Another nail in the coffin of the private press By Hindessa Abdul

April 2nd, 2011 Print Print Email Email

A couple of years back Berhanena Selam Printing Press (BSPP) found itself to be the top most censor of the Ethiopian private press. The 90 year old publishing house at Arat Kilo actually never begged for it. But that’s what happened. (more…)

A couple of years back Berhanena Selam Printing Press (BSPP) found itself to be the top most censor of the Ethiopian private press. The 90 year old publishing house at Arat Kilo actually never begged for it. But that’s what happened. When the government cracked down on the private press following the 2005 general elections, some still refused to budge. So the government designed a plan telling the printing press they have a responsibility on the contents of the printed materials. That way BSPP found itself to be the chief censor at the time. In the eyes of the printing press officials, most of the contents of what was left of the private press were politically sensitive. The only articles that were safe to print were obituaries.

As a result, sports and romantic periodicals were the only publications that adorned the streets of Addis. Of course, a couple of other “private newspapers” were also allowed to thrive.

Again for the second time, the state run printing press found itself to be the maker and breaker of the free flow of information in the country. A printing price hike of up to 50% is testing the survival of the fledgling private press. Some relate the price hike with the government’s decision to devaluate the local currency which ended up in rocketing the prices of everything that is on the market. But others consider the latest price hike as a plot by the government to finally push the papers to fold without directly confronting them. The reason being given here is that the ruling party is afraid of an unrest that is unfolding in North Africa and the Middle East.

Not to surrender…

Because of the price hike, papers could be costing anywhere between ETB 7 and 10, from the current average of 5. In a country where the next meal is always a challenge, papers could hardly count among the top priority of the people. With readers not affording, most newspapers face the grim reality of folding. Publishers cannot seek cheaper alternatives as BSPP is almost the only one when it comes to the publication of periodicals.

Despite the “double digit economic growth” no printing press in the country is capable of handling daily or weekly publications in a sustained manner. As a result, more than 90% of the country’s periodicals are published there, which puts all the eggs in one basket. The day something happens to the printing house, the country may as well wake up to a paperless day.

As a solution to the problem, some of the publishers have organized themselves to request the concerned bodies to temporarily hold the new rates. Others who think the move is eminent have started crying for help.

The weekly Awramba Times (AT), whose editor was the winner of International Press Freedom award, is testing the digital water by requesting its online readers in the Diaspora to subscribe for the electronics copy of the paper to be emailed in PDF format. With a Dollar per issue, AT is not asking too much from their esteemed readers. Whether they succeed in raising funds is yet to be tested. Their ingenuity, however, needs to be commended.

Politics of ads

Ads are the lifelines of almost all media outlets. With the huge cost of running periodicals, ads are the only major source of income that could compensate for the expenses and for the survival of journalists. Hence, no serious paper exists without them. The sale of newspapers cannot make for revenues to cover expenses.
Though most Ethiopian private newspapers survived without ads, it was a task so arduous that in some cases the papers were compromised. Street vendors managed to peddle influence over content and titles.

While there are businesses that could benefit from ads placed in the papers, the business community is cowed into giving ads only to party affiliated publications or pro government newspapers.

Advertisement has been one of the instruments that the government communication office wanted to use to lure influential newspapers to their side. And to make them follow the ruling party idea of development journalism, which in the Ethiopian context is about turning a blind eye on gross human rights violations; singing praise to the “dear leader” and the miracles he has presided over; keeping silence on the rampant corruption that has plagued the power structure; and the likes.

Not so long ago there was a plan conceived by the Office of Communications Affairs headed by Mr Bereket Simon. The plan was to make the private papers write their stories like the government ones in return for advertisement to be given to them from public enterprises. The four major public companies namely: The Ethiopian Airlines, Ethio Telecom, Ethiopian Electric Power Corporation and the Commercial Bank were to be ordered to allocate budget for ads in private papers. The communication office wanted to use that for propaganda consumption. On one hand they would say there is free press in the country, on the other they would make sure the so called private press would be controlled through the ad money. It is not yet clear how that scheme is going.

In a tacit affirmation of that plan the government spokesperson, Mr Shimeles Kemal, in a remark he made last week said: “The price hike will not affect those who get ad revenues.” We bet it won’t!

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