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The State of Press Freedom in Ethiopia: An Overview

By Rebca Tsegaye
Tigrai Online - July 04, 2013

In a hearing organized by the United States House Subcommittee on Africa, Global Health, Global Human Rights, and International Organizations this month, a representative of Amnesty International claimed that:

"On the whole, Ethiopian authorities vigorously stamped out all levels of dissent and criticism, whether in the form of protests, political activities, or media reports in newspapers or on the internet.

Since 2005 the human rights situation in the country has deteriorated still further, with significantly increased restrictions placed on freedom of expression, association and other rights."

However, the statement is hardly in agreement with the reality on the ground, the path traveled so far and the on-going efforts by the Ethiopian government to strengthen the state of freedom of expression in the nation.

The state of freedom of expression in Ethiopia is a two decades old phenomenon. It has changed dramatically since 1991.

A country that had a few governmental media outlets has come to provide its population a diverse print and electronic outlets.

It was only two decades ago that the country had only one television service, two radio services(one solely for educational transmission), four newspapers and two magazines.

All outlets had been explicitly owned and used by the government solely for the dissemination of communist ideology and official rhetoric. Their contents were uniform with no regional variation.

The onset of the Press Freedom began in 1991; months after the Ethiopian Peoples’ Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF) captured Addis Ababa ending the 17 years long brutal rule of the Military regime.

Freedom of Expression was affirmed in the Transition Period Charter adopted on June 1991 by the Transitional conference attended by representatives of almost all political parties, trade unions and other associations, including public figures.

Dozens of privately-owned newspapers and magazines flourished overnight. The government didn’t wish to delay the exercise of free press, even though an enabling legislation was not issued yet at the time.

A year later, the Transitional Government, which was a coalition of several parties, including OLF and Dr. Beyene Petros’s party, drafted a Press Freedom Proclamation and had it approved by the Transitional Council, which consisted about two dozen political parties.

The proclamation 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.

This 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 inteference.

(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  press 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. But they didn’t establish the press council by themselves either.

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.

There were newspapers with outrageous and destabilizing contents, therefore, suspected of being controlled by outlawed opposition parties and foreign governments.

Many of the owners of private newspapers were opposition party officials. They had no restraint from using the newspapers to create a national havoc, in the hope that the government will fall and their parties will grab power.

In the run to election 2005 and especially after the ballot, these irresponsible newspapers worked day and night to misinform and inflame the public.

The end result was a national tragedy where about two hundred people, including police officers, died and more than a million Birrs worth property was damaged.

Amnesty International and other human rights organizations, however, do not bother to review those newspapers and don’t care about these misconducts.

To the opposite, they urge for a return to those days of insanity. They spare no ink to denounce the legal actions taken to hold these publications and their owners accountable through a court of law.

As would be expected, following the high-scale of irresponsibility witnessed in 2005, the government started to set the necessary legal arrangements for the development of a constructive excercise of press freedom.

The Freedom of Press 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 closed the legal loopholes used to misuse and abuse the freedom of press and put in place sufficient safeguards.

However, as the same time, the government moved to exempt journalists from pre-trial detentions and establish a legal framework to establish the right of access to information.

Certainly, it is methodologically flawed and intellectually dishonest to overlook monumental transformation in the overall state of press freedom and focus on the case of an individual with scandalous media reputation.

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A proper assessment of the state of press freedom in Ethiopia 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.

Today, there are 6 television services, of which four transmitted by regional governments from their capitals.

The national television provides news and programmes at half a dozen local languages, while providing air time for privately-owned shows and transmissions from regions which are yet to launch their own TV.

Private-owned television stations are expected to start once Ethiopia completes the on-going technology transition from analogue to digital broadcast technology.

The growth in radio services is even more dazzling. Today, there are 3 MW radio services and 31 (thirty-one) FM radio services, almost half of which are privately owned. This is in addition to the 16 community radios.

No less importantly, about half of the radio services serve so far neglected areas and marginalized communities. The total number of the languages of transmissions has reached about fifty.

The surge in the number of languages of transmission is expected to be replicated in Television transmission in the next three years when the plan to launch about ten more TV channels and six regional TV stations is completed.

This is in addition to, several publicly-owned, private and community radio services currently in the process of licensing and launching.

The print media also has shown robust growth. The number of privately-owned newspapers and magazines currently in circulation at national level, weekly or monthly, stands around forty two.

This is excluding publications by the public media and those registered and circulated at regional level. 

Freedom of expression has also benefitted from relevant government policies.

Government-owned media outlets are re-established under a legal framework that gives them the character of a mass media.

Today, these outlets consider themselves as a public media and effort to provide a people-centred service, under the guidance of a Supervisory Board directly appointed by the parliament.

The government’s socio-economic policies have seen an exponential growth of in the number of households owning Television and radio receivers. While the number of internet subscribers stood at 2.5 million in June 2012.

In conclusion, the main measure of Ethiopia’s press freedom is its ability to serve and reflect the diverse faces, issues and opinions of dreams of the population and add value to their daily challenges and aspirations.

While that goal is far from achieved, the journey covered thus far is encouraging given the shortness of the period and the infancy of the democratic order.

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