To commemorate the 30th World Press Freedom Day, the International Observatory of Human Rights held a webinar on 29 April to consider how media freedom stands in 2021. Participants considered the challenges during the dual pandemics of Covid and disinformation and what needs to happen next to get media freedom’s immunity boosted to build a momentum of positive change; while keeping its practitioners safe.
The webinar brought together a distinguished panel from governments, media practitioners and civil society to discuss media freedom at a global and at a local level:
- His Excellency Mr Teferi Melesse Desta, Ethiopian Ambassador to the UK
- Kanbar Hossein-Bor, UK Coordinator of the Media Freedom Campaign and deputy director for Democratic Governance- UK Foreign, Commonwealth & Development Office
- Yonatan Tesfaye, Deputy Director General of the Ethiopian Media Authority
- Fasika Tadesse, Ex Editor in Chief of Addis Fortune newspaper
- Jeremy Dear, Deputy General Secretary of the International Federation of Journalists
- Mihret Aschalew, Project manager for BBC Media Action PRIMED in Ethiopia
IOHR Director, Valerie Peay moderated the event highlighting the theme of UNESCO World Press Freedom Day.
“This year’s theme is Information as a common good and we have brought a seasoned group of speakers who are delivering the support, structure, training, investment, experience and knowledge to enable a robust media to flourish.”
Ethiopia was the focus to highlight the work at a local level and the event was in partnership with the Ethiopian Embassy in the UK, the Ethiopian Institute For Leadership (EILco) and web news service the Ethiopian Digest.
Ethiopia was the host of the 2019 World Press Freedom Day conference in recognition of the work to create a free media environment by Dr. Abiy Ahmed’s government when it came to power in 2018. Ethiopia went from one of the world’s worst jailers of journalists to freeing them all and enacting reform to establish transparent institutions to encourage an independent media and free press.
Peay posed the question to the panel on what support can be given to support countries like Ethiopia as they embark on their media freedom journey and what mechanisms are needed to face the challenges of the explosion of dis information, lack of trust in traditional media and economic stability for media owners and journalists.
IOHR participated in Addis Ababa with a panel at the World Press Freedom Day conference in 2019 with Eilco and local journalists and undertook a training event with Addis University for young media professionals. The visit resulted in a short documentary, ‘Ethiopia: A New Dawn for Press Freedom?’ and considered the progress of reform in unblocking 264 websites enabling writing freedom for journalists, bloggers and broadcasters previously considered ‘terrorists’, such as Oromia Media Network and ESAT.
In 2019, directly as a result of these reforms, Ethiopia rose 40 positions to 110th in Reporters Without Borders World Press Freedom Index and to 99 in 2020 only to slip to 101 in 2021 as the moderator noted: “as the world faced the dual pandemic of covid-19 and disinformation things changed”. This, coupled with questions surrounding upcoming elections and conflicts spreading in Tigray and other parts of the country, has resulted in the need for a strong coalition of local and international partners to ensure that recent progress is not diminished.
The UK’s Coordinator of the Media Freedom Campaign for the Foreign and Commonwealth development office (FCDO), Kanbar Hossein-Bor, started by restating the importance of media freedom, as well as what the UK is currently doing to promote global media freedom and as part of the global media freedom coalition, stating:
“From our perspective, we do see the importance of supporting media freedom through programmatic assistance. It goes without saying that without such assistance, we’ve noted across the world, that media, activists, journalists will suffer. So this is going to still be a strong area of focus for us/. Notwithstanding the fact that we have to make some difficult decisions around our ODA spend due to the very difficult financial climate we are in.”
“We do a whole host of support globally, on media freedom,” Kanbar Hossein-Bor shared that he was “very pleased to discover recently that we are one of the few countries who spends 1% of our ODA on media freedom and media development.”
“We’ve been using our G7 presidency, to commit some of the largest economies in the world to accept media freedom as a priority, but also look at increasing collaboration and information sharing on this important issue so that we can potentially look at economies of scale, about projects on the ground like PRIMED… I support projects like that. And we want our partners to also be thinking along the same lines.”
Panellist Jeremy Dear, Deputy General Secretary of the International Federation of Journalists,
correctly emphasised that:
“These last two years have shown the precariousness of media freedom globally and in Ethiopia”
The webinar also demonstrated that there is still much to be optimistic about. For example, while Deputy Director General of the Ethiopian Media Authority, Yonatan Tesfaye accepted that:
“This last year we (Ethiopia) have encountered different challenges ranging from covid, to police operations and the upcoming elections…As the media authority, we have tried to improve the working environment and push for an independent media proclamation”
And ultimately stressed that:
“We are very aware that media freedom is an important part of democratic process and this should be viewed in the context of where we are and where we are going. We were in a difficult position in the past, I was arrested and faced charges of up to 20 years in prison for my work in the media, now I am here as a regulatory authority… We want to sustain this media freedom that we are having relatively from the past and build on it.”
Yonatan Tesfaye pointed to the fact that the Ethiopian Media Authority is now completely independent of the government. The Ethiopian parliament passed liberal media freedom proclamations (such as Freedom of Mass Media and Access to Information Proclamation and the Broadcasting Service Proclamation) and increased capacity building and coordination with stakeholders to train future generations of journalists as reasons to be optimistic about the future. He also identified the importance of local radio support as an excellent way to reach more rural communities and ensure everyone had the same access to information for the common good.
An example of the training that Yonatan Tesfaye stressed as so important lies in PRIMED, a BBC Media Action initiative aimed at training journalists globally. Project Manager of PRIMED in Ethiopia, Mihret Aschalew explained how:
“We work with individual media houses to raise their editorial and ethical standards, to develop an effective and sustainable model, to strengthen their management skills so they are more resistant to legal and economic pressures. We also work with media authorities to strengthen the institutions that can improve the environment for journalists”
Kanbar Hossein-Bor, UK Coordinator of the Media Freedom Campaign UK Foreign, Commonwealth & Development Office also noted that: “This year, Ethiopia has faced some difficult challenges and threats to journalists.” but added that:
“Despite the difficult context and environment journalists and journalism are under, this is not a space where the international community can afford to take a step back. Not only is it an international public good, but through media freedom, the lives of all of us on a daily basis will be improved.”
Kanbar Hossein-Bor, was also keen to stress why press freedom is important:
“Had there been more press freedom when this pandemic started we may not be where we are today [in relation to the impact of the coronavirus globally”
Jeremy Dear, Under-Secretary-General for the International Federation of Journalists concurred, saying:
“With the pandemic and the global campaign for vaccinations, it is not too much of a stress to say that “Journalism can be a matter of life and death”, and for many it is literally.”
The panellists discussed and stressed the threat of disinformation, both in the context of coronavirus and the ongoing conflict in Tigray – ultimately agreeing that initiatives like PRIMED were crucial in building up awareness and teaching journalists the importance of fact checking.
Speakers also noted that the international media had at times been involved in the distribution of disinformation, prompting questions on the role and salience of international media outlets.
At a domestic level, Fasika Tadesse, Ex Editor in Chief of Addis Fortune newspaper, stressed the importance of professionalism, saying:
“We need to comply with the basic principles of journalism. All of the actors need to work on professionalism, the most important thing is professionalism”
Jeremy Dear noted that government internet blackouts had partially contributed to the threat of disinformation saying:
“In such an information void people often look to alternative sources and consume disinformation that can fuel conflicts [such as that in Tigray] further”
Despite Jeremy Dear highlighting how press freedom had regressed over the last few years, he ultimately upheld that:
“The answers are not harsh laws, but to ensure that the new freedoms and rights are guaranteed by law and to ensure protection of media freedom is properly institutionalised…More must be done to create a safe environment for journalists:
Firstly by increasing capacity for professionalism and ethics in journalism, and to ensure that journalist are trained and equipped to carry out their roles as watchdogs; Secondly by ensuring that journalists have decent working conditions and a fair pay and lastly, International development is required to support and build truly independent national journalists associations, not built on ethnicity, but on professional ethics and solidarity”
Jeremy Dear also highlighted the potential for IFJ’s Global Charter of Ethics for Journalists to assist in strengthening media freedom – a text “based on major texts of international law, in particular the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. It contains 16 articles plus a preamble and defines journalists’ duties and rights regarding ethics.
Bekele Woyecha, Director of Eilco and Ethiopian Digest said:
“Our world is a better place because of those who keep us informed. It’s vital that there is investment in press freedom. I’m keen to see press freedom flourish in Ethiopia. It’s time to make the Ethiopia press accountable, professional, robust and up to standard.”
His Excellency Mr Teferi Melesse Desta, Ethiopian Ambassador to the UK, used his closing remarks to celebrate the democratic transition towards press freedom in Ethiopia, while cautioning against the new challenges that such a transition might present:
“As rightly noted by the panellists, 2018 was a remarkable year for press freedom in Ethiopia as demonstrated by the Prime Minister in his inaugural speech to parliament. In his speech he underlined the critical need to respect all human and democratic rights, especially freedom of expression….However it is also important to highlight that freedoms come with responsibilities. We need to ensure that the opening up of the media does not lead to facilitating disinformation and harmful news”
Despite the setbacks of 2020 and ongoing areas of concern, there was a consensus amongst panelists that there is a genuine appetite for press freedom in Ethiopia and a willingness at the highest levels to work towards this crucial cog for a democratic country. It might be a bumpy road, but there is cause for optimism for media freedom in Ethiopia to deliver information for the common good in keeping with the theme of World Press freedom Day 2021.
You can watch the full webinar here:
EILCO – Ethiopian Institute For Leadership, Communication and Organisation provides training and consultancy in the fields of leadership, media, press and communication, public, civic and military organisation.
Ethiopian Digest – An online media outlet where current Ethiopian socio, economic and political affairs are discussed in depth.