Enforcing the law lawfully
Setting philosophical arguments aside it’s generally agreed that people owe a positive obligation to obey the law. It’s also understood that law enforcement agencies and their personnel have a greater responsibility in this regard. All that is needed to abide by and enforce the law is to submit to the rule of law. Ironically individuals and groups who have an utter disdain for the rule of law have been and continue to wreak havoc in Ethiopia; they have perpetrated appalling injustices against innocent citizens that have caused the country to be shown in a bad light. If similar problems beset the effort to put an end to these inequities it means that the nation is suffering from a malaise no antidote has been found for.Regardless of their ethnicity, religion, gender, culture, profession or station in life the constitution entitles all persons to the equal protection of the law. Similarly they enjoy due process rights that act as a safeguard from arbitrary denial of life, liberty, or property by the government outside the sanction of law. It’s wrong at every level to violate the law in the name of enforcing it.
The controversial arrest and subsequent release of a journalist working at Ahadu Radio, a local FM station, has sent chills throughout the media industry. Questions have been raised about the propriety of the reporter’s detention by the Oromia Police from his work place. True journalists can and indeed have to answer for crimes they may commit. The police or public prosecutor can summon and ask journalists to give a statement where they have reason to believe that they have broken the law. Once they do so they ought to be immediately released upon executing a bond with or without surety depending on the gravity of the suspected act. But they should not be placed in custody until they appear before court. If they are found guilty after undergoing a trial they like anybody else will be subject to a sentence the court hands down. It’s due to the EPRDF-led government’s failure to respect due process that Ethiopia had turned into one giant prison for journalists. It’s incumbent on the government to do everything in its power to avert a repeat of similar incidences impeding media freedom. However much journalists may have strayed off course they should solely be judged in accordance with the law. Intimidation would be a resumption of vile past practices and only serves to suppress freedom of expression.
Ethiopia has for decades been at the forefront of countries infamous for repressing the media. Ever since the administration of Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed (PhD) came to power in April 2018 though it has made strides in shedding its ill repute climbing some 40 places to 110 in Reporters Without Borders’ 2019 World Press Freedom Index. Ethiopia further hosted for the first time the World Press Freedom Day in May thanks largely in recognition of the significant improvement it demonstrated in the treatment of journalists over the last year. This makes it all the more disappointing to squander the international goodwill built in such a short time. As we have said time and again journalism is not a license to commit crime with impunity. Nevertheless, resorting to harassment instead of legally prescribed procedures to uphold accountability is not only a disservice to the people, but also dashes the hopes of a nation with a promising future.
Over the past one year several journalists who had been languishing in jails and forced to flee overseas have rejoined their chosen trade craft. At this critical juncture, therefore, it’s imperative to facilitate conditions that allow the profession to be practiced consistent with the highest international norms and values. Given that it entails greater interaction with the general more than most other professions and is in a constant state of flux it should be borne in mind that the practitioners are prone to make mistakes from time to time. That is why there is a palpable need to support journalists to provide a balanced, factual and reliable coverage of all sides of a story as well as to serve as the voice of the voiceless. Before saying blithely,“Why can’t journalists be held to account?” it’s vital to put in place an enabling working environment. In a country teeming with public officials who are not forthcoming with information hassling journalists must be roundly condemned. On their part journalists are duty-bound to adhere to the ethics of their profession by refraining from activism and spewing inflammatory rhetoric. Obeying the law is all about carrying out one’s obligations duly.Just as rights should not be demanded without discharging corresponding duties journalists have no option but to fulfill the duties they owe in order to be deserving of press freedom. Both the government and the general public ought to bolster media houses striving to achieve this goal.
The government needs to be the first to bring the institutions under it to heel the minute they infringe the law in the name of enforcing it. In particular the onus is on law enforcement organs to have a proper grasp of the law while performing their duties. All persons held in custody or facing criminal prosecution have the right to treatments respecting their human dignity as well as to be presumed until proven guilty according to law.Employing heavy-handed tactics in arresting a suspect is a reviled practice that only exacerbates the animosity towards the government. Insofar as journalists are concerned the lawful thing to do when they make mistakes in the course of doing their jobs is to rectify same, not haul them off to jail. It has to be understood that the very nature of journalism makes it susceptible to mistakes. Journalist indicted on criminal charges on account of the content of the news or articles they write cannot have to be incarcerated in prison while their trial is pending let alone be detained by the police. The mass media proclamation says as much. If law enforcement institutions abide by this in executing their duties, the law will be observed by all stakeholders.The decades-long proliferation of acts that go against the very reason for the institutions’ existence has made life an ordeal for the vast majority of citizens, earned the government universal excoriation and forced the country to hang its head in shame. Now more than ever before when basic liberties are supposed to be honored journalists and or that matter all other citizens are entitled to a treatment respecting their due process rights. Inasmuch as upholding the rule of law is of the essence it’s obligatory to put an immediate stop to misdeeds perpetrated under the guise of enforcing it. Causing a ruckus by arresting someone who rightfully should be released on his own recognizance after giving a statement not only ruins the country’s reputation, but also disheartens compatriots toiling day and night to bring about change. The law must never be enforced unlawfully!