So this man walks into a shop in Addis Ababa, carrying a TV set. It’s one of those new flat-screen one – smart, expensive.   He swings the set onto the counter, and says to the shop assistant: “I’d like to trade this TV in for a copy of today’s newspaper.”

On a recent visit to Ethiopia, I came across this joke again and again: in conversations; as a cartoon in one of the country’s many private newspapers; retold by a laughing taxi driver.  It neatly captured the complete collapse of credibility of the state-owned media.
The experience of the Ethiopian media during the recent political crisis provide a stark illustration of what happens to journalism in transitional societies, and underlines the importance of some basic principles of ethics, taken too much for granted elsewhere.

The country’s politics are very tense.  I arrived about a month after the May 15 election, but there were still no clear results.  Early indications were that the ruling Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Party (EPRDF) had done very badly.  Available results showed that the capital, Addis Ababa, and other urban areas had turned decisively against the party, which has ruled the country since it overthrew a military junta – the Dergue – in 1991.

It was a dramatic turnaround for the opposition, which captured only a handful of seats in the previous election.  But they believed they had won an outright majority, and have alleged massive cheating by the EPRDF. 

The ruling party in turn, accused the opposition of cheating.  Finalising the results was a painfully slow process: the institutions are not strong and distrust runs very deep.  It took until early August for the EPRDF to be declared the winner, and even now, the opposition is convinced it was cheated.  

The tension has spilled over into violence.  In early June, a demonstration in Addis turned to stone-throwing.  Police opened fire, and many people died.  The government has admitted 30 dead, but the country’s independent Human Rights Council says it has identified 40 victims.

In its 14 years of rule, the EPRDF government has to its credit allowed much more space for democracy than its predecessors.  There’s been an explosion of private newspapers, and even some movement towards allowing private broadcasting.  During the election campaign, state television aired vigorous debates between government and opposition.

But when it became clear that large parts of the electorate had turned against the government, state media pulled back sharply, and there’s been a crackdown on the private media.

The local correspondents of the Voice of America and Deutsche Welle, whose broadcasts in the Amharic language are hugely popular, have had their accreditation withdrawn, and several editors have been arrested.  One has been sent to jail for refusing to name a source.

The media landscape is extremely polarised.  After a brief thaw during the election campaign, state media are again tightly controlled.  One journalist told the story of how he was called in by the Minister of Information and told off for reporting the views of an NGO that was critical of a proposed law. An editor at Ethiopian TV said candidly: “The head of the organisation never allows balanced reports.  Positive stories about strong opposition parties are destined to (end in) waste baskets.”

On the other hand, some 80 private newspapers jostle for attention.  Mostly published in Amharic, they lack skills and money, and most outbid each other in the virulence of their opposition to the government.  As a result, government departments are often hostile to their reporters.  Also, audiences have turned strongly against the government, and so the papers make little attempt at covering official views fairly. 

A senior reporter for one private newspaper said: “Because of the fact that many officials and organisations are not willing to talk to us we often publish unbalanced stories.  The other factor of course is our target readers don’t like balanced stories.  So because of market influence we publish one-sided stories.”

But they are very popular.  Crowds assemble on Addis streets to read newspapers that are pinned up on corner noticeboards.

According to Fortune, a business paper that publishes in English, printing orders  skyrocketed since the start of the crisis.  Some newspapers increased their print orders from 3000 to 50 000, and printers in Addis ran out of capacity.  Several printing works capped the print runs they were prepared to undertake. Additional paper had to be ordered from abroad.

It’s not just the publishers that are benefiting. Bahiru Mohammed, a 19-year-old newspaper vendor, told Fortune he was selling newspapers at 50c more than the cover price, and his profit is almost double what it usually is.

By contrast, the government’s English-language Addis Tribune has gone into decline.  With its reports of ministers handing over seedlings to grateful farmers and ponderous editorial comment, it’s hardly to be found on sale.  You’ll find it in government offices, though: bulk order seem to do much to keep its circulation alive.  

So what’s the lesson from Addis?  It’s simple, really.  For one thing, the huge interest in the private media show how staggeringly important news media are at a time of crisis. Of course, these media remain a mainly urban phenomenon in this overwhelmingly rural country.  Some 80% of the country’s people live in the countryside, where even state radio has incomplete reach.

I arrived a few days after the shooting incident, and asked a taxi driver about it.  He said the news reports were that around 24 people – the known figure at the time – had been killed.  But, he added, the real figure was obviously much higher, since the reports could not be trusted.

Where the credibility of the news media is undermined, rumour flourishes.  And at times of crisis, credibility is hard to safeguard, and very precious.  The collapse of trust in the country’s state media was ruinous for them – people simply stopped reading or watching.

The heavy-handed state control also caused considerable discomfort to the journalists working there. I had several of them in the journalism ethics class I was teaching at Addis Ababa University, and it was clear that they felt unhappy and deeply compromised by the tight controls being exercised over their work.  Few issues excited as much interest as the question of independence, and how it could be achieved.

The tragedy of the Ethiopian media is that the private media are not strong either – their credibility is also patchy. It’s a poor country, and there’s not much money to sustain the media.

One day as I was waiting for some paperwork, a friendly information department official engaged me in a long discussion about some of these issues.  He supported media freedom, he said, but seemed to be genuinely grappling with the problem of what to do when news reports deepen tensions that can cause real damage.  It is, of course, the argument repressive governments have used time and again when defending measures against the media.

But even in my class at the university, it was clear that several students felt there were things that were so explosive that they needed to be treated with great care. One was the reporting of ethnic issues.  This country of complex and sometimes conflicting ethnicities could fall apart, some argued, there could even be genocide like in Rwanda.

The media in other countries, too, have on occasion swung behind a “national interest”.  In World War II Britain, the media clearly backed the war effort.  When South Africa was negotiating its way out of apartheid amid great uncertainty and considerable violence, a newspaper editor wrote: “Primarily, in our country, we must be passionately in favour of peace.  Without peace we have nothing in our country; with it we have a chance.  The public interest is served by peace and if it comes to a decision between peace (and) publication of certain material then peace must come first.”

It is a debate that arises powerfully in transitional societies, in new democracies across Africa and elsewhere.

But situations where the survival of the society is at stake are very rare, and hard to identify with certainty. In the Ethiopian case, fears of collapse are probably overstated.

The media’s bigger contribution to stability in such countries is unstinting support for the democratic project.  Because media and democracy are so profoundly interdependent, this is one cause we should be deeply partisan about.

Journalists do this best by reporting clearly, accurately and fully, so that citizens have good information with which to exercise, and insist on, their rights. In most cases, the short term pain of unpleasant truths is heavily outweighed by the long term gain of an empowered citizenry.

The media also help by pushing political players back onto the field when they are tempted to stray.  In countries finding a way out of violence, the notion of carrying out political conflicts in a structured, peaceful way is new; the rules are unfamiliar, and it is easy for losers to cry foul – as the Ethiopian opposition did, perhaps with some reason. 

But newspapers like Addis Fortune consistently argued for the disputes about electoral fraud to be carried out within the frameworks agreed. 

Being a journalist in a transitional society like Ethiopia is not easy. Resources are few, there’s not much of a living in it, and you face hostility from the authorities.  At the same time, the ethical choices are particularly tough, and the consequences of doing a good, or a bad, job can be far-reaching.

* Kruger teaches regularly in the postgraduate journalism programme at Addis Abeba University.  This column first appeared on this website on 2 September 2005.