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Defending press freedom: PM’s pressing challenge!

Defending press freedom: PM’s pressing challenge!

The World Press Freedom Day was celebrated in Ghana on May 2 under the theme Keeping Power in Check: Media, Justice and The Rule of Law’. Ghana was chosen to host the celebrations at a time it placed 23rd among 180 countries globally and first in Africa on Reporters Without Borders’ 2018 World Press Freedom Index. Published annually since 2002, the Index 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. Although Ethiopia, which stood a lowly 150th on the index, is celebrating the 25th edition of the day, its record leaves a lot to be desired. Press freedom is a fundamental right that is instrumental in providing a platform for the expression of diverse opinions, ensuring tolerance for differing views, stamping out the custom of resorting to intimidation and labeling to stifle criticism as well as fostering free speech. At this juncture certain critical issues regarding press freedom need to be addressed in view of the pledges Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed (PhD) made in the speeches he has given in different parts of the country ever since he came to power on April 2.

Beginning with his inaugural address before Parliament the Prime Minister has delivered numerous inspiring speeches that have captured the public’s attention on his whirlwind tour for the past month. The PM has underscored the importance of freedom of expression and dispelled the notion that any single person or entity knows what is good for Ethiopia and that the nation’s very survival rests on it. He also made it unequivocally clear to the ruling Ethiopian Peoples’ Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF), opposition parties and the general public that it is the electorate which should decide of  its own will whether the ideology of any political party should become the governing philosophy vis-à-vis other ideologies.  In a departure from the EPRDF playbook he further pledged that the government was committed to listen to and treat everyone equally while emphasizing the need to forge a shared understanding and vision. These and similar other issues the Prime Minister touched on in his speeches reinforce the exigency of respecting freedom of expression and of the press as enshrined under Article 29 of the constitution. And in a nod to the theme of this year’s World Press Freedom Day he said that the public must “courteously pinch his administration” when it gets out of line. It is incumbent on him to see to it that his words are suited to action. The government is duty-bound to uphold the rule of law if the media is to go beyond reminding it when it has overstepped its authority and more importantly to act as a check on power.

Prime Minister Abiy pointed out in one of his speeches that Ethiopians have a long tradition of getting their message peacefully using songs and other means without having to resort to violence. It’s such traditional means of expressing one’s view that has been curtailed as well by the government. Respecting and enforcing press freedom lays the foundation for democracy and sustains it. The sad state of press freedom in Ethiopia is one of the reasons behind the inability we see now to voice opposition in a constructive manner and to accommodate political differences democratically through dialogue, negotiation and compromise. If there is one thing that the political unrest that has been gripping the country for the past three years has taught us it is that it is stifling ideas which provokes tension and internecine conflicts, not allowing citizens to exercise their inalienable rights of thought, opinion, expression and demonstration.

The Prime Minister has consistently declared that corruption is a bane that ought to be combated resolutely. If his rhetoric is not to be an empty sermon it is of the essence that press freedom flourishes. This requires, among others, putting in place a system that enables the media to be the eyes and ears of the public so that state power is not misused to amass ill-gotten gains, government institutions are no longer dens of thieves and corrupt elements are exposed for who they truly are. The PM has announced that his administration will work towards ensuring that the security and intelligence apparatus as well as institutions of democracy are free from political bias. He also called on overseas-based media organizations run by Ethiopians to run their operations from Ethiopia. In the same vein he should demonstrate in deeds the distinction between government communications offices and the state-owned media. And the constitutional edict that any media financed by or under the control of the State shall be operated in a manner ensuring its capacity to entertain diversity in the expression of opinion must be scrupulously observed.

The primary shortcoming handicapping the regulatory agencies of the media is their blatant partisanship. They are simply incapable of displaying neutrality to any political party or ideology and are not regarded as objective arbiters both by the entities they regulate and the general public. The individuals appointed to lead them lack are not selected for their objectivity, integrity and competence. As press freedom day is celebrated it is incumbent on the PM to introduce structural changes aimed at assuring the independence of media regulators. Given that the drafting and perspective of draconian mass media proclamation along with parts of the investment, tax, customs and advertisement legislations as they relate to the media were informed by the EPRDF’s “I-know-it-all” attitude, it is imperative to revisit them critically in order to guarantee compliance with the constitution and international instruments Ethiopia is a party to. The favorable treatment of media organizations that are “loyal” to the government and the ruling party should be condemned and stopped as should the hostility to and sometimes vicious attack on those lending voice to views critical of same. The press should be able enjoy the legal protection which the constitution provides is intended to ensure its operational independence and its capacity to entertain diverse opinions. It’s only then that the media may operate in an environment where they properly play the role of informing, educating and watchdog. That is why defending press freedom is an immediate homework awaiting the Prime Minister.