|The Courier N° 145 - May - June 1994- Dossier : European Union: the Way forward - Country Report: Ethiopia (EC Courier, 1994, 104 p.)|
|Ethiopia: Emerging from a long Dark Age|
Since the Mengistu regime was overthrown a very evident sign of liberation in Ethiopia has been a burgeoning of the press, with the private sector well to the fore. In the early days there were some. thing like 100 newspapers fighting for readers, primarily in Addis Ababa; market forces have decimated the field since then, but there is still more choice of reading matter and points of view than ever before in the country's history.
Press freedom was officially enshrined in a law decreed in October 1992 which also bans censorship. In democratic style, it provides for right of access to news and information from government and other sources, and lays down that publishers and editors shall not have to disclose their sources. The proclamation specifically lists criticism and expressions of opinion among the purposes of the press, and to such an extent has this been taken to heart that some independent newspapers have been described as being all editorials and no news. As well as the government itself, and professional journalists, the publishers include businessmen and even officials formerly responsible for propaganda under Mengistu.
Private-sector newspapers and magazines have been very critical of the Transitional Government's policies, particularly the nationalities policy, and were almost unanimous in opposing the independence of Eritrea. Here they start treading on risky ground, however, since the press law makes it a responsibility of journalists, editors and publishers to ensure that reports are 'free from any criminal offence against the safety of the State or of the administration' and 'any criminal instigation of one nationality against another or incitement of conflict between peoples'. There must also be no 'agitation for war'. Such wide and far-reaching prohibitions are obviously a solid inducement to self-censorship. But there are also persistent reports of writers and publishers in the independent press being detained by the security forces on the basis of these clauses and warned against covering certain subjects. The editor of the Amharic-language Ethiopis Ghazeta was detained at the end of 1992 for reporting that there was conflict in northern Ethiopia. His articles were found to be seditious by the court and the editor was jailed for two years this March. The editor of the weekly Eyetta was fined for publishing a speech by an exiled opponent of the Government which the court found to be 'a declaration of war' on the Government. The central or regional government prosecutor can actually intervene in advance to prevent the dissemination of any publication which he has reason to believe contains illegal material 'which may cause serious damage' - to whom, the law does not say. Should a writer or editor decide to use a pen name, that fact has to be prominently indicated in the publication concerned.
These measures amount to a pretty effective straitjacket on any newspaper wishing to discuss many aspects of government policy - and yet there are some bold enough to do it. This is where, according to these critical voices, the authorities start applying more insidious forms of discouragement. Private publishers have very little capital and have to rely on the Government's printing press; the charge for using it has been doubled in the last year and a half. The Government says the devaluation of the birr has made imported newsprint dearer - yet it contrives to sell its own papers, produced on the same press and newsprint, at much lower prices than the independent press has to charge to make a return. As far as reporting official news is concerned, private newspapers say the Government bans them from its news conferences and does not answer questions they put to it; this, too, puts the independent press at an obvious journalistic and commercial disadvantage, which is compounded by the fact that the government press also has a monopoly of official public announcements. Even independent photographers and newspaper vendors are, it is claimed, harassed by the police.
While dissenting from the government line in the written press is fraught with difficulties, via Ethiopia's broadcast media it is impossible. The Charter setting out government policies for the transitional period until elections says that the Council of Representatives is to 'provide the mechanism to ascertain the fair and impartial application of the mass media', but regulations to bring this about have not yet been issued and radio and television are still entirely state-controlled. Opponents of the Government claim their political activities are not properly reported, and that they receive no air time to put their own case and cannot even pay for announcements to be broadcast. They can and do, of course, talk to the foreign news media.
The government, on its side, is putting through a difficult programme of constitutional change and regional devolution which will not succeed if the country is torn apart by dissension fed by the media. Trying to suppress reports which it does not like could, however, be counterproductive. As a report on the human rights situation in Ethiopia published by the Ethiopian Human Rights Council in January puts it, 'One of the greatest services provided by the free press is that of dispelling doubts, rumours and speculation which undermine stability and confidence. It is helping the people to see the truth from different angles and contributing its share to the establishment of the democratic process. Such efforts should be encouraged by the Government instead of being stifled. R.R.