By Enoch Sithole

Journalism students in Ethiopia will now use a homegrown journalism textbook, thanks to the work of Drs Getachew Dinku and Abdissa Zerai who recently published the country’s first journalism textbook.

Titled “Journalism in Ethiopia – The wrestle between universal ideals and cultural particulars” the textbook project was supported by the Fojo Media Institute. Fojo also financed the printing of 500 copies of the textbook which were distributed among the country’s 24 journalism schools free of charge.

Journalism education in the country is relatively new, having started in 2004. Journalism educators have used books written in Western countries, said Dr Dinku, adding that these lacked local context.

                                                                                                   Copies of the textbook being displayed during the launch event.

Although journalism has been practiced in the country for over a century, there was no journalism education in institutions of higher learning. Western academics and Ethiopians educated abroad would teach journalism in the country using textbooks and knowledge that had no Ethiopian journalism and cultural perspectives, said the two academics.

Journalism, added Dr Dinku, has certain universal norms but there are always local perspectives that are informed by local culture, political economy, etc.

“Textbooks would be prescribed by our Western colleagues. We never had a textbook written by Ethiopian faculty scholars targeting Ethiopian college students,” he said.

Dr Zerai concurred, adding that there were no trained journalists in the country until journalism education was introduced 20 years ago. Those who practiced journalism in the early days came from religious or liturgical schools. “Anyone who was able to write and read, had inclination towards writing, was essentially open to join journalism in one way or another,” said Dr Zerai.

                                                                          Drs Getachew Dinku (left) and Abdissa Zerai (right) at the launching of the book.

The selection of journalists was largely dependent on the ruling elites, said Dr Zerai adding that “media was basically the mouthpiece of the ruling elites”. 

Trained journalists, who would have received their education in Europe and America entered the profession with certificates and diplomas. Since the 1960s, university graduates in language and linguistics, literature, English, Amharic, theatrical arts, “and you name it… even in mathematics, people who graduated in physics and geography, and others who had the inclination of joining the media would actually find themselves practicing journalism”.

So, “we could essentially say that the kind of journalism that we’ve been doing is not really the normal kind of journalism” compared to other Sub-Saharan African countries that would have been under colonialism and practiced their journalism with colonial legacies, he said. 

“It was really very difficult to distinguish whether it is public relations, propaganda or journalism that was taking place until 20 years ago,” added Dr Zerai. 

The first school of journalism opened at Addis Ababa University and was named the Journalism and Communication Department. There are now 24 universities that offer journalism and communication education, over and above other professional training institutions that offer practical training in subjects such as photography, among others.

The textbook is meant for undergraduate students, but it can also be used by postgraduates. It introduces journalism and gives an overview of the history of the profession in the country. 

Issues such as the advent of digital technologies that are transforming the workings of the media, journalism ethics and other subjects, are covered in the book to enable students to understand the media environment in which they would work. The textbook also addresses the gap between the classroom and the newsroom to respond to complaints that journalism graduates are not ready for work, said Dr Dinku.

“Now, more people are able to participate in communication (as a result of the evolving digital technologies). But again, at the same time, this technological proliferation has really blurred the boundary between journalism and any other forms of communication because everybody claims to be journalists. So, we try to make an argument (in the textbook) that there are opportunities that this technology has brought to us but there are also challenges we need to take into account as we navigate through this turbulence kind of evolving media environment that we find ourselves in,” said Dr Zerai.

Dr Zerai said the book also discussed the relationship between democracy and the media, “since many sovereign African countries claim to be democratic countries and have democratic institutions. But as you can see, there is a lot of prosecution of journalists, harassment, kidnapping and killing, imprisoning them, extortion, and all sorts of things. So, we try to make an argument that democracy cannot be imagined without independent journalism. And, professional journalism cannot exist in an environment where democracy does not exist,” argued Dr Zerai.

A giant first step, indeed, and a long distance to be traveled. Journalism in the country is also beset by the challenge that journalism education is offered in a Western language, i.e. English, while graduates have to work using indigenous languages. They acknowledged this challenge but said since English was the medium of education in higher education in the country, journalism education was also offered in English.  

Drs Zerai and Dinku expressed the hope that other scholars in Ethiopia would put pen to paper to write textbooks to cover other subjects that have not been covered by their textbook.