The Precarious State of the Free Press

On 3 May, World Press Freedom Day is celebrated across the Globe. Although it is a reminder to government of the need to respect its commitment to Press Freedom, there has always been a concern for freedom of expression of all views and open debate.

On 3 May, World Press Freedom Day is celebrated across the Globe. Although it is a reminder to government of the need to respect its commitment to Press Freedom, there has always been a concern for freedom of expression of all views and open debate.

On the Sunday morning of April 30, 2017, I listened to one of the best radio discussions I have heard in recent years. Abdu Hijira, a legal expert, was making one of his elucidations on the “Sheger Café” show marking the international World Press Freedom Day.

He took me back at least five decades to recall a College Day celebration in Addis Abeba. Emperor Haile Selassie, accompanied by the rest of the members of the royal families, the nobility and the members of his cabinet, would have attended a procession around the football field that ends with the reading of freestyle poetry. Perhaps two of the poems of that era may well be unforgettable. They could be roughly equated in English as “The Poor Speaks Out” (Dehaw Yinageral) and “The Bone Under the Reef” (Yegedel S’ir At’int).

Their message was about the polarised class differences that existed among the society. The Emperor was tolerant although he left the campus much earlier without making or delivering any speech to the guests. Those two pieces had been reprinted during later years by the University Press and sold like hot cakes.

Abdu had also recalled the role played by Kifle Wedajo, a former Minister of Foreign Affairs. He also recalled Donald Levine, a renowned Ethiopianist, who had written the celebrated “Wax and Gold”, an Ethiopian linguistic speciality on double-edged meaning or pun.

On the giving side, we can talk about transmitting whatever issues there are as they come from the top down the gutter as they come down from the Press Department of the Ruling Party without any public reaction or comment. They call Freedom of the Press at all costs. Entertainment is also a part of the press schedule structure. The Broadcasting Proclamation has set outlines for the proportion of the three main sectors: educating, informing and entertaining. But the Consumers Protection Agency ought to have protected the interest of listeners in conjunction with the Broadcasting Agency.

For instance, our economic policy has set the principles of import substitution as its approach for faster economic development. But in a country perhaps best known for its quantity of livestock, we find it unjustified to import milk or dairy products from as far as New Zealand and advertise it to the local market while our own dairy products are not delivered.

The quest for a free press is not only a concern of all citizens as a constitutional right or the rule of law. It is not just another human rights agenda wanting to express one’s ideas and desires to talk or write. Not at all. The right to express thoughts and ideas simply freely. More importantly, it is the gateway to ensure the human rights enshrined in the Ethiopian constitution.

Parliament, if elected by capable electors, is informed and influenced by the free press. I happen to know Abdu since the day of the Sunday morning radio show, produced by the late Taddese Muluneh! He had always been my counterpart throughout my years, during those years when I used to write comments using the pseudo name “Dandew Srbello”. He has always been true to his profession.

My mention of the phrase “capable to vote” was with wisdom, or deliberate. The fifth balloting conducted last year was facing peaceful opposition even before the 100-day mark was counted. Merga Bekana (Prof.), a veterinary expert who was also an appointed chairman of the national electoral board, had played a determining role to crack the All Ethiopian People Party (AEPP) giving unconvincing reasons courtesy. The contesting parties were made to be knocked out of the political forum.

Of course, I would not deny that all the doors and windows were totally closed. The radio show of Sheger would have been null and void otherwise. At least either the door is left ajar or the windows are left open.

Some of us were able to subscribe to News Week or Time magazines. We were familiar with writers the likes of Stewart Alsop or James Crawford, not to speak of commentators like Zibbegnew in addition to the weekly letter from America by Alex de Cook. Some of us had begun writing in several newspapers and occasional magazines before even many of the political leaders were born. Now, however, freedom of the press has gone to the dogs as they say and peaceful protests are identified as charges of treason. They are being kept behind bars, perhaps indefinitely.

Human Rights Commissioner Addisu Gabezgbher (PhD) brings down the number killed during protests in the various parts of the country as of last July to September down to 669. He also alleges the Semayawi and ONC parties were aggravators of the chaotic situation. I am not sure if an already accused party can be accused again while the previous charge is still not closed.

Finally, I would like to say that it is a pity that even many of the officials of the ruling party leaders dare not speak out when interviewed by reporters. They would rather hang up.



Published on May 06,2017 [ Vol 17 ,No 888]



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