British Foreign Secretary Jeremy Hunt announced £15.5m of UK aid money would be given to help Ethiopia run transparent, free and fair elections at the opening ceremony of the 26th celebration of World Press Freedom Day. During his speech, he also announced a new Chevening Africa Media Freedom Fellowship programme, providing opportunities to 60 African journalists from 11 different countries to gain experience with Britain’s leading media organisations.
“If successful and peaceful, the elections in May 2020 will be a major step towards building a democratic culture in Ethiopia and will lay a platform for a continuation and deepening of the inclusive reform Ethiopia has been making,” Jeremy Hunt said.
The 2019 World Press Freedom Day celebration is held in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, and organised by UNESCO and the Etiopian government. Under the new government led by Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed, Ethiopia has changed immensely and gone from being among Africa’s leading jailer of journalists in 2017 to having no journalists in jail for the first time since 2004. In addition, several reforms vital for improving human rights in the country have been carried out and thousands of political prisoners and journalists have been freed.
“Since the Prime Minister assumed office last year, Ethiopia has climbed the World Press Freedom Index faster than any other country, rising 40 places and showing just how much can be achieved when the political will exists,” Mr Hunt said.
Ethiopia ranked 110 on Reporters Without Border’s World Press Freedom Index 2019, having gone up 40 places from 2018, when the country ranked 150.
The Conservative politician has made media freedom one of the signatures of his tenure as foreign secretary and is hosting a ministerial conference on the issue in London in July, in addition to enlisting the help of human rights lawyer Amal Clooney to act as his special envoy on media freedom. Earlier this week Hunt was photographed with undercover Ghanian journalist Anas Aremeyaw, who does not show his face in public.
Highlighting the positive trends in Africa, Mr Hunt said: “In a world where 99 journalists were killed last year – and another 348 locked up by governments – some of the brightest spots are perhaps where some would least expect: right here in Africa. Gambia, for example, has climbed 30 places in the Index. Namibia has moved up again to keep its place as the country with the freest media in Africa.”
Explaining his broader thinking, Mr Hunt went on to make the case for press freedom based on the economic progress it provides. Economic progress requires innovation, which in turn needs creativity, which requires openness, he said. “That’s why half of the ten most inventive countries, as ranked by the Global Innovation Index, are also in the top 10 for media freedom.”
A free press is not a “luxury” which developing countries might “embrace when they are ready,” he said, but a free press is “quite simply the first secure basis for prosperity in a world where innovation and technological advance are the central conditions for progress.”
Mr Hunt also declared the Russian government-owned TV station RT to be a “weapon of disinformation” in his speech, which mark an escalation of a British ministerial assault on the standards of the Russian broadcaster, originally known as Russia Today, which has faced repeated investigations into its output by the media regulator Ofcom.
“Channels like RT – better known as Russia Today – want their viewers to believe that truth is relative and the facts will always fit the Kremlin’s official narrative,” he said.
The UK recently rose to 33rd on Reporters Without Borders’ World Press Freedom index, although the report’s authors warned that the country remains one of the worst-ranked western European countries “largely due to a heavy-handed approach towards the press, often in the name of national security”.