Friday, April 20, 2018

Debating democracy,
and media, in Ethiopia

(GONDAR, ETHIOPIA)—What is the role of the media in democracy? Is democracy necessary for journalism—and peace journalism—to function? And is western democracy a good fit in Africa generally, and Ethiopia specifically?

These were the most thought-provoking questions yesterday during my two hour presentation “Peace Journalism Principles and Practices” at the University of Gondar, where I am teaching a semester-long peace journalism project. Hosted by the journalism department, the audience of 40 (not a bad turnout) included professional journalists, students, faculty members, and assorted others.
An audience member launched the democracy discussion by noting that it’s rarely seen in Africa, and may not be a good fit here anyway. A second audience member, a visiting professor of Ethiopian descent, disagreed, and stated emphatically that he believes Ethiopia must embrace democratic traditions. I added that democracy and free media usually go hand in hand, and thus from a media standpoint, democracy is desirable. I added some nuance to my answer a half an hour later, when I bumped into the first audience member on campus. I told him that what I should have said was that the western democratic model isn’t a one size fits all construct. Indeed, we’ve seen that democracy can’t be forced—just look at Iraq and Afghanistan, along with many of countries of the former Soviet Union.
My larger point is that democracy, in whatever form, and respect for civil liberties are vitally important ingredients if free media, and particularly peace journalism, are to flourish.

Monday, April 16, 2018

Community school's first newspaper hits the newsstands

(Gondar, Ethiopia)--As a teacher, what do you do when your students want to meet with you on a Friday night or Saturday? Once you’re done picking your jaw up off the floor, there’s only one response: Just say when and where, kids.

This happened three times during the last six weeks or so, as a group of ten 7th graders from Gondar University Community School produced their school’s first student newspaper. I was their Journalism 101 instructor for a month or so, then became their advisor as work began on the paper. I was assisted by teacher Habtie Marew and Peggy Landers, an American teaching second grade and working with the 7th grade students in the English Club.
The fruits of their labor, which they named the Community School Times, is posted here. 400 copies of the paper will be distributed at the school this week.
I am bursting with pride over this five page gem. As you read it, keep in mind that this was produced by 7th graders in their second (or third) language. There’s no way my French or Spanish classmates and I could have produced anything as sophisticated in 7th grade or even as seniors. Not only is this produced in a foreign language, it is these students’ first exposure to journalism, and first time writing news stories. Note how good the leads are, as well as the headlines. There’s a lot to build on here.

The students have already started asking about producing more newspapers, a request that warmed my heart. We are working on getting the kids a computer and some page design software. We are also figuring out how to set up a fund to pay printing expenses. 

Gondar’s newest journalists don’t know it yet, but even when I’m thousands of miles away, they won’t be rid of me. I plan to continue to offer them feedback and encouragement as they work on additional issues this year and into the future. However, I can’t promise that I’ll answer their emails on a Saturday night.

Wednesday, April 11, 2018

Mobile internet restoration means one less obstacle for journalists

(GONDAR, ETHIOPIA)—Ethiopians are “rejoicing” (according to one report) after mobile internet service was restored last Friday. This is especially true for Ethiopian journalists, who feel that at least some of their chains have been removed.

Mobile service had been available the last five months only in Addis Ababa, the capital. Elsewhere, Ethiopia’s 57.4 million mobile subscribers could not access the internet through their phone carrier, but could only get online using WiFi.

The Ethiopian government has not officially explained the reasons for the blackout or for restoration of mobile internet service, according to several reports.However, given the recent political turmoil and ongoing instability, including deadly protests in the country, it’s clear that the government shut off mobile internet to stifle dissent and impede journalists. 

Asmamaw Addis, a lecturer of journalism and communications at the University of Gondar (UoG), believes that the mobile internet shutdown was consistent with ruling party policy that seeks to silence dissenting voices, especially those whose comments might grab international attention. He said, “The internet is key ingredient human rights – a means citizens have to express their opinion - and shutting off mobile internet is violation of this right. Therefore, disclosing the shutting off the internet officially mean losing (the government’s) acceptability internationally.”

The recent mobile internet shutdown was not an isolated incident. The only internet service provider in Ethiopia is state-run Ethio Telecom, meaning that the government can literally flip a switch and cut off mobile internet service, or even pull the plug on the internet entirely, which is exactly what happened three times in 2017. (AfricaPortal)

So egregious are these threats to internet freedom that a 2016 Freedom House report rated Ethiopia as the fourth worst country for internet freedom, trailing only China, Syria, and Iran. 

According to Prof. Addis, these internet shutdowns “harm freedom of expression. Citizens fear to exercise their basic rights.” The shutdowns are symptomatic of the government’s heavy hand in dealing with the press. According to the Committee to Protect Journalists, Ethiopia jailed five journalists in late March as part of a state of emergency crackdown. ( International media NGO’s Freedom House and Reporters Without Borders (RSF) both list Ethiopian media as not free. In fact, RSF rated Ethiopia 150 out of 180 countries in terms of press freedom. (

Considered in the context of an ongoing war against free media, the internet disruptions contribute to an environment in Ethiopia where it is difficult for journalists to do their job. UoG’s Addis said, “No doubt, (the shutdown) negatively affects the job of journalists. Media in Ethiopia is not well staffed. They highly use online sources as they don’t have many branch offices in all the districts and in all regions that provide media coverage proportionally. So, the internet is a key to gathering news stories from across the country as well as to distributing news and information…Now that (mobile internet) is restored it facilitates the performance of journalists’ jobs.”

Ethiopia is not alone. Recent internet shutdowns have also plagued Congo-Brazzaville and Cameroon, where I will be working on a peace journalism project this summer. In 2016, the #KeepItOn campaign (designed to battle internet shutdowns) documented 56 shutdowns worldwide, including in six African nations.

When journalists are not free to use the internet, it makes it much more difficult for them to do their jobs. When governments restrict and block the internet, it not only impedes journalists, it intimidates them. And when these threats to internet freedom occur in a context where the press is not free, it makes the practice of responsible journalism (let alone peace journalism) problematic.

Friday’s restoration of mobile internet is a good initial step, although much more work needs to be done before Ethiopia's press can be considered free.

RELATED NEWS: U.S. House approves resolution critical of Ethiopia’s human right record.

Wednesday, April 4, 2018

Despite water shutoffs, glass is still half full

(Gondar, Ethiopia)-In the U.S., when you see a half glass of water on the counter, you might drift into a philosophical state as you ponder whether the glass if half full or half empty. Here in Gondar when you see the same glass, you inevitably ask yourself if that half glass of water is enough to flush a toilet, or wash out a pair of socks.

If you live in Gondar, you understand the chronic water problems here. Although it varies from week to week, in the 2.5 months I’ve lived in faculty housing at the University of Gondar, we’ve averaged two to three days per week without running water. The problem seems to be getting worse during the last month or so. This week, for example, the water was shut off early Sunday morning, came back on early Tuesday morning for about 12 hours or so, then was shut off again around dinnertime Tuesday evening. I had just finished doing dishes when the faucet went dry. As of Wednesday morning*, I’m still without running water.

One university colleague I visited with about this said that our faculty apartments are actually privileged, and that we have “reliable” water compared to most Gondarians. In fact, he mentioned yesterday that he’d had no water for five days running at his house on the outskirts of town. Other discussions I’ve had confirmed this—that most in Gondar have it much worse than we do at the university.

Anticipating the shut-offs, Gondar residents always have plenty of water in storage. My colleague has a 200-liter container of water always filled at his house. I have about 20 two-liter bottles scattered around my apartment, and a jerry can (for flushing) that holds maybe 25 liters. During an average no-water day, I’ll use perhaps three 2-liter containers. I’ve grown adept at taking an ineffective, unsatisfying “2-liter shower.”

 My colleague said that the problem isn’t the supply of water, but instead that the water distribution system is inadequate and can’t meet the demands of a growing city. Thus, water is shut off on a rotating basis in town—sort of the aquatic equivalent of an electrical brownout. Gondar isn’t alone. According to USAID, “While Ethiopia has relatively abundant water resources, it is considered ‘water stressed’ due to rapid population growth over the last decade.”  (

While having no running water is certainly an annoyance to spoiled westerners like me, a look at water and sanitation statistics overall for Ethiopia provides a “count your blessings” moment. According to the Addis Standard newspaper, “Ethiopia has one of the lowest rates of coverage for improved water and sanitation in the world:
•  Just over 54% of households have access to an improved source of drinking water, with a higher proportion among urban households (75%) and among rural households (49%)
•  Among rural households 57 % lack  access to an improved sanitation facilities.
•  Open defecation is the norm for 46%  of Ethiopia’s population.
•  According to Joint Monitoring Program (JMP) 2012 update, the proportion of the population having access to improved and unimproved sanitation facilities stands at 54 % (21% improved and 33 % unimproved).
•  Nearly 39 million Ethiopians – most of them in rural areas--don’t have access to safe water.

•   Nearly 48 million lack access to basic sanitation.” ( )

Given these statistics, I promise to be a little less whiny this morning as I step into the bathtub armed with only a 2-liter bottle of tepid water, and as I attempt to flush the morning’s “business” down my stinky toilet. 

Since I have water, and a toilet, I consider my glass half full.

*UPDATE--It's Friday morning, and the water is still off. My hair looks like a well worn, 20-year old shag carpet. My glass is still half full, though evaporation is taking its toll. 
** BULLETIN-Water service resumed last night (Friday) about 5pm. I took a shower, and washed my hair twice, about 30 seconds after the water came on. The first thing I did, however, was flush the toilet--3 times. Today, it's a mad rush to do dishes and laundry, scrub floors, and so on. Perhaps we were better off without water...


Saturday, March 31, 2018

New Peace Journalist magazine unveiled

The April, 2018 edition of the Peace Journalist magazine is out! This edition features a special report about a semester-long peace journalism project in Ethiopia, as well as dispatches from Nigeria, India, Kenya, and elsewhere. This edition even features an article from Dr. Jake Lynch about his recent peace journalism visit to Lebanon.

You can view the magazine on Issue at:

You can also download a .pdf copy of the magazine by clicking this link.

The next edition of the magazine will be on October. Submissions will be due by Sept. 3.