What Ethiopian press is saying about jailed journalists?

A week before the commencement of the trial of the two Swedish journalists- Johan Persson and Martin Schibbye- charged with terrorism much of the global press was already reporting the case following Prime Minster Meles Zenawi’s interview with the Norwegian newspaper, Aftenposten. Now, primer’s public allegations against two imprisoned journalists have become a dominant theme on pro-government media of Ethiopia. Interestingly enough, Walta Information Center, a pro-government private news and information service, that had been reporting about the Swedish-Eritrean journalist, Dawit Isaak and its subsequent concern of the Swedish authorities as Dawit remains jailed in the neighboring, Eretria kept shtoom about Johan Persson and Martin Schibbye
In his Amharic feature titled – “A country that permits public demonstration for animal right but not for human rights” Dawit Kebede, managing editor of Awramba Times, one of the few remaining private Amharic weeklies, satirizes the latest interview of Meles Zenawi with Aftenposten as a buy and sell business since his paper imported the interview and translated it for Amharic readers like an Ethiopian import of a foreign currency. With this claim he accentuated on how journalists from the private press methodically barred from meeting or interviewing Prime Minster Meles Zenawi for his entire time in power. In its weekend editorial, Awramba Times appeals for comparable opportunity with state media journalists regarding access to information of government activities.
Along with prime minster Meles Zenawi’s interview with Aftenposten, Awramba Times has translated an article written by Caelainn Barr of the Bureau of Investigative Journalism and tried to draw attention to current status of journalists and press freedom in Ethiopia.
With trial of the two Swedish journalists fast approaching, the government has been severely criticized by many of major publication in the global press; however Addis Admas; another major private Amharic weekly didn’t utter a word about the two Swedish journalists. Rather, Addis Admas did report the deferment of the case of Eskinder Nega, another prominent journalist who has been imprisoned on similar accusations of Johan Persson and Martin Schibbye’s anti-terrorism charges. The Reporter, another bilingual well-known Addis Ababa based newspaper also reported the case in similar vein with Addis Admas, besides activists had set up a website devoted for Eskinder Nega’s immediate liberation.

In contrast, the online media coverage of the case of the Swedish journalists had been relatively high with the creation of a facebook page dedicated to raise funds for legal assistance effort has been more positive with 2,475 likes already registered and the page is being circulated amongst Ethiopian facebooking community.
ZenaEthiopia.com reported that Ethiopia does not want Swedish journalists in sensitive trial but highlighted that Swedish journalists denied visas to Ethiopia to cover the trial of imprisoned colleagues. Furthermore a website known as kilil5.com reported Meles Zenawi’s interview with the Norwegian newspaper, Aftenposten and framed the story based on report of the Committee to Protect Journalists as an attempt to fix the outcome of Swedish journalists’ court case. “Ethiopian Prime Minister Meles Zenawi’s public accusations on Monday against two imprisoned Swedish journalists compromise the presumption of their innocence and predetermine the outcome of their case, the Committee to Protect Journalists,” reported kilil5.com.

While the media in the rest of the world reporting heavily about jailed journalists in Ethiopia, but most of the Ethiopian press were making admirable developmental, fashion and life style stories for their front pages a lot more is going on amongst the chief members of the private press. The ever dwindling private press of Ethiopia chooses to take no notice of harsh narratives of Ethiopian private press and instead chooses to focus on the constantly ear dampening stories of fashion and development.

Ethiopia’s access to information law kept in the rear side of the door

This past September, delegates and leading experts in freedom of access to information from all over the world met in Cape Town and launched a landmark attempt to build on the epochal 1991 Windhoek Declaration on press freedom to an African Platform on Access to Information. I together with over a thousand delegates all over Africa did so by launching a declaration– “African Platform on Access to Information – a declaration that builds on its historical ancestor to establish, for the first time ever, general legal principles that define on access to information as a fundamental human right. But what is prospect of this declaration in Ethiopia?
In Ethiopia it took almost half a decade to ratify a law on freedom of access to information. Besides, though access to information is commonly described as other side of the media freedom coin – freedom of access to information receives little attention in the country. My observation is that most global free press ranking is usually made based on the authorities’ treatment of journalists in the country. Hence, Ethiopia’s World Press Freedom Index has been slipping to nadir. In 2010 Ethiopia was ranked 139th and in 2011 even worse. And in their complementary report the publishers, Reporters without Borders, pointed out the slippage to arbitrary arrest and detention of journalists and surveillance of the press but not on the status of freedom of access to information. This freedom is a basic one. There are plenty of journalists and political philosophers who consider it the first and foremost of a certain democracy. African Platform on Access to Information is probably the most robust expression and enshrinement of the primacy of access to information for open governance and transparency and hence democracy.
However, I am not saying that Ethiopia’s World Press Freedom Index ranking would have improved had the report included the status of freedom of access to information. Bluntly speaking Ethiopia’s rank would have fallen even behind probably behind the most common repressive regimes of the press in Africa like Eretria. I found it also important to mention the recent arrest and detention of journalists on allegedly trumped-up charges of the country’s anti-terrorism laws which continue to be a subject of heated discussion and protest amongst custodians of the free press is another big blow for the implementation of access to information law.
I recognized that though the freedom to access to information laws endorsed for all citizens but the most frequent and discouraged users of freedom to access to information laws are journalists and whistleblowers (though there is no legal protection for whistleblowers in Ethiopia). Of course it can also be claimed that freedom to access to information laws need journalists and whistleblowers to realize their potentials as political accountability tool to realize their role as the fourth estate. But to consider the Ethiopian press as a fourth state is probably the most hypocritical concept as the government owns national broadcaster Ethiopian TV and Radio controls the airwave.
In Ethiopia, ‘freedom of access to information’ means freedom to request little development related information and communicating them only as news when the authorities find the information necessary to be in the public domain. In many opinions of authorities, this is ‘freedom’ of access to information. Many journalists and free press activists argue that freedom of access to information in Ethiopia is becoming worse. Some even goes on to argue that in Ethiopia journalism is growingly understood rather in a different way from generally accepted norms that are thought in Ethiopian higher education journalism departments. They claim that journalists are perceived as support staff or public relation officers by authorities, and journalism itself as an intermediary bridge for communicating information the authorities deem enhance communication between government and the public. Journalists from both the dwindling private press and the government media are not actually free to access any information they wish weather the information they request is exempted by law or not .
Such a situation is painful anywhere, but particularly in one of the few countries of Africa that ratified freedom of access to information and that recognizes freedom of access to information as a fundamental right. Ethiopia’s government behavior this calls into question not only its desire but also its ability to commit to the principles underlying the declaration– “African Platform on Access to Information and its own proclamation that supposedly provided freedom of the mass media and access to information.
It is not clear that the situation has improved notably since the passage of the law – Freedom of the Mass Media and Access to Information Proclamation (590/2008) – for instance, let alone journalists even members of the parliament were unable to get access to the full truth about cost of Ethiopia’s war against Somali’s Alshabab as these kinds of information dubbed as national security issues and are exceptions to the law and this makes the law as it stands is hindering the free exchange of ideas and information.
The right of journalists to get access to sensitive topics, including national security, is a basic right. Journalists who do not found accountable of criminal activity by an independent court should not face arrest, incarceration, or any other form of harassment or intimidation for doing their job to defend themselves.
Far from being slanderous and rebellious, journalists who tried to get access to sensitive information and criticize the government’s actions make obvious loyalty to their profession, because no democracy can survive without the open and independent assessment of public policies that government provide. Without implementing freedom of access to information abundantly from local administration to the prime minister’s office, the democratic state cannot survive. Indeed, one of the failings of Ethiopia’s democracy is failing to realize of freedom of access to information law in a coherent and robust fashion.