[Interview] Addis Standard boss on surviving Ethiopia’s ‘suppressed’ media industry
Abdur Rahman Alfa Shaban
(AFRICANEWS) — In late 2016, Addis Standard magazine – one of Ethiopia’s most influential and hard-hitting news outlets announced the suspension of hard copy production but said they were pushing on with the online wing.
Months on, in June 2017 they ushered in a new face – a digital phase – and put out recruitment notices. They have been at the heart of some of the biggest scandals to have rocked the East African country in its six years of operation.
Their most recent expose was about how a deadly accident at the country’s biggest stadium construction site had been covered up. A detailed report revealed the cover up but that is only characteristic of a portal that had in the past reported some of the biggest scandals.
We would also like to see an environment whereby the government considers us a media that critically looks it to the fault lines and not an opposition to the government.
Tsedale Lemma, editor-in-chief of the magazine granted Africanews an interview that spanned the old and new phase of the news portal since it was established in February 2011.
She details how they continue to navigate the delicate media waters for a country notorious for jailing journalists who make life uncomfortable for the establishment. Below is a transcription of some of the views Addis Standard’s Editor-in-chief had to share
WHAT WAS THE MAIN OBJECTIVE OF SETTING UP?
To embrace fringe narratives and by doing so to challenge the culture of the mainstream media in Ethiopia as well as to provide the alternative to state dominated media, which is unevenly dominating the media scene in Ethiopia.
WHAT ARE THE THREE TOP CHALLENGES YOU HAVE FACED?
The first is the challenge of operating in an environment of fear, whereby we don’t know whether or not our journalists or anyone who is a member of the team could survive a given story that we often take the chance to publish.
Operating in such an environment of fear whereby we don’t know when and how we cross the so-called “red light” due to the state’s practice of persecuting and prosecuting journalists under the garb of criminal or even terrorism offences keep producing chilling results among us all.
The second is a challenge which is mutually inclusive with the first and that is, getting adequate human resource in the field.
Journalism in Ethiopia is a suppressed and depressing industry one would not wish to join even if there are no other options, and even if one is a graduate of journalism.
This in turn has placed a severe constraint on the progress of professionalism in the field, which the government often uses to blame the media.
The third is financing. As an independent media, we rely on independent AD (advertisement) revenues. But that is not easy to come by.
We face challenges from advertisers who either tell us they don’t feel safe to advertise with us because we provide formidable critics of the political system on the ground.
Or they tell us they have been directly or indirectly influenced to terminate their contracts with us. We have had several such incidents in the past. This in turn puts a considerable strain in our capacity to grow as a strong and financially independent media organization.
SHARE SOME SUCCESSES THE TEAM HAS CHALKED
I think our biggest success so far is the success that we have cemented our credibility and reputation on a solid rock foundation. A look into the reaction from the international media when we announced the unfortunate termination of our print version speaks to this claim loud and clear. I think our hard working team earned that and we will continue working forward to protect that status.
WHAT IS BEHIND THE NEWS DIVERSIFICATION?
The people (our audience) are the main drive behind this. We follow people to tell their stories; we give priorities to stories of people who would otherwise find it hard to tell their stories. We also look into the flip side of the mainstream media in Ethiopia and go for the stories that don’t make into the normal headlines.
COULD THE PRINT VERSION STAGE A COMEBACK IN THE FUTURE?
Looking at it from the current point of view in Ethiopia, that is an unlikely scenario. Instead, we are trying to venturing more into digital options. It is posing a huge challenge but we are getting there.
WHAT IS THE IDEAL MEDIA LANDSCAPE ADDIS STANDARDENVISAGES?
We would like to see a scene whereby our editorial choices are not influenced by polarized political debates. A scene whereby telling one people’s story is not taken as an attempt to hurt others’, but an attempt to tell untold stories.
We would also like to see an environment whereby the government considers us a media that critically looks it to the fault lines and not an opposition to the government. We have no political mission to pursue but an ambition to challenge the accepted wisdom.
WHAT IS THE CURRENT STAFF STRENGTH?
We are a very small, but dedicated team. Unfortunately, we were forced to shed some jobs following the closure of the print version, but through time, we have reintegrated a few staff members into the upcoming digital version. So right now, we are about a team of 13.
WHERE DO YOU SEE AS IN FIVE YEARS?
That is a very difficult question given the unpredictability of the media landscape for independent journalism in Ethiopia. But then, we never thought we could reach here as well six years ago. So, I would like to see AS grow in its efforts to shape new narratives by continuing to challenge the old ones.
IS IT COMMERCIALLY VIABLE RUNNING A NEWS PORTAL?
No it is not. And perhaps one of the reasons AS succeed in building its credibility reputation is because its primary focus is not to expand commercially, although that too is essential to sustain its operative costs; but to focus on the quality of journalism and professionalism in the country.
THE WORK OF ADDIS STANDARD
From their presence at courts to cover terrorism cases of politicians and journalists alike, exposing issues of rights abuses, religious persecution and government cover up in some instances, the portal even in its post-print era commands respect as an independent outfit serving the masses.
The recent digital switch means they continue to tell top news stories rolling in Ethiopia and in the Horn of Africa region. Incidentally, the narrative about Ethiopia internet is not the best.
Its last print edition bordered on the Irreecha festival chaos, the aftermath of which was the imposition of a six-month state of emergency, only lifted after 10 months in August 2017. It was renewed upon initial expiry in April this year.
Addis Standard have become a reference point relative to news on the country, they have been cited severally by the BBC, Africanews and other top international news outlets. Clearly, for editor-in-chief Tsedale Lemma and her team, the fight to report ‘the news,’ rolls on.