By Mekuriya Ejegu
Tigrai Onlne November 29, 2013
The 6th African Media Leaders Forum took place early this month in Addis Ababa for the first time. The theme of the three day meeting was “Media and African Renaissance”, and the focus is on improving the continent’s reporting.
The forum was attended by more than 600 leaders of African Media professionals and executives, representatives of partner organizations and academics.
Most participants focused on deliberating on questions such as ‘Are the African media capable of transforming the continent?’ ‘Building a strong and resilient Africa – Tackling the infrastructural and institutional deficit of the continent: What role can Media play? How can Africa speak for and about itself – and create an informed, inclusive and representative continent?
Informational and insightful remarks and exchanges were made through the sessions themed “Building a strong and resilient Africa- Tackling the infrastructure and institutional deficit of the continent. What role the media can play? “Africa’s food renaissance”; and “Africa speaking for and about herself – creating an informed, inclusive and representative continent”.
Panel discussions adressed key issues such as ‘Funding and Business development’; ‘Media technology and Innovation’; ‘Ethics and Leadership’; and the ‘One Africa award 2013’ and the ‘Daily Trust: The African Year Award’. There was also a Heads of State Round table on the subject of “Reflecting on enabling a conducive media development environment in Africa: Funding, Ethics, Technological innovation and Freedom”.
However, two western organizations - IPI and WAN-IFRA, had their own separate agenda.
In fact, IPI (International Press Institute) hinted its agenda before the AMLF conference began.
A statement IPI issued from their office, before even its officers arrived in Addis Ababa, indicated its mission was to lobby "African media leaders who are gathering in Ethiopia this week to unite in defending news organisations from government interference, including the use of anti-terrorism laws to suppress independent reporting".
Even before the conference began, IPI decalred:
"The AMLF meetings will occur in the shadow of government action against news media continent-wide. In recent weeks, authorities in Sierra Leone and Tanzania invoked sedition and secrecy laws against journalists. Arbitrary arrest and detention are used to control journalists in many countries, including AMLF host Ethiopia, where four journalists are imprisoned under anti-terror laws. Criminal defamation laws remain on the books across much of Africa, and the safety of journalists also remains a leading concern."
Just on the last day of AMLF conference, IPI issued a statement under the pretext of "findings of their visit in Ethiopia" which is nothing but a repetition of the first statement.
If there was anything new, it was that they changed the number of "arrested journalists" from four to five and included arrested "opposition politicians" in the statement.
In the statement, IPI and its partner WAN-IFRA made a vague call "for the unconditional release of imprisoned Ethiopian journalists" without any reference to the legal frameworks for pardon and amnesty in the country.
The most fallacious and misleading remark in IPI's statement includes a citation of Ethiopia's constitution.
“Article 29 of Ethiopia’s constitution defends the right to free expression and exchange of information and we urge the government to make sure that it upholds these rights.
While we commend the government for its efforts in improving the lives of its people, we stand firm on the belief that a free press will not only contribute to these efforts, but are crucial for economic development and a democratic society.”
Indeed, the constitution of the Federal Democratic Republic of Ethiopia guarantees freedom of expression. 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.
However, the constitutional right “Right of Thought, Opinion and Expression” 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.”
It is based on this constitutional stipulation that the government issues legislations aimed at for freedom of expression by closing legal loopholes used to misuse and abuse the freedom of press as well as enforcing the legislations.
However, at the same time, the government moved to placing sufficient safeguards, such as, establish a legal framework exempting journalists from pre-trial detentions and to establish the right of access to information - which is "one of the continent’s most progressive freedom of information laws".
IPI's statement grossly overlooked that ensuring the rule of law is crucial for not only for economic development and a democratic society but also for the growth of free press as well.
The attempt of IPI and WAN-IFRA to use the African forum as their mouthpiece was observed by participants of the AMLF conference, as the the three major Ethiopian journalist associations underlined in a joint statement.
Ethiopian Journalists Association (EJA), Ethiopian Free Press Journalists Associations (EFPJA) and Ethiopian National Journalists Union (ENJU) noted that the conference "has given many African journalists a chance to come and see for themselves the socio-economic and political situation in the country”.
However, the joint statement of the three Ethiopian associations explicitly criticized the International Press Institute (IPI), World Association of Newspapers and News Publishers (WAN-IFRA) and Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ).
The joint statement said three western organizations' attempted:
"to hijack the African agenda and use the forum as a platform to force their views on others"
"to use the forum to “voice their deep-rooted hate for Ethiopia.”
“to use the African forum as their mouthpiece was futile".
The Ethiopian Journalists Association (EJA), Ethiopian Free Press Journalists Associations (EFPJA) and Ethiopian National Journalists Union (ENJU) emphasized that:
“No one has a better understanding than us about the state of Ethiopian journalists and press freedom in Ethiopia. But they release a statement without talking to us. Their statement neither represents us nor reflects the real situation in the country.”
“We take pride in the fact that there is no journalist in prison in Ethiopia in connection with their professional duty”.
“The media landscape in Ethiopia is not restrictive. It is up to stakeholders in the media to make the most out of it. If there are gaps that need to be addressed, it should be done so by Ethiopians.”
As the leaders of the journalists associations indicated the activities of international groups is mostly influenced by misguided notions, inaccurate information, ideological bias and at times tantamount to an intervention in internal affairs.
This is a structural problem which emanates from the legacy of dependency on westerner ideological groups and demonstrates the urgency of establishing Africa's own media network, as Prime Minister Hailemariam emphasized during the AMLF conference.
In a keynote address to the conference, the Prime Minister stressed the need to have a continental media network, run by independent professionals, which could portray Africa in a favorable light on a global scale.
PM Hailemriam said:
"Ethiopia would support such a project as we believe that the African continent has to end the legacy of dependency, including in the area of today’s most vital service – information.”
He urged African journalists and media leaders to take ownership of the idea as they had a key role in building the continent's image and changing it for the better.
“The African story needs to be accurately told in a way that reflects our challenges and aspirations, by and large coverage of unfolding media events by the hegemonic world media has continued to be negative, with the continent written off at one time as a failed continent.”
“if Africa’s success story is to be told in a way that accurately reflects our aspirations, achievements and challenges alike, Africa should consider building its own continental media network run by independent professionals “who are capable of telling it as it is.”
Prime Minister Hailemariam noted that the case of Ethiopia could be taken as an example of what was once a symbol of everything that was wrong in the continent but was now one of the fastest growing economies in world. It had achieved a transformation and ushered in a virtual renaissance. The secret behind this lies in a profound understanding of the interconnection between democracy and development in the Ethiopian context.
"The current ruling party, understanding that democracy for Ethiopia was a categorical imperative if the country was to survive and continue as a multi-ethnic, multi-religious, multi-cultural, and a united and thriving nation, opened the floodgates of democracy before the requisite, institutional mechanisms were put in place. It had also emphasized the role of media and communication strategy in building a national consensus around development, democracy and good governance."
Prime Minister Hailemariam underlined the importance of citizens having unrestricted access to information in order to make informed decision that affect their daily lives and their long-term interests.
In this regard, he said:
"Ethiopia’s policy towards the media as embodied in the Information Act 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."
It was “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."
"the Government recognized 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.
Despite all these commendable efforts, however, as the Prime Minister highlighted “there is always room for improvement and as a developing country, we are open to suggestions on improving our media industry”.