Africa, Headlines, Human Rights, Press Freedom

RIGHTS-ETHIOPIA: New Media Law, New Threat to Press Freedom

Najum Mushtaq

NAIROBI, Jul 8 2008 (IPS) - A new media law – six years in the making – has been passed by Ethiopia's House of People's Representatives. Its preamble declares that "the proclamation removes all obstacles that were impediments to the operation of the media in Ethiopia." But an analysis by Ethiopian journalists finds it actually clears the way for government to continue to harass and persecute the messenger when the message is not in line with the whims of the rulers.

The 'Mass Media and Freedom of Information Proclamation', which purports to update and reform the first ever Ethiopian press law of 1992, has been a source of controversy ever since its initiation in 2002.

In countless meetings with the ministry of information – which regulates Ethiopian media – local and international activists have been lobbying in vain for revisions in the draft to make it compatible with international norms and conventions on press freedom. The version adopted by parliament last week seems certain to further restrict freedom of expression and intimidate journalists.

"We have come to understand… that the proclamation is incompatible with the (Ethiopian) constitution and other international human rights laws, conventions and agreements. It is a reversal and desecration of victories achieved by the repealed press law (of 2004)," says a resolution adopted Wednesday at the end of a UN-sponsored workshop of media practitioners in Addis Ababa organised by the Horn of Africa Press Institute (HAPI).

The workshop reviewed the new legislation and called for "a reassessment of all the provisions of the law" as it imposes "substantive restrictions with heavy burden and obligations" on journalists.

One of the most disturbing aspects of the new law is that the government has appropriated the right to prosecute defamation cases against the media even if the ostensibly defamed government officials do not initiate legal proceedings. Article 43 (7) of the proclamation says that defamation and false accusation against "constitutionally mandated legislators, executives and judiciaries will be a matter of the government and prosecutable even if the person against whom they were committed chooses not to press charge."

This provision overrides the 2004 criminal law which had stated that cases of defamation would go to court only when the victims make complaints. Also, the compensation for moral damage caused by mass media has been raised from 1,000 birr to a crippling 100,000 birr – just over $10,000.

Journalists attending the workshop also pointed out that many restrictive measures had already been incorporated into other laws during the six-year debate on the media bill. For instance, the Criminal Code of the country which came into force in 2005 includes penal provisions for "participation in crimes by the mass media."

In another example, the role and duties of the Ministry of Information were redefined in 2007 to give the government arbitrary powers to use registration and licensing procedures as a punishment for dissent. It also empowers the government to stop distribution of a newspaper if the attorney general deems a news item to be a criminal act.

And in a country where most of the established newspapers as well as radio and television channels are government-owned, the new law undermines the growth of the independent private sector by placing its fate in the hands of the information ministry.

"We understand that the regulatory authority itself is involved in the media and news making and has no institutional freedom," the workshop resolution observed.

Banned journalists

The new law fits into a pattern of official persecution of journalists seen over the last three years. Soon after controversial 2005 elections, three newspapers and magazines belonging to the country's largest private publisher, Serkalem Publishing House, were closed down as part of a widespread crackdown on media that dared to criticise the handling of the poll. Serkalem Fasil and her family were imprisoned for over a year.

Ten other independent publications were also forced to shut down, leaving hundreds of journalists unemployed.

Already this year, the government has forced two more magazines out of circulation using laws against disturbance to public order. One of them, Enku, a fashion magazine, was not only confiscated but its deputy editor, Aleymayehu Mahtemwork and three colleagues spent four days in jail for covering the trial of a popular pop star whose songs angered the government. Though he was released, the case against him remains pending and his magazine is yet to be revived.

Fasil recalls the recent history of media persecution by the state and observes and explains the apathy of the international community: "Much to the utter amazement of the of the Ethiopian public, the international community shrugged and moved on, perhaps writing off the democratic cause in Ethiopia as superfluous in light of the perceived danger posed by Islamic extremists in the Horn. Every single one of those papers is still closed, and almost all journalists that worked for them are either in exile or remain unemployed to this day."

She told IPS that a few months after her acquittal she applied for new press licenses as prescribed by the press law and the constitution. "And though we were assured by the Ministry of Information that we had fulfilled all legal requirements and are entitled to the licenses by law, we were advised to pursue the issue at the prime minister's office, which had extra-judicially interceded to block the applications. Ten months later, we are still patiently waiting for the application of rule of law."

"The provisions of better laws are desirable," she says, "but they will hardly matter if they are not binding and could be abrogated at will by government officials, as has been clearly established in our case."

Signs are that the government intends to widen the scope of its assault on people’s rights. The current session of parliament is also taking up a bill to regulate non-governmental and civil society organisations. The banned journalists, it seems, will soon have more allies to share their adversity and join their struggle.

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