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Supporting public interest media in Ethiopia

Mihret Aschalew

Project manager, BBC Media Action Ethiopia

It has been just two years since Ethiopia proudly hosted Unesco’s annual World Press Freedom Day conference, a moment of pride and hope for the country’s media landscape.

Much has changed in those two years – as it has for media around the world. Political, legal and especially economic pressures are making it more difficult for independent media everywhere to survive. Ethiopia's economy has been severely affected by the global pandemic, and both public and private media organisations are reporting significant advertising revenue losses. They are also facing additional operational costs to ensure the safety and security of their journalists.

Yet, while the pandemic has intensified media's financial struggles, it has also unleashed an infodemic of false and misleading information, which makes reliable media all the more important in ensuring people can access information they trust.

So, how do you support public interest media in a country such as Ethiopia? BBC Media Action is leading Protecting Independent Media for Effective Development, funded by UK Aid and working across Ethiopia, Sierra Leone and Bangladesh, to help tackle some of these challenges.

A diverse group of partners

Here in Ethiopia, PRIMED is working at several levels. We have identified several media outlets already producing valuable public interest content, and we will work with them to help them make that content even better, by helping them raise their ethical and professional standards, and helping them engage more strongly with their audiences so they understand and serve them better. We will also work with them to develop effective and sustainable business models, and strengthen their management skills, so they can become more financially viable and better able to resist shocks and pressures, while still remaining independent and impartial in their content.

Our partners so far range from well-known TV stations to a small community radio station – a diverse group whom we hope will, in turn, go on to inspire others to follow suit, and even encourage the next generation of journalists. These have been validated through careful audience research, which has demonstrated that Ethiopian readers, viewers and listeners already consider them more trusted than other local media outlets, and that they make a positive contribution to public discourse. And we have found that many journalists, media and internet platforms already show real commitment to high ethical and professional standards. The hope is that by helping these partners to become more successful, the bar will be raised for all media outlets.

PRIMED is also working at the sector level, strengthening institutions and organisations that can help improve the operating environment for media: advocating for legal reforms, helping raise ethical standards, and developing effective mechanisms for self-regulation. Organisations such as the Ethiopian Media Authority (EMA), the Editors Guild of Ethiopia, the Ethiopian Community Radio Association and the Ethiopian Media Council all have a role to play in professionalising robust, independent, impartial media.

All of our partners in PRIMED share the hope and conviction that shoring up the foundations of independent, impartial, trusted media in Ethiopia is possible, and fundamental to the country’s growth and development. Solid institutions are not built overnight, but in time, through strong partnerships. On this World Press Freedom Day, we have celebrated these first steps toward stronger public interest media in Ethiopia.

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Mihret Aschalew is project manager in Ethiopia for Protecting Independent Media for Effective Development, a consortium led by BBC Media Action and funded by the UK Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office. This blog is based on her presentation to a World Press Freedom Day webinar hosted by International Observatory of Human Rights.