The main celebration of World Press Freedom Day 2019 will take place in Ethiopia the 3rd of May. This is one of the biggest surprises for one who knows Ethiopia’s record in freedom of the press. What has motivated UNESCO to host the celebration in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia?
Dead Ends of the Old Era
According to the annual prison census of the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ), in 2016, Ethiopia had 16 journalists and bloggers behind bar for their work. At this time, the country had become the fifth top jailer of journalists in the world. Ethiopian journalists lived in fear and repression. Self-censorship used to be everyday experience.
In 2016, social media was blocked from being accessed in most part of Ethiopia. Watching diaspora based satellite televisions such as ESAT and OMN was prohibited by the State of Emergency declared to stop nation-wide waves of protests in the country.
Ethiopia’s repression of the media became rampant after the contested national election of 2005 ended in a crisis.
In post-election 2005, Ethiopia has banned 74 media outlets and the chilling effect silenced many more. Journalists fled the country and used the internet and satellite televisions to advocate for regime change in what they called “journalism for activism”.
On the other hand, the state-owned media in the country used “developmental journalism” to propagate government’s positive achievements. The government further used anti-terrorism laws and the criminal code to repress the media and free expression.
The ruling party, even though it would later face the consequences, won all the seats of regional and federal parliaments in 2015. The election was won by a landslide victory in an election that was conducted months after nine bloggers and journalists were jailed. More than thirty journalists and bloggers fled into self-exile in fear of prosecution and six media outlets were banned. A few months later, waves of protests erupted in the most populated regional State of Oromia. In a domino effect, the protests were joined by the second and third most populated regions of Amhara and Southern Nations, respectively.
In an attempt to stop these public protests, the government used force to further crackdown the media, block social media and news websites in addition to declaring State of Emergency twice. However, the continued pressure from protestors forced the ruling party to decide undergoing what it called “deep reform” for which the leadership was changed. Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed (Ph.D.) was assigned as a leader of the ‘deep reform’. In his acceptance speech on the 2nd of April 2018, the Prime Minister said, “we need to respect all human and democratic rights, especially of those freedom of expression, assembly and organization, by upholding the constitution that emerged from this understanding of freedom.”
The Beginning of a New Era
Nothing portrays the new era as CPJ’s annual prison census report published in December 2018. CPJ reported:
“For the first time since 2004, no journalists were in jail for their work in Ethiopia”.
In February and April 2018, all journalists and bloggers who were in jail, including Eskinder Nega and Woubshet Taye who were serving prison terms of 18 and 14 years respectively, were released after serving six and seven years each. In June, the chief of staff for the Prime Minister announced the unblocking of 264 websites. In addition, ESAT and OMN televisions were allowed to enter and open branches in Ethiopia.
The most important promise of the government made in pursuit of media reform is, however, revision of repressive laws that affect the media space. An Advisory Council to Reform Legal and Justice System was established in July 2018. The Council has formed working groups which involved stakeholders to revise the laws that directly or indirectly affected media freedom. Since then, even though the laws are not yet amended, the free press is flourishing. Two dozen of media organizations are licensed to operate as members of free press. Four newspapers and ten magazines have already joined the market in weekly circulations.
Eskinder Nega who talked to the Voice of America when he was released from prison was quoted saying, “without freedom of expression, freedom is just impossible. It starts from there. You have to be able to express yourself.” Eskinder has now started publishing a weekly newspaper called ‘Ethiopis’.
Unsought Challenges for the Media
As soon as the political constraints are removed from the civic space in Ethiopia, people started to speak with out fear of prosecution. However, new challenges are also emerging to the concern of many people. The free press has been observed “unethical and unprofessional” by many. Even though one can associate this with explosion of silenced public questions where there is no decent media culture, many are worried this might create violent conflict and political turmoil among different groups. The Prime Minister has also said to the parliament in February this year that:
“There are no healthy media in Ethiopia”.
This posed a fear in that the government may use this excuse to regress from maintaining the space that was open only for a year.
In April 2019, the government has also drafted an anti-hate speech law that might restrict freedom of expression. This has created a serious concern among rights’ organizations.
Human Rights Watch cautioned:
“it is encouraging that Ethiopia’s government says hate speech must be addressed… but criminalizing speech won’t solve problem.”