Thursday, November 3, 2011

Land-grabbing vs Ethiopian Journalists - Conspiracy of Silence or Conflict of Interests?

''Instead of asking per Diem, journalists have been bargaining with urban mayors to grab plots of land. Some of the journalists have grabbed massive plots of lands in different towns. Some of them gained not one or two plots of land; they grabbed eight to nine plots.” (ERTA reporter, personal communication, 14 July 2010). (Birhanu Olana, 482, 2010)*

This is an excerpt that I read on Facebook group (which I created for Ex-ETV journalists)  from a recently published research findings about new corrupt trends of Ethiopian journalists especially those who work for the government media. I'm still in shock and in disbelief (who wouldn't unless s/he is involved in such practices) that  was actually an account  from an Ethiopian TV (where I served myself as reporter/producer from 2000-2004) reporter. One plot of land, usually 200m2, would sell for 60,000 birr (about USD 5,000) on average. This means that a journalist who has grabbed nine plots of land could sell them for 540,000 birr (about USD 45,000) (Birhanu O., 482, 2010) which is unprecedented  fortune for any ordinary Ethiopian journalist.
Even though the findings revealed the wide-spread of corruption practices among Ethiopian journalists of both private and government owned media institutions, according to the researchers- an ex ETV employee, Birhanu Olana (who's doing his PhD at University of Sydney, Australia) and his reviewer Terje S. Skjerdal (a Norwegian media researcher)- those who work for the government media were/are not only involved in land-grabbing practices but also use systematic methods to cover it up. Another research which was conducted
by Birhanu Lodamo  - ex employee of Ethiopian Television ETV as well - & Terje S. Skjerdal revealed about the existence of widespread corruption practices among Ethiopian journalists working for the government press.**
If one watches ETV or read other government owned/affiliated media outlets, he/she would be under the impression that Ethiopians are living in Utopian world- bumper harvest; ordinary farmers turn out millionaires ;  double digit economic growth ;  peace & stability ;  the prevalence of the rule of law ;  freedom of expression ;  etc in the mean time they're trying to paint how situations are getting from bad to worse in some African countries especially arch-foe enemy Eritrea. Any critical reportage or whatsoever is non-existent in the Ethiopian government media about the miseries of those Ethiopians whose lands were given away to local and international investors. 
After a while an idea crossed my mind to find out if this unethical practices might have a connection (direct or indirect) as to why Ethiopian journalists gave/are giving Luke-warm or no coverage at all to the land-grabbing practices which have been such controversial issue worldwide. Birhanu Olana's study revealed that the petty bribery exercised by Ethiopian journalists grown at massive scale and diffused tremendously over the past few years and might eventually put in big question mark one of the pillars of the profession-credibility. According to these latest  findings which were released at the beginning of 2011, bribery, including gifts of plots of land as well as money, are widespread among Ethiopian journalists and is spreading to supervisors and assignment editors, including those in the upper leadership.  Here's another personal account of ETV's reporter who recently indulged into land-grabbing practices after seeing her fellow corrupt colleague's drastic life improvement

''I was surprised that many of my friends whom I used to lend money to so that they could get by until payday suddenly had transformed their lifestyle. I started to inquire about the sources of this incredible increase in income. Then, though somewhat late on the scene, I also learned how to grab valuable urban plots of land.'' (ERTA reporter, personal communication, 24 July 2010) (Birhanu Olana, 488: 2010)

The respondents admitted about extreme prevalence of corruption in Ethiopian journalism and expressed their worries about its scale, the increasingly sophisticated methods of covering up corruption, and its negative impacts on ethical journalistic professionalism in the country. One of Birhanu's respondent said a former ETV (Ethiopian Television) manager who apparently tried to disrupt an investigative program that dealt with the issue of land-selling corruption in the Sululta woreda (a local administrative unit), 10 km to the north of Addis Ababa, after receiving highly priced land from alleged local mayors. ETV’s investigative program which was sent to examine the case was told to halt in the midst of the investigation by then manager of ETV, even though some of the journalists, including the immediate boss of the investigative reporters persisted to maintain the investigation; instead they were told that the tipsters of the story were organized OLF members (Oromo Liberation Front, an influential rebel organization that has been labelled as terrorist by the Ethiopian government), and ETV would not pursue stories based on information provided by OLF. Some insiders of ETV said the manager harassed the crew members and assigned another crew to produce the success story that narrated and promoted the “extra-ordinary” development achievements of the administrators (personal communication, 14 July 2010). (Birhanu Olana, pp. 283-84: 2010)
The researcher interviewed 15 individuals who were working as reporters, editors, chief editors and media managers from state owned media organizations namely Ethiopian Radio & Television Agency (ERTA), Oromia Radio and Television Organization (ORTVO), The Ethiopian Herald, Sheger FM102.1 as well as from private media such as The Reporter and Awramba Times last year between July-August. Overall, the study revealed that bribery is threatening the development of more open, competitive and democratic professional journalism in Ethiopia. I was awestruck when I read Birhanu's findings about the gravity and scale of corruption practices among Ethiopian journalists whom everybody thought are supposed to play the watch dog's role in the country. What surprises me more is that how the bribery which is best known by many Ethiopian journalists as ቡጬ Buche (its literal meaning in Amharic is snatching) amounting from 50 to a few thousands Birrs (1USD=16.683 Birr) back then in 2004 has evolved in to something bigger like land-grabbing since 2005. Anyone who read the above testimonies can't help but to think that the indifference and sometimes defensive approaches of Ethiopian media towards land-grabbing issue by local international companies has something to do with the involvement of media professionals in this very lucrative business scheme.
These past few years due to the increased food price world-wide: private & govt owned businesses from Asia, middle-eastern countries as well as western universities and the hedge funds are aggressively scrambling for fertile lands of Latin America, Africa including Ethiopia. The irony is that this 21st century treaty The Scramble for Africa was held in its supposedly capital - Addis Ababa, Ethiopia in 2009 with blessings of the country's Premier Meles Zenawi and masterminded by Ethiopian-bornSaudi tycoon Sheik Mohammed Al-Amoudi under the auspices ofSaudi-Arabian government. This international phenomenon is widely covered/criticized by the mainstream media such as The Guardian, CNN, Al-jazeera, BBC etc whereas their Ethiopian counterparts treated this worrisome trend either sporadically with lukewarm approach (capital, ethiopianreporter) or defended outright (a case in point Ethiopian state media ) claiming as a means to bring the much needed hard-currency, knowledge transfer of modern agricultural technologies, help the country to be food self-sufficient, etc.
Interestingly, it is the foreign media outlets including from India which are exposing about the dangers and negative impacts of such kinds of land give-away practices on Ethiopian small-scale farmers whereas the Ethiopian government's TV channel during its debate about this issue, invited general manager/editor-in-chief of one of Ethiopia's business weeklies and the CEO of an international investment consultants based in the capital to support government's claims of the enormous benefits of leasing Ethiopian arable lands which almost equals the double size of England. The CEO even went further to say that this is a once in life time opportunity which Ethiopia shouldn't miss arguing that these countries investing may either lose their interest or wouldn't have the amount of money they're spending in the future. These two elites are one of the few ETV's favorite household name pundits who often time being guest speakers to present their expertise on matters such as government's recent failed price caps, inflation, Ethiopia's macro-economic policies and its double digit growth etc. Slavery and the 19th century scramble for Africa was not perpetuated by Europeans alone; it was rather facilitated by local tribal chiefs well here we go history is repeating itself.
Proponents of land-grabbing are not only toxic Ethiopian-diaspora & Western cultural hippies as the government & its media try to portray but also people like Jacque Diouf - Director General of the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization, other experts in the field and advocates of indigenous people's rights groups who expressed their grave concerns on recently released documentary film entitled called Planet for Sale- about the negative consequences of the land-grabbing practices which would have short and long term adverse effects on the natives, their land as well as the Eco-system of these countries. What's even more worrisome is according to some insiders is  the two pages contract deal signed behind the scene between Ethiopian officials and the investors, is favoring the the developers as opposed to be more than 40pages with detailed legal binding documents to both parties. This clearly shows the leasers lack of transparency which eventually is open for corruption, mismanagement and unaccountability. Some even alleged another form neo-colonization with consent brought in by the ruling party EPRDF and Ethiopian business and academic elites leasing the fertile land and reserved game areas at a dirt-price (current rental charge for this land is about $10 or 6£ per hectare per year for up to 99 years) which is displacing hundreds of thousands of sedentary farmers and pastoralists from their native land where they lived for centuries. Opponents of this new trend say the large scale agri-mechanization by these farming giants is destroying the Eco-system due to the usage of fertilizers and pesticides; massive deforestation of the protected forests which are the source of ecological balance and investors' unlimited access to rivers and water resources which are at the moment dwindling. Residents of these areas alleged that they neither are paid what they were promised by those people who took their lands nor see the infrastructures such as schools, clinics, roads which they were told would be available at the places where they were relocated by their local and federal governments who cut the deals on their behalves. Some of those who protested against this unlawful land leasing fear for their lives and felt betrayed by their local and regional representatives. Last month, owners of Karutri PLC announced their plan to employee thousands of Indian farmers on the land they leased from Ethiopia as opposed to government's repeated claim/justification leasing the land so that Karutri et al are allegedly to employ the locals.
One may wonder why this modern day colonization which is destroying the livelihoods of millions of Ethiopians is not in the limelight anymore or understated. It might be overshadowed by horn of Africa's worst drought in 60 years, the Arab uprising, etc. Nevertheless, this can't be an excuse for the Ethiopian media which has enormous stake at such issue for not having gone to the alleged wide spread land grabbed areas and did some investigative stories but instead either what they have done was/is a haphazard copy-paste reportage from international media or defended/advocated their government's actions. If one reads Birhanu Olana's recent research finding, s/he may forced to connect the latter trend with the alleged involvement (direct or indirect) of Ethiopian journalists, media managers, editors etc of both media groups in the urban land-grabbing schemes in Ethiopia. So, one shouldn't be surprised if this very critical matter which woes international outcry got less coverage from the Ethiopians.

*   The growing influence of bribery in Ethiopian Journalism
     By Birhanu Olana Dirbaba
     African Communication Research
     African Communication Research, Vol. 3, No. 3 (2010)
** Berhanu Lodamo and Terje S. Skjerdal
     Ecquid Novi: African Journalism Studies Volume 30 (2) 2009; ISSN: 0256-0054; 
     E-ISSN 1942-0073
     © 2009 by the Board of Regents of the University of Wisconsin System

No comments:

Post a Comment