It all starts with the youth of Ethiopia: A report on critical media consumption from Ambo and Jimma in Oromia region

Fojo-IMS are supporting a 12-month media literacy empowerment project targeted at high school students across Ethiopian regions.

Nardos Shitaye, 19, was sitting at the table scanning her Telegram updates on her phone when it rang. It was the school asking if she wanted to be part of a media literacy training arranged through Bahirdar University with the support of the Fojo-IMS media reform programme. “I will be more than happy; I hope it will favour my active social media engagement and thank you,” she responded.

Like many other countries in the world, digital skills are essential to Ethiopia, where millions of social media users engage actively in online communications despite limited internet penetration. Misinformation, disinformation, fake news and hate speech thrive in Ethiopia, strongly correlating with real world reactions that exacerbate conflicts and violence initiated by several distressing factors. In such circumstances, finding reliable information becomes a challenge and Fojo-IMS believes media literacy would be an entry point for it, making it part of the education curriculum.

According to Sören Östergaard Sörensen, Programme Manager for the Fojo-IMS media reform programme in Ethiopia, “The need for enhanced media literacy is a global issue and not isolated to Ethiopia, but it is of critical importance here because of the context of growing conflicts around the country and growing polarisation of people with different political views, ethnicity and sociodemographic groups. Both the traditional and the new social media platforms are increasingly contributing to creating an ‘us and them’ narrative.”

In accordance with this, Fojo-IMS supported Bahirdar University’s proposal on media literacy education to the youth combating fake news, misinformation and disinformation in select regional cities of Ethiopia to train high school and university students across the country on media literacy.

As the trainer clapped to start the session, most of the participants, dressed in dark blue uniforms, eagerly shuffled into the training room at University of Ambo. During two training workshops held in the towns of Ambo and Jimma in the Oromia Region, it was possible to educate more than 80 students between the ages of 17 and 23 who were active in most social media platforms. Dr. Jemal Mohammed, Project Coordinator from Bahirdar University, said that he was inspired by the readiness of the trainees on the matter, how active and engaged they were on the topic. He believes that the programme objective met its correct targets.

A group of students in Ethiopia gathered togteher in a media literacy class.

“When they say ‘media literacy’, I never thought it will be about social media at first,” said Nardos Shitaye. “I thought it is about the traditional media we know, and am happy to be part of the digital communication literacy.” She said that she found it timely, with a direct connection to her and her peers who actively engage on social media with their smartphones.

Another student from Ambo high school, Natnael Adane, 17, sees personal development potential besides taking the training. He said he is active on Facebook, Telegram, Imo and Instagram with more than 5,000 followers. In five years, he envisions being a computer scientist doing in depth research and developing tools for alerting consumers towards misinformation.

Sören Östergaard Sörensen asserts: “Our support to media literacy initiatives, like the regionalised project just started up in Ambo and Jimma, are focused on high school and university students, because the capacity to understand the nature of misinformation on social media and the need for critical consumption and fact checking from a diversity of sources is most important for the heavy users in the new generation of Ethiopians. They will hopefully lead the change for a more responsible critical consumption and activity on social media.”

Sena Biya, 23, a fifth year pharmacy student from Jimma University, was also part of the training held in Jimma. She praised the session as practical, with the tools to identify fake news and disinformation, including the advice to check a claim before reacting to it. She is also a president of the female student association in the university, where she is responsible administering the association’s Telegram account. She said she learned to check posts before sharing them in the group.

The media literacy training programme was initiated by Bahirdar University, aiming to reach more than 400 trainees both from high school and universities across Amhara, Oromia, Sidama and SNNPR, including the cities of Gondor, Dessie, Debremarkos, Ambo, Adama, Jimma, Hawassa and Dilla. It is a 12-month programme for eight high schools and eight universities. According to Dr. Jemal, they are hoping to implement it before the end of this year, with a strong follow-up afterwards. Besides providing training to enhance youth awareness of fake news and misinformation, the programme will also develop a media literacy training manual that could provide input to the curriculum.