Ethiopia’s Prime Minister Dr Abiy Ahmed Ali and President Uhuru Kenyatta at State House, Nairobi. PHOTO/PSCU
By PATRICK MAYOYO
The Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) has written to Ethiopia’s Prime Minister Dr Abiy Ahmed Ali expressing concern about lack of media freedom in the country.
In a letter by CPJ’s Executive Director, Mr Joel Simon, the global pro-media freedom body raised concerns about Ethiopia’s repressive media conditions and called for reforms that will encourage a diverse and free press.
“We are writing to call for reforms that will encourage a diverse and free press in Ethiopia and uphold the public’s access to information,” Mr Simon said in a statement.
CPJ said it welcomes the pledges Dr Ali made in his April 2inaugural speechas prime minister to build democracy, fight corruption, and strengthen the rule of law in Ethiopia.
“You vowed that your government would learn from the mistakes of the past and we were heartened by yourpromise to respectthe right to free expression, which is guaranteed in Article 29 ofEthiopia’s constitution. We believe a free and independent press is essential to achieve the goals you outlined,” it added.
CPJ said while it was happy with the release of thousands of prisoners earlier this year including journalists it was concerned by the declaration of a new state of emergency onFebruary 16 has quickly reversed these gains.
State Visit by Prime Minister of the Federal Democratic Republic of Ethiopia, His Excellency Dr Abiy Ahmed Ali.
Posted by Uhuru Kenyatta on Monday, May 7, 2018
“Under the state of emergency, security personnel have powers to shut down “any mediato safeguard the constitution” as well as to arrest journalists and private citizens without warrant, according to the Ethiopian News Agency. Journalists, and private citizens, can find themselves behind bars simply for sharing information perceived ascritical of the state of emergency, according toHuman Rights Watch,” the statement said.
Mr Simaon said on March 8, security personnel arrested blogger and academic Seyoum Teshome at his home in Addis Ababa, according toCPJ research. Seyoum was released after spending more than a month in detention without charge and has been previously imprisoned for his journalism, accordingto CPJ research.
At least six other journalists were also detained in connection to the state of emergency. On March 25, journalistsEskinder Nega,Zelalem Workagegnehu, andTemesghen Desalegnand Zone 9 bloggersBefekadu HailuandMahlet Fantahunwere arrested at a private gathering in Addis Ababa, according toCPJ research. They were detained in anovercrowded cellwith limited toilet access for 11 days before they were released on bail.
Another journalist,Nigatu Asres, was detained on March 24 in the northern city of Bahir Dar and released on bail on April 4. We urge your office to lift all conditions on their freedom, ensure that they do not face future reprisal for their work, and lift the state of emergency.
“We also ask that you consider overhauling legislation that has often been used against the media. According toCPJ research, Ethiopia’s 2009 anti-terror proclamation has often been used to silence the press in the name of guarding the country’s security, fostering what the UN describes as a “climate of intimidation,” Mr Simon said.
He added that the Criminal Code of 2005 has also been used by authorities to prosecute journalists for allegedincitementand criminal defamation in retaliation for their reporting,CPJ has documented.
While parts of the Freedom of the Mass Media and Access to Information Proclamation were perceived to be press-friendly, the letter of this law grantswide ranging powersfor the government to file defamation suits and forces media outlets to go through arduous licensing and registration processes.
“We urge you to bring them in line with international human rights law,” CPJ said.
Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) Executive Director, Mr Joel Simon. PHOTO/CPJ
Mr Simon said legal action and persistent harassment of journalists have also resulted in the nearly complete absence of independent press in Ethiopia.
“The governmentforced out of circulationat least 12 newspapers and magazines since 2012 and government censors have blocked somediaspora-basedmedia outlets, according toreportsandCPJ research,” the statement said.
Mr Simon said since 2015, the government hasfrequentlyshut down the internet in Ethiopia. Beginning in December 2017, disruptions to mobile data services, relied upon by a majority of Internet users, werereportedin regions outside Addis Ababa.
“Though we welcomereportsthat the government restored many mobile data services during the first few days of your leadership, we are still concerned by news that some websites remain inaccessible in Ethiopia. Internet disruptions hamper the right to access information for citizens andundermine the workof journalists, making it moredifficult and dangerousto communicate with sources,” CPJ noted.
Mr Simon said this danger is exacerbated by a prevailing environment of mass surveillance noting that the government’s monitoring of electronic communication and the use of this surveillance data to target journalists and critical voices as documented byCPJand multiple othermedia outletsandrights groups, creates a culture of fear and facilitates self-censorship.
Researchby the Toronto-based Citizen Lab suggests that this surveillancehas extendedbeyond Ethiopia’s borders, targeting diaspora-based journalists at theOromia Media Network (OMN)and the Ethiopian Satellite Television (ESAT).
“We urge your government to ensure universal access to the Internet as a requisite for press freedom, the public’s right to know and a more inclusive democracy,” Mr Simon said.
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Nelson Mandela once said: “A critical, independent, and investigative press is the lifeblood of any democracy. The press must be free from state interference. It must have the economic strength to stand up to the blandishments of government officials. It must have sufficient independence from vested interests to be bold and inquiring without fear or favor. It must enjoy the protection of the constitution, so that it can protect our rights as citizens.”
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