Thursday, January 19, 2023

Save press freedom from the hangman!

The annual World Press Freedom Day was observed globally on May 3 under the theme “Journalism under digital siege”. Proclaimed by the UN General Assembly in 1993, it is a day of reflection among media professionals about issues of press freedom and professional ethic; it also serves as a reminder to governments of the imperative to renew their commitment to press freedom. This year’s theme underscores the multiple ways in which journalism is imperiled by surveillance and digitally-mediated attacks on journalists and the consequences of such acts on public trust in digital communications. As a media house it is incumbent on us to address the challenges facing the private press in Ethiopia and the way forward as the day is commemorated. We believe that given press freedom is an integral part of the freedom of expression and the conditions under which the local media operate, the day must be observed with the solemnity it deserves.

Article 29 of the Ethiopian constitution explicitly guarantees freedom of the press and provides that the press shall, as an institution, enjoy legal protection to ensure its operational independence and its capacity to entertain diverse opinions. This provision is a replica of Article 19 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR). Article 29 enshrines the right to hold opinions without interference as well as the right to freedom of expression without any interference including freedom to seek, receive and impart information through any media of one’s choice. It also prohibits any form of censorship and stipulates that any citizen who violates any legal limitations on the exercise of these rights may be held liable under the law.

It has been some 30 years since privately owned newspapers and magazines first hit the streets following the enactment of a law allowing the private sector to engage in journalism. Privately operated radio and television stations joined the market much later. There is no denying that the private press has made a useful contribution during these years despite the raft of hurdles it faced along the way. It still continues to tread on this bumpy road. Though there are a number of investors carrying on journalism through electronic media, the era when hundreds of press products were published has sadly gone with only a handful in circulation now. The slew of challenges facing the private press since its inception can be classified under two major categories—external and internal. Let’s deliberate on some of the major challenges.

The external challenges are mainly attributable to all levels of government. While the federal government has promulgated a new law in 2021 lifting most of the restrictions imposed by the previous legislation, in practice both federal and regional administrations continue to be loath to foster press freedom. Consequently, they have been unable to reach a shared understanding with journalists and publishers on this basic freedom, failing to take into consideration the unique needs and practical problems of private press actors. Journalists are jailed on flimsy charges and no one is held to account when they are subjected to abusive and unlawful treatment; some government officials openly label the private press as “public enemy” and flout the media’s right of access to information in a clear contravention of the constitution and the freedom of information law; and the private press is not entitled to such investment incentives as duty-free import of capital goods and tax holiday that other investors enjoy under the law. Aside from the government, other actors—political parties and activists as well as unenlightened sections of the general public—also are guilty of hobbling the unfettered exercise of freedom of expression.

We have opined on numerous occasions about the internal flaws besetting the private press. Chief among them is the lack of professionalism, resulting in a woeful failure to adhere to internationally accepted journalistic standards. Other weaknesses include the limited organizational and financial capacity of institutions which carry on press activities; the reluctance to engage in critical self-assessment; the difficulty to recruit journalists who possess the requisite attributes due to the lack of quality training in journalism; and the absence of a strong press council and professional association that could function as platforms for consultation and capacity building.

Ethiopia needs a private press which is strong, reliable and strictly upholds the professional code of ethics for journalism. The government has to acknowledge that the private media play an important role in building a democratic country and as such must abandon the flawed attitude it harbors towards them. This needs to be translated into action by ceasing the overtly discriminatory treatment they are routinely subjected to. Moreover, it must take such practical measures as giving the same incentives accorded to other. It is also incumbent upon the government to obey and enforce the provisions of the constitution guaranteeing freedom of thought and expression. On their part, politicians, political activists and other elements with an axe to grind have to desist from intimidating the private press to further their endgame and recognize that journalists are required to carry out their duties without fear or favor. So as we celebrate the World Press Freedom Day everyone committed to press freedom needs to be mindful of the exigency to eliminate the obstacles hindering the exercise of such a hallowed right. Our motto—free press, free speech, free spirit—is a call for the private press to be allowed a breathing space. Let’s save press freedom from the hangman!

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