Despite an abundance of national and international newsmakers, Addis Ababa has relatively little in the way of newspapers — no dailies of note — or even newsstands to offer news consumers. But don’t be fooled. This is a city of voracious readers where even the poor are indulged.
In fact, some corners of Addis are reserved for newspaper passions, Arat Kilo being one legendary neighbourhood. And by persisting, there you may stumble upon the city’s secret: consumers too poor to buy a copy of a newspaper but able to rent a read.
Arat Kilo is not only the home of Prime Minister Meles Zenawi’s spacious palace and the country’s Parliament building but also of flat-broke citizens with rich news-reading addictions.
“Paper landlords” offer “news seats” to readers who gather on the edge of a road, in a nearby alleyway, even inside a traffic circle. And for years, these “paper tenants” have happily hunkered down, reading a copy of a newspaper quickly and then returning it to watchful owners nearby. And even today’s deteriorating economy and “press-phobic” government has not significantly slowed this frenzied exchange.
In a country without a substantive daily Saturday is distribution day for the country’s weeklies. That also makes it the toughest day to find an empty news seat in Arat Kilo, or anywhere on the streets of Addis.
Luckily, Birhanina Selam, the nation’s oldest and largest publishing house, where 99% of newspapers get published, is in Arat Kilo. So readers there can get news hot off the press while the rest of the city gets the paper later that day.
Cliché of journalism
Major cities elsewhere in the country receive newspapers a day or two later and for readers there the cliché of journalism as the first rough draft of history seems senseless. The story is already history by the time it reaches their streets.
Unlike newspaper readers in the countryside, the poor of Arat Kilo must deal with noise. Cars blow horns hysterically. Street children shout for money in the name of God. Lottery vendors call out for customers. Taxi conductors shriek names of destinations. Yet the “renters” tune out the city’s hustle as they run up against rental deadlines. Paper landlords vigilantly act as timekeepers.
Readers dare not hold copies for more than a half hour or they will be charged more birr. One copy of a newspaper may quickly pass through a hundred readers before, late in the day, it is finally recycled as toilet tissue or bread wrap.
Now, as a rising number of unemployed people hunt for jobs through newspapers and a growing population of pensioners distract themselves with news, news seats are popular pastimes.
And this is true despite prices for newspapers doubling as a result of the rising costs of newsprint and the country’s latest round of inflation and devaluation. Addis — dubbed the political capital of Africa because it hosts the headquarters of the African Union — is not as safe a haven for journalists as it is for journalism readers. Some international patron saints of media call the current government one of the world’s most journalist-unfriendly regimes.
As more and more local journalists face threats, the number of newspapers dwindles as diminutive media houses close. Over the past few years, some two dozen journalists have fled to neighbouring countries. They’ve left behind a country hurtling towards a “no free press” zone, with few media houses willing to publish private political newspapers.
Less variety for the poor
Just last year, two journalists in Ethiopia collected two prestigious awards — the Committee to Protect Journalists’ International Press Freedom Award and the Pen American Centre’s Freedom to Write Award for their fortitude and courage working in Ethiopia as political journalists. These honours witness the way the country handles the free press.