories were published at that time without a byline.[6]

Tegegne’s vision for journalism in Ethiopia was not radically free by the standards of the 21st century, but in a society that had been ruled by warring monarchies for thousands of years,[7] it was a valiant step in the direction of an independent press. “There is no such thing as freedom without limits,” wrote Tegegne, “and for the time being the relaxations on the control of the press in Ethiopia must be limited by the laws of the country.” He argued that for independent journalism to emerge in Ethiopia, it would require not only legal protections and a supportive administration, but also journalists that used their freedom responsibly and a public that “embrace[d] the concept of a free press.” This would require citizens to tolerate ideas that were different from their own, for both the majority and the minority.[8]

This editorial on March 5, 1974 sparked nine-months of relative press freedom in the two main Ethiopian state newspapers, The Ethiopian Herald and Addis Zemen. Prior to the editorial, the state newspapers published almost exclusively glowing praise of the Emperor, usually accompanied by large photos of foreign dignitaries bowing in front of the Emperor and presenting gifts. Tegegne’s editorial was followed by an almost daily article that showed some degree of independence from the government. For instance, the March 12th letter to the editor, titled “Seize This Opportunity,” stated that “Ethiopians must demand that … Parliament must be responsible to the People as a whole. Right now Parliament is not.” The author went on to write that the requirement that a MP be a royalist, nobility or a person of property “make(s) Parliament an instrument of the privileged few.”[9]

Balance of Power

Throughout this period, as long as power remained distributed across numerous groups and no single interest could dominate other interests, there was room for an independent press. But after the “creeping coup” removed Haile Selassie from power and the authoritarian Derg consolidated its power, independent expression was extinguished or driven underground.

The expansion of press freedom in Ethiopia appears to depend on a balance of power between the ruling and opposition parties, and a judiciary that is not beholden to any single political interest. If the ruling party is so dominant that the opposition parties have little effective power, then journalists who write critically of the state or the ruling party do not have the political power to protect their independence.

About the author: Tim Klein is a doctoral candidate at Louisiana State University’s Manship School of Mass Communication. His research focuses on media history and political theory. He has worked in electoral politics and as a documentary filmmaker. He is the editor of An Anatomy of ‘Fake News’: History, Populism, Partisanship, Technology and Solutions (2019). He is the recipient of a 2020 Fulbright research grant in Ethiopia looking at the development of journalism independence.

Featured image: The Ethiopian Herald, March 5, 1974. The article titled “Speaking Out,” on the left side of the page, marked the beginning of a nine-month period of growing independence for newspapers in Ethiopia.

[1] The Nobel Peace Prize 2019, Oslo, Norway, October 10th, 2019. Accessed from https://www.nobelpeaceprize.org/Announcements/The-Nobel-Peace-Prize-2019

[2] Part Two, Democratic Rights, Article 29, “Right of Thought, Opinion and Expression,” Sections 2, 3, 3a, 4, 6, Constitution of the Federal Republic of Ethiopia. Accessed from https://www.wipo.int/edocs/lexdocs/laws/en/et/et007en.pdf

[3] “Ink by the barrel in Addis Ababa: Press freedom in Ethiopia has blossomed. Will it last?” The Economist, March 16, 2019, https://www.economist.com/middle-east-and-africa/2019/03/16/press-freedom-in-ethiopia-has-blossomed-will-it-last

[4] Ethiopian Anti-Terrorism Proclamation, Article No. 652, 2009, Clause 5.

[5] Terrence Lyons, “Abiy’s Nobel achievements are real but brittle,” Foreign Policy, October 12, 2019, accessed November 1, 2019, https://foreignpolicy.com/2019/10/12/abiys-nobel-achievements-are-real-but-brittle/

[6] Tegegne Yeteshawork, “Speaking Out,” The Ethiopian Herald, March 5th, 1974.

[7] It is sometimes claimed that Ethiopia had a monarchy for three-thousand years, going back to the Queen of Sheba visiting King Solomon in the 10th century B.C. Many Ethiopian historians, such as Bahru Zewde, see the claim of a three thousand year history as folklore as opposed to historical fact. Bahru Zewde, A History of Modern Ethiopia: 1855-1991. Ohio University Press: Athens, 1991, 7.

[8] The educated minority was one of the central groups pushing Ethiopia towards revolution. This “educated minority must learn to read ideas different from its own,” wrote Tegegne. Yeteshawork, “Speaking Out,”

[9] John, “Seize This Opportunity” in “Letters to the Editor,” The Ethiopian Herald, March 12th, 1974.


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