Can Freedom of Press Happen in Ethiopia?
Charlayne Hunter-Gault went there with media advocates to urge the release of jailed journalists.
We also had an early morning breakfast meeting with several local journalists (permission to use their names could not be secured by press time). They hardly ate. Rather, with intense demeanors that didn't change during the entire meeting, they told us how, in the words of one, the anti-terrorism law was "a game changer." And they believed they were all potential targets. All agreed with the journalist who said the law had "a chilling effect." The bottom line, said another, is not so much about fighting terrorism. Instead, he said, "The problem is they [the government] don't believe in the private press." But, the journalists insisted, they were going to do whatever it took to pursue what they see as a right guaranteed by the Ethiopian constitution, as well as raising enough money to buy their own printing press.
In April, the Ethiopian government, which owns the printing house used by many private newspapers, made printers liable for any content that could be deemed illegal under the terrorism laws. The journalists insist this action puts still another obstacle in the way of freedom of speech. We raised this with the minister, who denied any form of censorship at the printing press.
In keeping with our word that we would get beyond condemnation, AMI proposed the government join the journalists with whom we had met and commit to participating in an AMI-sponsored seminar and workshop that would, in the words of Dele Olojede, "bring together all stakeholders, with the aim of strengthening independent media in Ethiopia." It is a process AMI has carried out in a number of African countries, including some of Ethiopia's neighbors. The minister told us the government would be willing to participate. He also told us: "If there are problems in implementation of any law, the government is ready to sit down and review."
In closing our meeting with the minister, I emphasized that in no democracy that I know of is there ever a lovefest between the media and the government. But in order to have a democracy that lives up to its principles, it is important that they co-exist in good times and in bad.
For the good of this young democracy, we each encouraged the minister to let our people -- his people -- go. The final disposition of the imprisoned journalist Eskinder Nega is due on June 21.
Charlayne Hunter-Gault, a regular contributor to The Root, is the author of To the Mountaintop: My Journey Through the Civil Rights Movement, published by Roaring Brook Press and the New York Times Co.