Struggle for Discourse Hegemony: the Poetics and Politics of Ethiopian Religious Media

Seminar date: 
23 June 2009
Speaker(s): Berhanu Gebeyehu (PhD student)

Ethiopia is a land of religious diversity Ethiopian Orthodox Christianity and Sunni Islam together claim about 80%, while the fast-growing Evangelical and
Pentecostal groups constitute an estimated 17 percent of the population. Roman Catholics, Jehovah's Witnesses, Seventh Day Adventists, Jews and other practitioners of indigenous religions make up the rest.

Although the past few decades witnessed a slight increase in intra- and inter-religious conflicts and struggles for discourse hegemony, the generally amicable relationship among religious groups in society continued to uphold religious pluralism. Leaders and activists of both the long established and the newcomer religious groups, depending on the circumstances they found themselves in, use the new media formats either for perpetuating the status quo or for intensifying and expanding their communities and gaining public recognition.

The Ethiopian Constitution grants freedom of religious worship and speech, with some restrictions pertaining forming political parties on religious bases and owning private religious radio and TV. Thus, although some foreign based religious radios have been broadcasting in several Ethiopian languages the interdiction on religious radio and TV has been maintained by successive regimes since 1974. Religious newspapers and magazines of large-scale circulation were neither known until the early 1990s. From the 1970s up to now, however, religious communities and activists have been making use of C-60 audiocassettes to disseminate their messages in different presentation strategies such as lectures and songs. Traditionally, these media outlets were introvert in their perspective and did not involve polemical attacks against the religious Other. Produced by semi-professional individuals at home in a small number of copies, these media outlets were rarely commercially available.

Following the post Cold-War period processes of political liberalization, the global ICT revolution and trends in discourse globalization, more vibrant religious media emerged in Ethiopia since the early 1990s. Consequently, the social production and consumption of religious media has been transformed in terms of technology, intent and content, method and style of presentation, as well as variety and volume.

Salient characteristics of the post-1990s Ethiopian religious media include: (1) emergence of widely read reformist periodicals; (2) proliferation of sponsored religious singers, publishers and distributors operating under the camouflage of private press licenses; (3) extensive use of audiocassettes, CD-ROMs, videos as well as the Web and the Internet as media for presentation of song performances, lectures, and drama]; (4) appropriation and adaptation of foreign-made video dramas in local languages; (5) contextualization and hybridization of global religious discourses to poeticize and politicize accommodative/exclusivist identities; and, (6) increasing hate speech and misrepresentation and defamation of the religious Other.

By framing the issues within the broader context of the complex inter-confessional tensions characterizing Sub-Saharan Africa in general and Northeast Africa in particular, I will discuss the role the new media play in mediating peace and/or conflict, and in the increasing processes of identity change in Ethiopia.

The issues discussed in my talk result from an ongoing collaborative research effort by Jon Abbink and me, on the state and development of the post-1991 religious media industry in Ethiopia.