Wednesday, June 19, 2024

Enabling the private media to thrive

Guaranteeing the free flow of diverse ideas is a solemn obligation that must always be discharged conscientiously if the aspirations of the people of Ethiopia to lead a life of peace and freedom. Allowing the free expression of diverse views is essential to creating a free and democratic society. Democracy can truly be a marketplace of ideas as long as the citizenry are able to fully exercise such basic liberties as freedom of thought and expression. Unfortunately, democracy has remained an elusive ideal for Ethiopians to the present day. It’s customary to belittle or quash someone who holds an opposing view. The country’s history is replete with examples illustrating how much the suppression of invaluable ideas to entrench the hegemony of a certain group has taken it backward.

A cursory examination of the developments that unfolded following the controversial 2005 general elections suffices to demonstrate the point we are trying to make. The enactment of the draconian press, civil society and anti-terrorism proclamations has resulted in the abridgement of fundamental rights enshrined in the constitution despite, undercutting the protestations to the contrary of the then ruling party led by Ethiopian Peoples’ Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF). The private press was dealt a fatal blow after the controversial mass media proclamation law came into effect, rendering ordinary citizens voiceless and curtailing freedom of expression and wiping out the vast majority of independent newspapers and magazines offering information on a range of topics which the state-owned media traditionally avoided. Consequently, views that did not toe the official line had virtually no chance of seeing the light of day.

The private media in Ethiopia continues to face a slew of challenges that impede its ability to operate independently, freely, and effectively. Despite the modicum of progress witnessed early into the tenure of Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed (PhD) after he came to power in April 2018, including the freeing of numerous journalists from jail, the media landscape in Ethiopia continues to be marked by restrictions on freedom of expression, limited access to information, and political interference. Although the enactment of the new mass media law in 2021, which institutes a more liberal and protective legal framework for journalists compared to its predecessor, gave rise to hopes of a new era for the private media in the country, it has been routinely flouted and has not prevented the unwarranted incarceration of journalists. The vague provisions of the 2020 anti-terrorism and hate speech legislations that carry heavy prison sentences, coupled with the imposition of successive states of emergency since late 2020, have further create an environment that lends itself to circumventing the protections afforded to outspoken journalists.

Ethiopia’s lowly ranking on the 2024 edition of the Reporters Without Borders’ 2024 World Press Freedom Index bears out the troubling backdrop under which the private media operate. The index, which measures the level of media freedom in 180 countries, including the level of pluralism, media independence, and respect for the safety and freedom of journalists, ranked the nation 141st, sliding 11 places from the 130th spot it occupied in 2023. There are several factors accounting for this sad state of affairs. The gravest of the challenges staring the private media are largely extrinsic to them and are laid at the door of the government. Government interference in the private media sector, usually in the form  of arbitrary arrests of journalists, censorship of content, and harassment of media outlets critical of it, is still rampant. This interference has undermined the independence and credibility of private media organizations and created a climate of fear and self-censorship among journalists. Moreover, the government’s control over official information sources and lack of transparency in public institutions has made it difficult for them to have access to reliable information, hindering their ability to report accurately and hold those in power accountable.

The failings of the private media in Ethiopia are not attributable to external actors alone, however. There is a combination of internal challenges at play as well.  Key among them is the lack of professionalism and the resulting failure to adhere to internationally accepted journalistic standards. Other weaknesses include the limited organizational and financial capacity of private media entities as well as the difficulty to recruit journalists who possess the requisite attributes due to the lack of quality training in journalism. The absence of a strong press council and professional association that serve as platforms for consultation and capacity building is also another area where they have been found wanting.  

Addressing the challenges facing private media in Ethiopia requires comprehensive effort to promote media freedom, protect journalists’ rights, and ensure the sustainability and independence of the sector. This calls for, inter alia, undertaking legislative reforms aimed at eliminating legal hurdles impeding the unfettered exercise of press freedom, fostering media pluralism, and investing in training and capacity-building. The unreserved implementation of these measures will go a long way toward creating an enabling environment for the private media to thrive, serve the public interest, and contribute to a more informed, democratic, and inclusive society for all Ethiopians.

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