Tuesday, July 27

Press Freedom under threat

Article 19 is the name of the Global Campaign for Free Expression. It is
"named after Article 19 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, we work worldwide to combat censorship by promoting freedom of expression and access to official information."
From allAfrica.com
The report makes several recommendations for improving press freedom in the country, including scrapping a draft press law that would give the government greater control over journalists and private media outlets. IPI says there needs to be a "complete transformation" of the way the government views the media if the country is to develop as a democracy.

ARTICLE 19 says the draft press law contains provisions that fail to meet international standards on free expression. In a legal analysis, the organisation says the proposed law would allow authorities to decide who can practice journalism and it carries harsh penalties, including jail terms of up to five years, for those who violate the law. The law also would allow for the creation of a state-controlled Press Council that would have the power to establish and enforce a code of ethics.
The International Press Institute has the full report here. Below are some excerpts

Instead of making ministers, civil servants or spokespersons available to the media, or holding inclusive press conferences, the government has often chosen to remain silent or been deliberately unhelpful in providing much needed information.

This has often prevented journalists from fully reporting on issues and created tensions. As a result, the relationship between the two sides can at best be described as lacking in trust.

If some junior members of government – working in conjunction with police officers and the courts – believe that it is possible to achieve promotion through the punishment of journalists, senior ministers need to work harder at disabusing them of this belief. The question arises whether the ministers would like to stop this practice. The punitive provision in the DPL (Draft Press Law) would appear to suggest otherwise.

Often such journalists face imprisonment for outdated charges stemming from many years ago. Although IPI does not agree with the imprisonment of journalists, the failure to administer justice swiftly has greatly increased the pressures on the media profession. This is because it creates uncertainty and fear over charges that have yet to be administered by the courts.

The private media also appear to be paying the price for the absence of a genuine parliamentary opposition in Ethiopia. While there are opponents of the present government in parliament, much of the power resides in the council of ministers.

this has led to the widespread perception in the government that the media represent the genuine opposition and are, therefore, to be treated accordingly. For this reason the private media are under constant pressure from government ministers who accuse them of exhibiting bias. These pressures could be alleviated if a genuine opposition were allowed to form, thus freeing the private media from its perceived position of opposition to the government.

A final consideration, this time for the government, is the impact of the Draft Press Law (DPL)-- likely to be passed in late 2004 -- on training. IPI believes that the introduction of the law will increase the number of journalists prosecuted for their writing, due to the introduction of a raft of unnecessary bureaucratic rules, and, as such, will hinder future training programmes. For this reason, the government needs to reflect on whether its intention is to punish journalists or to improve the standards of journalism.

In summation, the DPL is an expression of the government’s view that the private media cannot be trusted to regulate itself and that they represent a danger to the stability of the country. State journalists – who are likely to be shielded from the DPL’s impact – and ministers, expressed this opinion on a number of occasions. In numerous meetings officials raised the spectre of Rwanda while expressing the view that Ethiopia could face the same problems, namely, a private media inciting hatred and fomenting genocide.

IPI believes that the government’s use of the Rwandan genocide to justify the DPL and, therefore, maintain control of the media is not an appropriate comparison and is unnecessary. Indeed, in all probability, it has been utilised to mask the real reason, which is to maintain the present status quo in the country. It has been often said that he who controls the messenger controls the message and nowhere is this truer than in Ethiopia.

IPI is convinced that the Ethiopian government stands at an important crossroads in its relationship with the media. Down one road lies the opportunity, through the press law, to exert greater control over journalists, the private media and, indeed, what is said and thought in the country; while, down the other road, lies an opportunity to form a relationship with the media that not only encourages and supports freedom of expression but also enhances the work of the present government in so many other areas of democracy in Ethiopia. The present challenge for the government is deciding which path to choose.

<< Home