State of investigative journalism in Ethiopia

Investigative journalism is critical in developing countries, where maladministration and corruption are commonplace. But, as panelists at a recent discussion on investigative journalism in Ethiopia shared, this is still a developing practice in these countries and skill levels are working to catch up with needs. Journalist Maya Misikir takes a hard look at the current state of investigative journalism in her country.

By Maya Misikir

Apart from conflicts, atrocities and human rights violations, under-reported issues in the country include corruption, smuggling, crimes, land grabbing and mal- administration.

The lack of cooperation from government bodies like the country’s Anti-Corruption Commission, parliament and the police have, over the years, created barriers for investigative journalists.  This, along with the lack of well-structured institutions to protect journalists, contributed to a weak investigative journalistic culture. 

The growth of investigative journalism has been held back by the politics of the country, as well as the lack of professionalism and ethics. Draconian laws governing media and civil society organisations in Ethiopia have weakened these institutions, robbing them of their ability to enhance the skills of journalists in these media houses. There are also limited manuals prepared for investigative reporting.

Leadership positions in public media houses are mostly political appointees and the media houses are themselves often led by government-appointed board members leading to questions around editorial integrity. Privately-owned media houses are run for profit, and often lose the balance between profitability and quality journalism. 

State-run media houses in Ethiopia, such as the Ethiopian Broadcasting Corporation while often pursue politically motivated issues, also do a relatively good level of investigative journalism on several issues, with programs like ‘Ayinachin’. Private radio stations such as Sheger and Ahadu are also active in pursuing investigative journalistic pieces that focus on issues of national concerns.

Challenges and Opportunities

Investigative journalism is a resource-intensive work, and most times media houses cannot afford to dedicate their limited resources, including in-house staff, to undergo in-depth investigation.

Low pay for journalists has also made it relatively easy to bribe journalists and editors to stop their investigations when requested to by interested parties.

Technological advancements and a growing number of social media users have further complicated the work of investigative journalists in Ethiopia, where digital literacy skills among journalists are at its infancy, with the use of computers in the newsrooms to type stories often limited. Media houses and journalists are not well equipped with tools to navigate the current climate. Technical knowledge and know-how on conducting investigations, following leads, and interviewing is also missing.

In recent years, the legal reform has shown a promising future. The reformed CSOs law has loosened funding and areas of participation for CSOs. Due to reforms in CSO law, there is a growing number of media development organizations such as the International Media Support (IMS), DW Academy and FOJO. These need to continue the trajectory and strengthen alongside a strong network of mentorship programs.

The Access to Information law, which determines that public offices are mandated to provide information to journalists within 30 days, with room for extension, is also under revision. Under the draft law, it will cut down the time limit for the provision of information to journalists to within five days.

There is a further proposal for the establishment of information commissions that will hold government entities accountable in relation to information flow.

An ideal future

Many of the obstacles currently faced by journalists in Ethiopia can be solved through collaborations. Investigative journalism requires resources such as time, money and a large number of people to work on the same issue. Collaboration within the Ethiopian context will allow for savings in precious resources, a merger of skillsets and an opportunity to cover underreported issues that will come to light when teams of journalists work outside regional centers. 

Overarching issues like that of FGM can only be highlighted through journalists stepping out of their comfort zones and reaching out to their peers in neighboring countries like Kenya, Djibouti and others.

Perhaps an even more salient benefit of collaboration is that it can be able to provide safety to journalists that operate in harsh condition particularly at times, when there may be backlash.

The recent war in Ethiopia highlighted the importance of collaboration with organization that have the requisite skills and the technology that is currently not found in Ethiopia. Conflicting claims were possible to verify via satellite imagery and visual analysis as well as tools like geo-mapping. Trauma informed journalism needs to be an integral part of media house policies and journalistic ethics.

For a future with a strong investigative culture in Ethiopia, media house policies have to be more accommodating on a variety of issues. They should encourage outside funding while maintaining editorial integrity, hire temporary staff based on the need and also incorporate multilingualism in a country that has a diverse set of people.

The mental well-being of journalists, often disregarded, should be given due importance in order to have a sustainable path toward a strong investigative journalism culture.

Maya Misikir was a speaker on The African Investigative Journalism Conference (AIJC21). in collaboration with Wits University Johannesburg, Fojo-IMS co-hosted the sessions held in Addis Ababa in Ethiopia from 11-13 October.