An Ethiopian observance of World Press Freedom Day was marred Tuesday by a walkout of independent journalists after a dispute with a rival group of state-run media employees.
It was organized as a conference on critical topics of interest to Ethiopian journalists. But before the meeting began, staff members of Addis Ababa’s private newspapers were grumbling that the discussions were being hijacked.
They said representatives of private media were far outnumbered by those from Ethiopia’s numerous state-run news outlets.
The welcoming remarks included a speech from senior Communications Ministry official Shimelis Kemal, in which he blamed private newspapers for the poor condition of media-state relations in the years after the current government seized power in 1991.
"The private press was from the outset dominated by members of the former ruling party or those that shared its political perspectives. As a result, the press took on an overt adversarial political direction that set the tone and standard of journalism," Shimelis said.
Shimelis, who is a member of Parliament and government spokesman, accused the country's private media of having taken as their primary task during the early years of the current government to delegitimize the state.
"This state of affairs somehow foreclosed possibilities for a meaningful and constructive relationship between the government and the private media, depriving the public the opportunity to make informed decisions. This trend took a difficult turn, leading the public into confusion during the 2005 post-election crisis that was unfortunately exacerbated by the private press," Shimeles said.
Shimelis said that although significant improvements have been made in the quality of journalism, "there is still a lot to be desired”"
The meeting quickly deteriorated into a fierce argument between private and government media over procedural questions. It ended when many private media representatives walked out.
Conference co-organizer Argaw Ashine called the incident "embarrassing” "The problem is mistrust between the media and the government. It’s very sad because we had a lot of issues to be discussed during this event," Argaw said.
Argaw said Ethiopian governments have contributed to the atmosphere of mistrust through involvement with professional journalists’ associations.
"There are some three other associations in this country, but they are not legitimate. They are not accountable; they are not independent. It’s part of the problem of the Ethiopian press. We don’t have that much of a vibrant independent and active association in Ethiopia media history," Argaw said.
Several private Addis Ababa newspapers last month ran a coordinated front page statement, accusing the government of imposing a 45 percent price increase at state-owned printing presses to drive them out of business.
Human rights and press freedom groups regularly criticize Ethiopia’s free media record. The Committee to Protect Journalists this week listed the Horn of Africa nation among the top 10 oppressors of Internet freedom. Several websites are blocked, including VOANews.com.
Ethiopia also has a history of jamming shortwave radio broadcasts before elections and during other sensitive times. The Voice of America is the only international radio broadcaster transmitting in four languages spoken in Ethiopia - Amharic, Afan Oromo, Tigrayan and Somali.