It should be alarming that rights groups still identify Ethiopia as a country where little freedom is afforded to the media. In last year’s world ranking by Reporters without Borders, the nation has sunk eight ranks down, to the 150th freest country for journalists.
There is a generation of journalists losing faith in their profession, growing weary of its consequences. This puts into perspective the complaints about the lack of execution to the constitutional right of having an opinion. In the evolving “democratic” status of Ethiopia, freedom of speech has remained disadvantaged.
Freedom of speech has long been accepted as an indispensable and inalienable human right. This right is perceived to exceed political and jurisdictional borders, applying to all countries around the globe. In Ethiopia, the right to free expression of ideas that the constitution talks about suffers in contrast to self-censorship that is rife in the media industry.
The country has made several global headlines. It is not always about infrastructure development though but the jeopardised right to express opinions.
The Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which Ethiopia is a signatory of, specifies that everyone has the right to freedom of opinion and expression. This right comprises freedom to hold views without interference and to seek, receive and communicate information and ideas through any media without border restrictions.
Similarly, the supreme law of Ethiopia lays out the lawful rights of citizens to hold opinions, thoughts, and free expressions. There are provisions though that hold legal limitations that can be put down to “protect” the youth or reputations of individuals.
A terrorism law enacted almost a decade ago puts further restrictions on the media. It prohibits a publication from a media that triggers the incitement of conflict between peoples and propaganda for war.
Evidently, the law and the platform in which journalists operate is substantially different and limiting than what it used to be. The upsurge of restrictions necessitated the use of new channels for expression by both the public and journalists, such as a social media.
The unregulated social media was boon for opinion dissemination, but it opened an atmosphere where populism and hate speech could thrive. The public has begun to refrain from a well-researched news or objective information. Easy answers, rumours and fear-mongering are what have filled the media.
The possibility of lawsuits has made media outlets with a sense of responsibility lose space in the face of social media. Their only limitation is that they have to provide complete and accurate information to the public.
It has even made some to be labelled activists when all they are is independent journalists. Most fail to distinguish between news material, opinion and analysis to avoid the pitfalls of speculation. Media in Ethiopia will continue to grapple with these challenges until it implements sensical reforms.
Journalism is all about seeking truth and reporting it. Journalists are watchdogs, serving the public’s need for accurate and unbiased information. This apparently includes fact-checking, not intentionally distorting information, avoiding stereotypes and supporting the open exchange of opinions from the government and the public at large.
The journalism profession obliges the press to act independently, avoiding conflicts of interest and eliminating bias. Hence it should be the media itself which needs to be allowed to expose unethical practices of the media, portraying accountability instead of the state. Informed readers or audiences would recognise which practices journalistic standards.
An independent press ensures the public stays informed about the actions of leaders and creates a medium for deliberation and the open exchange of opinions. Ethiopia has much to learn about press freedom from countries such as the United States.
During the last half a century, the American press has dug out and exposed political scandals including the famous Watergate burglary, which led to the resignation of Richard Nixon. Last year, The Washington Post, also behind Watergate, reported that President Donald Trump had divulged state secrets to Russian diplomats in the Oval Office – this is journalism at its best.
Political reforms come as a result of investigative achievements by reporters as much as the checks and balances between bodies of governments. The authorities thoroughly understand the power of the media as an ombudsman for the public’s interest. This is even more crucial in a nation such as ours where a single party has hegemony over federal and local levels of government.
For Ethiopia to move towards a more democratic state, it is vital to free the communication between the government, the media and the public. Media reports and criticisms are one of the most valuable tools for allowing a competitive politics and checks and balances.
Constructive criticism keeps communication from top to bottom transparent and accountable. Autonomy of expression is the only way to achieve an accountable and transparent government free from corruption and autocracy while developing a professional and unbiased press.
There has been an ongoing clash between the government’s attempts to ramp up control over the dissemination of information – best exemplified in recent internet outages across the country – and the press’s endeavours to scrutinise and report on administrative flaws. The only way to solve this divergence is through an initiative to encourage the media to present accurate and well-researched news.
Once the country is committed to unrestricted freedom of speech, the lids hampering the journalism field will be lifted. An entirely new and accurate way of disseminating information will be birthed. Giving way to the demands of ensuring freedom of expression will result in informed citizens and accountable leaders.
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