Although books were around for centuries in Ethiopia, they were confined to the use and possession of the clergy, and to a lesser degree, the nobility. Mass communication requires two essential elements: wide circulation and audience that has reached a critical mass. Since these books were written by hand and took years to make even a second copy, they lacked to potential to be widely circulated. Worse, since the vast majority was not literate, they lacked a mass audience, too. Therefor, despite the existence of an indigenous for thousands of years and the existence of books produced manual by scribes, we cannot say that there was print based mass communication in Ethiopia until the late 19s and early 20s centuries.
Press products were seen in the country as early as in the 1600s. These were religious books printed in the Ethiopian liturgical language of Geez and sent from Europe to Ethiopia. Most of these publications were distributed in the Northern provinces of Tigray.
According to some accounts, modern press work inside Ethiopia was started in the 1863 by Swedish Evangelist, who had set up a mission in the Northern province of Eritrea. They were concerned with printing religious newsletters and books. According to other accounts, that same year, an Italian Lazarist missionary named Lorenzo Bianceri installed a small printing in the Eritrean port city of Massawa. He published the catechism in Amharic in 1864. Then in 1879, another Lazarist missionary set up a small press in Eritrea and published a book entitled Amharic and Geez grammar. Still other accounts witness that the Swedish Evangelists set up their small printing press in the Eritrean town of Monculle in 1885.
Based on the foregoing accounts, what can be said with certainty is that press work in Ethiopia was started by European missionaries in that virtually all the products were religious books and newsletters.
Newspapers didn’t appear in Ethiopia until the mid 1880s or later. The Italians, who had set foot in Massawa in 1885 at the beginning of their colonial rule in Eritrea, set up a press to print propaganda materials, including newspapers. In deed, in 1890 after they formally set up a printing press, they began to publish a weekly propaganda newspaper in Italian called El Eritero (Eritrea). The following year, a publishing company named Corriere Eritero launched another Italian language newspaper bearing its own name.
Although these were political and thus had no religious content, they were still in a foreign language and therefore cannot be considered indigenous to Ethiopia.
In 1905 a French Franciscan missionary and dermatologist named Fr. Marie-Bernard launched a newspaper in the Eastern city of Harar. This was a twin lanaguge newspaper in Amharic and French titled Le Semeur De’Ethiopie (The sower of Ethiopia). It was predominately in French but occasionally included items in Amharic. This weekly paper was to have been published to generate funds for the Lazarist missions program to fight leprosy that was spreading the city of Harar at the time. The paper continued to be published until the outbreak of World War I.
In the 1912, the Swedish Evangelical mission in Eritrea a religious newspaper in Tigrinya entitled Melikte Selam (Herald of Peace). However, it folded three years later.
It is hard to say that all these newspapers were read by any of the ordinary people, given the massive illiteracy in the society. Most likely, it would have been the elite few within the missionary and colonial camps that read the newspapers, and perhaps summarized them for the ordinary people. It does not appear that the government recognized these newspapers or paid attention to their circulation, either.
In summary, in Ethiopia printing presses were first set up by European missionaries who produced religious materials such as books and newsletters in Amharic and other local languages. When it comes to newspapers on the other hand, it was the colonialists who introduced them. They produced them for the propaganda purposes but ironically, in their own languages. In either case, the questions of whether mass communication took place in earnest in those days remains unclear. While the press had a potential for mass circulation it is doubtful that a critical mass of the population were reading such products at the time.
Menelik’s penman Desta Mitike
Before the introduction of the modern printing press into the government system, Emperor Menelik had a penman named Desta Mitike. Each month, Journalists Desta, as he was then addressed by the public, wrote by hand articles if exaltation in Amharic about Menelik and Empress Taitu,and made carbon copies to be distributed among the nobility. A few copies of these exaltation sheets were circulated in and around the palace as of 1896 under the title YeBeir Dimts (The voice of pen). These sheets were refereed to as newspapers just because they were written on a newspaper-size sheet.
ዘርኝነትና ኢትዮጲያዊነት ለየቅል ናቸው፥ ከዘረኞች ጋር የሚሰራ ኢትዮጵያዊነትን አፍራሽ ነው፥፥
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