An independent journalist in Ethiopia is as stranger to a source of major news as anyone can be

Finding information about conflictive issues related to state owned companies in Ethiopia, as with a coal extraction initiative established by the country's army, is a difficult and frustrating process. Photo: SarahTz (CC BY 2.0/Flickr)

Ethiopia´s communication affairs office controls which media is entitled to be invited to state organized press events, and which media is not invited.

 
Written by Tsedale Lemma* (photograph on the right) 

On November 23/2017, a blog run by a university lecturer published a story detailing an account of unusual action taken by the administration of the Oromia regional government, the largest and the most resource rich of the nine different regional states in Ethiopia's current federal arrangement. 

The story was published on the blog after weeks of sustained protests by the local people in Ilu Ababora, around 340 kms from the capital Addis Ababa, in south-west Ethiopia. The protests rouse against what they said were unfair extractions of coal mineral by MeTEC, a business empire established by Ethiopia's army. MeTEC is engaged in several state-sponsored mega projects in Ethiopia and is building the Yayu Fertilizer Factory in Ilu Ababora.

But the construction of the factory, like many other constructions involving MeTEC, could not be completed as per its initial schedule. Instead, a single letter written by Ethiopia's Ministry of Mines in 2011 awarded MeTEC the right to extract coal mineral from the area. The locals say MeTEC has since abandoned its original plan of building the fertilizer factory. The company has instead focused on the coal mineral extraction than actually finalizing the construction of the factory, hence the protests and the decision by the regional (local) government to demand the military's explanation from MeTEC’s senior officials.

Worth a try

As journalists, my team and I wanted to pick this story so we can shed more light on both the background, including the process by which the government awarded the construction of the fertilizer factory to MeTEC, and current events as they keep unfolding. We also knew that it may prove to be hard to get the information we wanted; but it was worth a try all the same.

As expected, after acquiring the basic information that MeTEC was indeed awarded the project, we hit the wall. According to this information that we have received from the Ministry of Industry (MoI), the ministry gave the project to MeTEC in 2012 at a cost of more of US$540 million. The only other information we were able to get was that a Chinese company called China National Complete Plant Import & Export Corporation (COMPLANT) was the highest bidder for the project offering more than US$700 million. So the ministry took the less expensive bidder, MeTEC.

               

Unanswered questions

Any journalist who wishes to get to the bottom of this story will have to get answers to dozens of questions such as who else had participated in the process? What was the bidding process? Who took the final decision? Where are the pertaining documents regarding the bidding and the awarding procedures?  Was there a feasibility study submitted by MeTEC as part of the bidding process or after? Was MeTEC, which is inexperienced in the sector and is newly established itself at the time, awarded the contract based solely on the lower price it offered? But most importantly, has the coal mineral extracted so far been used for its intended purpose?

While these are basic questions a journalist who gets the chance to ask should ask, having that chance becomes a privilege if one is not working at state-owned or state-affiliated media houses. Participating in the press event where discussions like this take place depends on whether a journalist is invited by the country's communication affairs office, which controls which media is entitled to be invited and which is not. It is hard to say on what grounds this office deems a participation a given media is right or wrong.

Work languishing in our desk

Under normal circumstances, a media organization can file complaints against this sorts of information discrimination either directly to the office of the communication affairs or perhaps through an independent institute such a media council. But not in Ethiopia. Media houses attempt to establish one such an institute could not get off the ground due largely too bureaucratic impediments. And after realizing that we had too many questions, the person at the Ministry of Industry (MoI) who helped us get the basic information above rescinded his "no problem" and replaced it by "bring a letter of request" to eventually "I can't answer that."

This has left my colleagues and I waiting for answers for an interview request submitted to the public relations team of MeTEC. But after a recent unsuccessful experience in trying to do that while working on a story about a sugar scandal we know what to expect. There is no experience one can learn from this; this is the lesson of doing independent journalism in Ethiopia, where an independent journalist is as stranger to a source of major news as anyone can be. This particular story, like so many other stories, is languishing in our desk. 

 

* This article was written by Tsedale Lemma (upper-right photograph) and is part of a project "It happens overhight" funded by Fritt Ord. Tsedale is the editor and founder of Addis Standard online magazine.