Archive for May 2, 2012
Najum Mushtaq NAIROBI, Jul 8 (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 It is a reversal and desecration of victories achieved by the repealed press law (of 2004),” says a resolution adopted Wednesday at the end of a UN-sponsored workshop of media practitioners in Addis Ababa organised by the Horn of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.
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. (END/2008)
By Paul Richardson and William Davison
The three countries are joined in the top 10 by Iran and Equatorial Guinea, the New York-based organization said in areport on its website today. Reporters in Eritrea, a nation in the Horn of Africa which won independence from Ethiopia in 1993, are conscripted into their work and handed instructions on how to cover events, the group said. The last accredited foreign correspondent was expelled in 2007, it said.
“No foreign reporters are granted access to Eritrea and all domestic media are controlled by the government,” the committee said. “Ministry of Information officials direct every detail of coverage.”
Eritrea has been ruled by President Isaias Afwerki, a former rebel leader, since it seceded following a guerrilla war that toppled Ethiopia’s communist Derg military regime in 1991. Seven years later, the two countries fought a two-year border war in which 70,000 people were killed.
Since his election by the National Assembly 19 years ago, Afwerki has “managed to hold off elections and the implementation of a constitution, largely by imprisoning critics and obliterating the private press,” the committee said.
Eritrea’s government rejected the concept of an independent media.
“There is no independent press all over the world,”Eritrea’s ambassador to the African Union, Girma Asmerom, said in a phone interview from Addis Ababa, the Ethiopian capital.“It’s either owned by a company or an individual.”
Eritrea banned private media in 2001 because they had become “propaganda mouthpieces for external foreign influences,” he said. The country’s media is now focused on the“development agenda and poverty alleviation,” Girma said.
Other African countries where the media is heavily censored include Ethiopia and Sudan, the committee said. The other top 10 entrants were Uzbekistan, Myanmar, Saudi Arabia, Cuba and Belarus.
While China was not included in the list, it “plays a particularly harmful role worldwide” because it exports censorship techniques, the report said.
Eskinder Nega was awarded the Pen America’s “Freedom to Write” annual prize for publishing articles critical of Ethiopia’s human rights record.
His wife Serkalem Fasil, who is a journalist and also spent time in jail, received the award on his behalf.
In the past decade, more journalists have fled Ethiopia than any other country, press freedom groups say.
“I accept this award on behalf of Eskinder Nega at a time when freedom of expression and press freedom are at the lowest in Ethiopia,” Ms Serkalem said on Tuesday night in a ceremony in New York.
“If Eskinder were standing here, he’d accept this award, not just as a personal honour, but on behalf of all Ethiopian journalists who toil under withering conditions today: Those who went into exile over the years… those in prison with whom he now resides,” she said.
Mr Eskinder has been in Maekelawi prison in the capital, Addis Ababa, since his arrest in September last year.
He was found guilty in January under Ethiopia’s anti-terrorism laws – which criminalize commentary that is critical of the government – and could face the death penalty when he is sentenced.
He had published a column questioning the government’s claim that a number of journalists it had detained were suspected terrorists, and for criticising the arrest of well-known Ethiopian actor and government critic Debebe Eshetu.
Mr Eskinder is “that bravest and most admirable of writers, one who picked up his pen to write things that he knew would surely put him at grave risk”, said Peter Godwin, president of the Pen American Center.
“Yet he did so nonetheless. And indeed he fell victim to exactly the measures he was highlighting,” Zimbabwean-born writer Mr Godwin added.
The Pen award is given to writers who have been persecuted or imprisoned for exercising the right to freedom of expression.
Mr Eskinder opened his first newspaper in 1993, and has been detained at least seven times by the government of Prime Minister Meles Zenawi.
He was stripped of his licence to work as a journalist in 2005, but continued to write for the US-based news forum EthioMedia, which is banned in Ethiopia.
He and his wife Ms Serkalem were both jailed in 2005 for criticising the government’s violent crackdown of protests following disputed elections.
During their 17 months in prison, Ms Fasil gave birth to their son
Source: BBC News