By Mekonnen Teshome Tollera

Though it is crystal-clear that journalists have been challenged, working through all disastrous environment from riots to wars and from natural to human-made catastrophes, the outbreak of the Novel Coronavirus (COVID-19) has exceptionally shaken media houses and journalists in Ethiopia.

Journalists in the country are directly or indirectly affected by the viral infection that has affected around 120,000 people in Ethiopia.

Coupled with other difficulties including other health hazards, lack of medical insurance, absence of press freedom, misinformation/fake-news and misconceptions about the pandemic itself, lack of training and even getting infected by the virus, journalists face multiple challenges of safety and security as well as lack of protection.

The Ethiopian Health Ministry has identified journalists as one of the COVID-19 high-risk groups.

“Of course, everybody in all age groups can be exposed to the Novel Corona virus, however, some particular groups like medical personnel and journalists are categorized as professionals who need special attention by our Ministry,” Ethiopian Health Ministry Communication Director, Dr. Tegene Regassa said.

“Therefore, we have made some attempts to raise the awareness of journalists on issues related to the pandemic; however, I don’t think we have assisted them adequately and we need to do more to protect the high-risk groups including journalists and our medical doctors,” the Communication director indicated.

Seleshi Dabi, Department Head of the Ethiopian Broadcasting Corporation (EBC), the National Broadcaster, English News Desk, agrees that journalists are facing various challenges and are not protected in Ethiopia.

He says: “Journalists, as part of the community,  are being protective of themselves, they are trying to protect themselves but the protection of journalists as such is not institutionalized when it comes to our context in Ethiopia.”

According to Seleshi, journalists of the Ethiopian Broadcasting Corporation (EBC) go to hospitals and quarantine centers of isolation to report on COVID-19 with no protection and some have been infected.

Though it is evident that journalists are being infected, it is difficult to get the exact number of the COVID-19 infected media personnel as there is no centralized information for the pandemic, the media managers noted.

He also says packaging and interpreting information on COVID-19 is another challenge of journalists. The Ministry of health and government health care institutions requires journalists to follow strict procedures to access COVID-19 information sometimes filing of formal bureaucratic requests.

Daniel Tsehay, Senior Editor of Children and Youth Program at EBC, is one the COVID-19 survivors who were infected by the virus and now back to work. He said that since Ethiopia had its first case in mid-March, journalists, including him, had to report about COVID-19 for EBC regularly.

Daniel says that he has no idea as to how and where he contracted the virus but he believes that his media house did nothing to protect them and even it started distributing some face-masks and sanitizers to the journalists very late.

He indicated that his media house, EBC, even now needs to take serious measures to safeguard the safety and security of its journalists through the provision of enough personal protection materials and enhancement of their awareness setting aside resources for this purpose.

Mengistu Gebre, an Editor at EBC, is another COVID-19 survivor journalist of the media house and who believes that they were exposed to the pandemic due to the poor protection efforts of the corporation.

“I have been using taxi to come to office, of course you try to wear your face-mask but the possibility of  contamination has been so high in the public transportation and EBC should have facilitated safer transportation means and properly disinfect all materials and equipment that we use communally,” Mengistu said.

According to Mengistu, there was lack of vigilance on the part of his institution, EBC, not only in the late provision of face-masks, sanitizers and the like but also in organizing awareness trainings for its journalists.

He also suggested that the identification of risk groups of the society and professionals including journalists should be done in a very coordinated manner at all institutional and country level to take the necessary protective measures during such pandemics for the time to come.

Studies indicate that the prevalent hate speech, deteriorating press freedom and ethnic divisions in Ethiopia is also impacting the free movement and protection of journalists.

A recent media research report “The Ethnification of the Ethiopian Media”, by Terje Skjerdal (Associate Professor at the Oslo University) and Mulatu Alemayehu Moges (Assistant Professor at the Addis Ababa University), affirms “Many – if not most – journalists and editors view hate speech as growing and a major problem for the Ethiopian media.”

Ethnic-oriented conflicts and the repeated blockage of the internet are said to be the major factors that negatively impact the media environment in Ethiopia.

Freedom House, the US-based research and advocacy group on democracy, political freedom, and human rights, in its 2020 global report stated:  “A major reorganization of the ruling party, growing conflict between ethnic communities, and new claims for self-determination have created a fluid political situation as the country prepares for elections in 2020.”

The frequent interruption of the internet services by the state-owned telecom company, the Ethiopian telecommunications, Ethio Telecom, which controls the sector in monopoly, has been a major challenge for communication and information sourcing for the media in the country.

Freedom House in its report states this: “Social media and communications platforms such as Facebook, Twitter, and WhatsApp have also been blocked intermittently.”

Yodit Admasu , Editor-in-chief and supervisor of the Afri Health Television based in Addis Ababa, also believes that journalists in Ethiopia are now facing challenges of health risks due to COVID-19 pandemic and lack of press freedom.

For Yodit, what is a worrisome and very serious concern is the absence of active media rights advocate group working on the protection of journalists in the country.

She said that the media reports are closely monitored and it is very challenging to do sensitive stories like serious environmental pollutions related to chemicals or embezzlements.

“Freedom of expression is a challenge, in my opinion, I myself have been censured [by editors and media owners] when it come to reporting issues of public concern,” Yodit said.

This year’s report of the Reporters Without Borders (RSF), a non-governmental organization based in Paris, corroborates this reality, highlighting the country’s 99th rank among 180 countries from 11th up on the 2020 World Press Freedom Index. The country was 110 in 2019 world press freedom ranking. This year, the country achieved a score of 32.82, which was 35.11 in 2019.

According to Yodit, there are other outstanding matters of concern in the Ethiopian media landscape like the lack of medical insurance and  attention to women journalists as well as mainstreaming the issue of gender.

“As a woman and a mother myself, what I find challenging is I have to be active as a journalist and again I have to go back home and make sure that my son is safe from the pandemic. Thankfully he is back to school now,” she said.

The impact of COVID-19 on the Ethiopian media resulted not only in risking the health and the safety of journalists but also in the closure of media houses like the JTV and LTV. The multiple challenges of the media sector in Ethiopia are supposed to be addressed in a systemic and institutionalized manner.