The Oromos are the largest single ethnic group in Ethiopia, comprising approximately 40 percent of the country’s 77 million people. Yet, they are severely sidelined in the country’s politics and media representation - by means of cultural and linguistic differences - is gravely imbalanced in the fractured country.
Ethnic tension has been part of Ethiopian reality for over one hundred years, however, pressure and harassment from the ruling Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF) party on the Oromos has exacerbated since Prime Minister Meles Zenawi took office in 1991.
“The current Ethiopian state can only be compared to apartheid South Africa, where similar unjust practices happened,” said a refugee Oromo journalist abroad, who wanted to remain anonymous, to RAP 21.
“As opposed to South Africa [today], our country does not have any respect for the linguistic and cultural diversity of the people. The ruling languages (Amharic and Tigre), which really are minority languages, are imposed on almost 80 percent of the country’s population, including Oromos,” he claimed. The implications on the media, he said, are “Vast and intimidating.”
The journalist spoke of the government as “a debilitating cancer for the Oromo media,” as evidenced with the closure of Wanchif and Seifa Nebelbal Urji newspapers, Tomar magazine and Oromo Television [among a number of other smaller and uncountable publications and broadcasts]. The employees of such media outlets have been forced into exile or have been put behind bars. “There are more Oromo journalists in the Diaspora than there are at home because of the exodus,” he said.
In recent years, the fall of Oromo media houses has especially followed major humanitarian crises including famine, wars and prior to and after national and local elections that had confirmed the EPRDF’s power.
“It is hard to keep track of these numbers. It became a big problem to the extent that some media watch groups have been overwhelmed with cases of journalists from Ethiopia and declined to assist them. There is a growing fatigue and passivity both on the part of Oromo/Ethiopian journalists and on the part of the international community. It is a nerve-racking issue to deal with,” he said. Furthermore, many of the attacks are enigmatic - the government tries to conceal them and media professionals who fear exposure will endanger their lives and people close to them remain in silence.
“Often, newspaper owners like the Jimma Times, for example, are accused of being sympathizers of the Oromo Liberation Front (OLF) even when they are not and clearly deny any involvement with rebels or opposition. That becomes a very common excuse that is cited before a media house is shut down or before a journalist is arrested or killed. That is besides the financial challenges that are overwhelming to the independent press,” he continued.
Currently, Qubee Afaan (the most widely spoken language in the country) Yeroo newspaper, which is owned by the Jimma Times, is grappling with the seemingly innate consequences of serving the Oromo audience. Printing barely into its second month, the management of the paper reported that the network agencies, which deal with newspaper distribution, have had little trust in the paper. “[A newspaper] in Afaan Oromo was a big turn off for many agencies whose workers either don’t understand the language or saw it as too risky, since it has OLF connotations,” said staff at the Jimma Times.
In a bold attempt to overcome these judgements, the paper tried to set up its own distribution network. However, financial constraints compounded with police intimidation and harassment of street vendors in rural parts of the Oromia region has stalled this effort.
A pending press law is also augmenting problems for the narrowly surviving Oromo media. According to the Jimma Times, newspaper editors are wary of what new hurdles the law will pose amid already high newspaper production costs and longstanding discrimination.
Already, the ministry has apparently placed all new newspaper licence applications on hold until the official promulgation of the law, which is unknown at this time. Meanwhile, Yeroo has asked the ministry to amend its registration and change the names of its assistant editors. However, the ministry standstill extends to the existing press.
“Whether it is a country or a small organisation, the fact that an entity will pass a new law in the future should not mean that it becomes lawless temporarily, so it should operate in the transition period,” said a statement on behalf of the paper.
Alongside the waning Oromo print sector the broadcast media is also suffering. On 12 September, the only Afaan Oromo television programme broadcast through ETV, was arbitrarily taken off the air, leaving approximately 60 journalists unemployed and reportedly placed under government surveillance and 40 million people without a television programme they can understand. The programme was launched in 1991 following the demise of the Communist Derg regime as a step towards democracy.
The Human Rights League of the Horn of Africa (HRLHA) reported that the programme was closed under a new practice called “localizing” television programmes. The HRLHA has interpreted this trend as discriminatory and political in that the similar Tigriga programme has been spared. A program called STVO, which is a product of the OPDO (a wing of the ruling coalition), has replaced the program.
As the Oromo media continues to disappear, the journalist told RAP 21, “What remains in the market as “Ethiopian media” are Amharigna and Tigrigna language newspapers, which are allowed to operate freely and also receive a huge preferential treatment to grow, to be mass-produced and distributed. Broadly speaking, the political oppression and segregation against the Oromo people undoubtedly form part of the media crackdown in Ethiopia.”