By Yemeserach Hune
Tigrai Onlne - January 14, 2014
It is a commonplace among western organizations to place all the blames on the government regarding the state of the nation's private press. As said time and again, it is methodologically flawed and intellectually dishonest to overlook monumental transformation in the media landscape and focus on individual cases.
Indeed, a proper assessment of the Ethiopian media landscape should start from noting the level of diversity – interms of content, ownership, content and format – achieved in a short time, despite resource constraints and the abuse and misuse of the freedom by some members of the media.
Unfortunately, the discussion has been filled by hyperbolic statements made from some quarters now and then.
The recent research conducted b Ethiopian Press Agency and Ethiopia News Agency might be a step in the right direction so as to put things in broader perspective.
The media landscape in Ethiopia has changed dramatically in the past two decades. Just two decades ago there was only one television service, two radio services(one solely for educational transmission), four newspapers and two magazines. All owned and used by the government solely for the dissemination of communist ideology and official rhetoric. Their contents were uniform with no regional variation.
It was in 1991; when the Ethiopian Peoples’ Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF) captured Addis Ababa ending the 17 years long brutal rule of the Military regime, that press freedom has attained legal recognition. Through the temporary constitutional document - the Transition Period Charter adopted by representatives of almost all political parties, trade unions and other associations, including public figures in the Transitional conference.
Subsequently, hundreds of private newspapers and magazines flourished overnight. Even though an enabling legislation was not issued yet at the time, the government didn’t wish to delay the exercise of free press,
A year later, the Transitional Government adopted a Press Freedom Proclamation which abolished “censorship of any form” and provided procedures for press license. Like any responsible press legislation, the proclamation set civil and criminal penalties for incitements of war and for publications encroaching on the rights of individuals.
The legal framework for press freedom was re-affirmed in the Constitution of the Federal Democratic Republic of Ethiopia, which was adopted by the directly elected Constitutional Assembly in Nov. 1995. The Constitution declared in Article 29 “Right of Thought, Opinion and Expression”:
(1). Everyone has the right to hold opinions without interference.
(2). Everyone has the right to freedom of expression without any interference. This right shall include freedom to seek, receive and impart information and ideas of all kinds, regardless of frontiers, either orally, in writing or in print, in the form of art, or through any media of his choice.
(3). Freedom of the press and other mass media and freedom of artistic creativity is guaranteed. Freedom of the press shall specifically include the following elements: (a) Prohibition of any form of censorship. (b) Access to information of public interest.
In the subsequent ten years, the government treated the press leniently, despite the abuse and misuse of the freedom by some members of the media. Despite cries of foul play by its own officials, other members of the political elite and academicians as well as the disapproving public opinion, the government hesitated to deploy the necessary administrative and legal tools to discipline the press, hoping that the press will mature gradually.
The government even abandoned a draft legislation enabling the establishment of an officially recognized National Press Council council, (a journalists’ forum to set code of conduct and assess its implementation in the media), when the private press claimed it is an interference.
Therefore, publishing news and stories with outright fictional claims, defaming individuals and organizations continued unabated. For example: The first privately owned bottled water factory went bankrupt after the owner refused to give money to a private newspaper which threatened to publish a false allegation of contamination. As the public took published claims at face value, the enterprise couldn’t undo the damage to its brand.
As would be expected, following the scale of irresponsibility witnessed in 2005, the government started to set the necessary legal arrangements for the development of a constructive media landscape.
Press freedom is not an absolute right. As Article 29, sub-article (6) declares: “Legal limitations can be laid down in order to protect the well-being of the youth, and the honour and reputation of individuals. Any propaganda for war as well as the public expression of opinion intended to injure human dignity shall be prohibited by law.”
Therefore, the government improved the legal framework to mitigate misuse and abuse the freedom of press and also to strengthen the freedom by exempting journalists from pre-trial detentions and establishing a legal framework for the right of access to information.
That is the proclamation to provide for freedom of the Mass media and Access to Information No 590/2008 to ensure transparency and accountability in the conduct of public affairs as guaranteed by the constitution. The proclamation, particularly part three is devoted to Access to information. The objectives of access to information part of the proclamation are:
• To give effect to the right of citizens to access, receive and impart information held by public bodies, subject to justifiable limits based on overriding public and private interests;
• To established mechanisms and procedures to give effect to that right in a manner which enables persons to obtain information as quickly, inexpensively and effortlessly as is reasonably possible; and
• To encourage and promote public efficiency in the functions of public bodies and to encourage participation public empowerment, to foster a culture of transparency, accountability and promote good governance.
To the contrary, these moves have been decried by some organization as chilling and restrictive. In fact, some of them went as far as claiming that the government exercises too much legal measures on the press and there is no free newspaper or magazine in the country
However, the media trend analysis last week appears to suggest otherwise. The study was conducted by Ethiopian Press Agency and Ethiopia News Agency and released on Addis Zemen newspaper.
The objective of the study was to assess the role of these magazines in the nation's peace, democracy and development. Therefore, the study covered seven private magazines which are selected based on their distribution rate. Those are: Addis Guday magazine, Fact magazine, Lomi magazine, Konjo magazine, Jano magazine, Enqu magazine and Liya magazine.
The study analyzed the magazine's editorial and columns of all the issues of the seven magazines published from September 11, 2013 up to Nov. 11, 2013.
The study's findings were presented from six major subject matters: Constitutional issues, Economic growth, on the political system, terrorism, Meles Legacy and about government officials.
The charts below show the frequency of the issues on the seven magazines in the three months.
In conclusion, the study indicates the prevalence of partisan and negative coverage in the private press which was supposed to primarily serve and reflect the diverse faces, issues and opinions of dreams of the population and add value to their daily challenges and aspirations.
Indeed, the press is far from achieving its place as an integral component of all the important strategic goals aimed at cementing the values of free thinking, rule of law, culture of transparency and the creation of a national consensus on all that unites our society.
However, the journey covered thus far is encouraging given the shortness of the period and the infancy of the democratic order.
In this regard, Ethiopia recognizes the value and importance of popular participation, the presence of a diligent civil society, and an active and vibrant media that provides accurate, relevant and timely information to the public and promotes uninhibited public dialogue and discussion, as well as an a free flow of information that contributes to the success and fruition of its media policy. Therefore, as the Prime Minister expounded a few months ago, the policy towards the envisages nothing less than all round rapid effort to establish good governance, grass roots empowerment, decentralization of much of the authority for policy making to lower local self-administrative units and create rapid sustainable development.