ETHIOPIA: IPI fact-finding mission reports on state of press freedom

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After meetings with local media and the head of the Office of
Government Communication Affairs (OGCA), IPI’s fact-finding mission to
Ethiopia found that, despite positive developments, concerns still exist
regarding the government’s influence over the flow of information within
Ethiopian society.

In several meetings over the course of a week, IPI was informed that public
relations officers working in individual ministries report to and take
their lead from the OGCA, which also guides state media. Journalists within
the state media, according to reports, act without editorial independence.
Concerns were expressed that the involvement of the OGCA head in governance
structures at state media reinforces government influence.

A document loosely translated as, “Our Media’s Developmental and Democratic
Working Philosophy: Basis and Directions” provides evidence of the
government’s direction on media development. Published in April 2008 by the
government printer, Berhanenna Selam, the document reportedly invites the
media to focus on developmental journalism and informs journalists that
they should focus on success stories.

With its positive philosophy and detailed presentation of news methods and
techniques, the document is viewed by some who have read it as an attempt
to shift news reporting away from the traditional news values of holding
the government and other Ethiopian institutions accountable.

Asked about these issues, the head of the OGCA, Bereket Simon, disputed the
suggestion that the flow of information is controlled. Discussing the
employment of public relations officers, Simon said the OGCA has a “dotted
line relationship with them.” He also denied that the government controls
the state media, and argued that the governance structure ensures
independence and is in fact proof of a public service commitment, similar
to that of the British Broadcasting Corporation.

On the issue of developmental journalism, he said the OGCA is “not
interested in media development that is obsessed with negative news.”

“Development is at the center of the government agenda and there is nothing wrong with its promotion,” Simon said.

Concerning the ongoing legal case involving attempts by media owners
Serkalem Fasil, Eskinder Nega and Sisay Agena to secure publishing licenses for several political newspapers that were shut down in 2005, Simon said that the “government has no power to overturn the judicial decision.” Asked whether he would be willing to award the license on the basis of supporting a more open media environment, he said, “No.”

Although the fact-finding mission met with individuals who expressed
concern about the government’s handling of the media environment, there
were others who were optimistic about developments. There was support for elements of the new media law, especially the element related to freedom of information, as well as the removal of the authorities’ power to hold journalists in jail while pursuing an investigation.

Some of those interviewed said the government had learned from its
adversarial and aggressive approach of the past and was attempting to
engage with the media.

IPI Director David Dadge said, “It is quite obvious that there have been
improvements, especially the commitment to the freedom of information law. But too often, the government is intransigent on issues regarding critical media. Contrary to the government’s view, the issuing of licenses to
critical media is a sign of maturity and confidence in a functioning
democracy. The government also has a lingering desire to exert influence
over the media, especially state media, which currently falls far short of
traditional public service models.”

Commenting on the issue of developmental journalism, Dadge said,
“Governments always want media to concentrate on what they believe to be
the true issues, but they should resist the temptation to try and interfere
in the media’s right to report independently: attempts to shift attention
to developmental issues risks damaging the media’s credibility, making it
less likely that the public will believe their reporting,” said Dadge.

Recommendations of the Fact-Finding Mission:

a) Government should review its relationship with the state media and
ensure the proper development of public service media.

b) Government must refrain from attempts to control the information flow
and recognize that a plurality of voices, including those that dissent from
the government’s view, are helpful to Ethiopian society.

c) Government should resist the temptation to adopt the practices of other countries without first asking whether they are: i) Beneficial to the
Ethiopian media environment, and ii) In accordance with Article 19 of the
Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

d) Media should discuss ways of introducing independent and voluntary
self-regulatory mechanisms that enhance the credibility of the media and
reinforce best practices.

SOURCE: International Press Institute

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