Friday, June 2, 2023

Fostering an environment conducive to press freedom

The World Press Freedom Day was celebrated globally on May 3 under the theme “Shaping a Future of Rights: Freedom of expression as a driver for all other human rights”. 2023 marks thirty years since the day began to be observed following the UN General Assembly’s decision proclaiming it an international day for press freedom. May 3 serves as a reminder to governments of the imperative to respect their commitment to press freedom. It is also a day of reflection among media professionals about matters impacting press freedom and professional ethics. It represents an opportunity to celebrate the underlying tenets of press freedom, evaluate the state of press freedom throughout the world, safeguard the media from attacks on their independence, and venerate journalists who have lost their lives in the line of duty.

Although considerable progress has been made towards achieving a free press and freedom of expression around the world in the three decades after its adoption, media freedom, safety of journalists and freedom of expression are stil under attack. The theme of this year’s Day signifies that freedom of expression plays an enabling role in the enjoyment and protection of all other human rights. As such it’s of the essence that all media establishments operating in Ethiopia observe the Day mindful of the obstacles standing in the way of respect for press freedom and how to go about defending this right from the assault it is being subjected to.   

Like many other poor countries Ethiopia is beset with a raft of crises including devastating conflicts and violence; a debilitating rise in the level of poverty; deepening social inequalities; and environmental calamities. These challenges have been exacerbated by the proliferation of disinformation and misinformation online and offline, resulting in the weakening of institutions of democracy, the rule of law and human rights. The grave threats the crises pose can be addressed, among others, by attaching importance to press freedom, safety of journalists and access to information.

The right to freedom of the press is enshrined in Article 29 of the Ethiopian constitution. An almost verbatim copy of Article 19 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, it explicitly provides that the press shall, as an institution, enjoy legal protection to ensure its operational independence and its capacity to entertain diverse opinions. It also lays down 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. The article 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.

As the World Press Freedom Day is commemorated in Ethiopia it’s only natural to ruminate on the state of press freedom and freedom of expression in the country. According to the 2023 World Press Freedom Index – which evaluates the environment for journalism in 180 countries and territories on such metrics as the level of pluralism, media independence, and respect for the safety and freedom of journalists, Ethiopia’s ranking slipped 16 places from 114 in 2022 to 130 this year, reflecting a significant decline in press freedom in the nation. There are a slew of factors responsible for Ethiopia’s perennially low standing in the index. These are either internal or external in nature. Let’s discuss some of the key factors.

The external challenges are mainly attributable to the federal and regional governments. True, the mass media law promulgated in 2021 has done away with most of the draconian provisions of the previous legislation. In practice though the record of both federal and regional administrations leaves a lot to be desired when it comes to promoting press freedom. Their inability to forge a shared understanding with journalists and publishers on this basic freedom has rendered them incapable of addressing the unique needs and practical problems of private press actors.

Journalists continue to be jailed in violation of the provision of the media law which forbids the pre-trial detention of any person charged with committing an offense through the media and the constitutional prohibition against the deprivation of a person’s liberty except on such grounds and in accordance with such procedure as are established by law; some government officials openly label the private press as “public enemy” and infringe the media’s right of access to information, flouting 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, political parties, activists and sections of the general public with an axe to grind also engage in acts cramping the unfettered exercise of freedom of expression.

Much has been said about the weaknesses challenging the private press from within. Chief among them is its conspicuous failure to abide by internationally accepted journalistic standards. Other flaws include the limited organizational and financial capacity of media organizations; the reluctance to engage in critical self-assessment; and the difficulty to recruit journalists who possess the necessary attributes due to the lack of quality training in journalism. The absence of a strong press council and professional association that could double as platforms for consultation, capacity building, and advocacy also constitutes a serious shortcoming.

Freedom of expression and of the press is a basic liberty that must be accorded the solemn attention it deserves by all stakeholders. In this regard the government owes the obligation to support the private press in cognizance of the fact that it can play a pivotal role in the efforts to build a democratic nation where the fundamental rights of citizens are upheld. This requires of it to rectify the flawed attitude it displays towards the media and acknowledge that Ethiopia needs a private press that plays a pivotal role in nation-building efforts. It should also cease and desist from any and all discriminatory and unlawful treatment of the private press and see to it that it obeys and enforce the provisions of the constitution guaranteeing freedom of thought and expression. Such a responsibility lies on the shoulders of politicians, activists and the general public alike so that the press can do its job without fear or favor. On its part, the media ought to take it upon themselves to rectify the internal problems besetting them and emerge as a force that can duly play their watchdog role. As the World Press Freedom Day is celebrated, we call on all citizens to defend press freedom and give the private press the space it needs to flourish.         


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