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Ethiopia's effort to expand the space for freedom of press and expression

By Hana Mehari
Tigrai Onlne - May 05, 2014

Ethiopia have made significant strides in expanding the space for the constitutional right of free expression in the past two decades. The media landscape in Ethiopia has changed dramatically in the past two decades.

A country that had a few governmental media outlets is now providing diverse print and electronic outlets for its population. 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 were explicitly owned and used by the military government solely for the dissemination of communist ideology and official rhetoric. Their contents were uniform with no regional variation.

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The transformation of the media landscape 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 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. There were newspapers filled with hate speech even outright promotion of ethnic cleansing.

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, (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 entities.

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. Many were actively working to undermine the public desire for peace and the efforts of even some western embassies who half-heartedly attempted to calm the opposition.

The extent of their dangerous state of mind was best demonstrated by the fact they were not even subtle about their intention to inflame the chaos. Many invoked the Amharic saying “kaldeferese ayteram” (it will not be calm before it is stirred) on their Op-Ed columns. They stirred it well and 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.

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.

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 abuses 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 media landscape and focus on the case of an individual with scandalous media reputation.

A proper assessment of the Ethiopian media landscape should start from noting the level of diversity – in terms 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 7 television services, of which seven 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 four MW radio services and thirty-three 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-five.

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 10 more TV channels and 5 regional TV stations is completed.

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

Freedom of expression has also benefited from relevant government policies.

Public 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-centered service, under the guidance of a Supervisory Board directly appointed by the parliament.

The government’s socioeconomic policies have seen an exponential growth of in the number of households owning Television and radio receivers. The number of internet subscribers is more than 2.5 million.

The main measure of Ethiopia’s media landscape 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.

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

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