By Asrat Seyoum
They say information is power. This is none more so when one examines the extent to which decision making is affected by the availability of information. With the recent advance in technology, information dissemination is becoming relatively easier and faster. However, the question of acquiring the right information and expressing views without restriction is still among the major challenge of democracy.
It is in this backdrop that the international community celebrates the World Press freedom Day annually on May 3rd. Article 19 of the UN Universal Declaration of Human Rights stipulates that it is a fundamental right of individuals to acquire information without any interference. In the words of this provision: “Everyone has the right to freedom of opinion and expression, this right includes freedom to hold opinions without interference and to seek, receive and impart information and ideas through any media and regardless of frontiers.” The constitution of Ethiopia also accords equal value to freedom of information.
Article 29 of the Ethiopian constitution provides that everyone has the right to hold opinions without interference and freedom of expression including freedom to seek, receive and impart information and ideas of all kinds regardless of frontiers either orally, in writing or in print, in the form of art, or through any media of choice. In an emerging or aspiring democratic country such as Ethiopia, the issue of freedom of information and the right to know, especially in the context of the upcoming national and regional elections, naturally tops discussion agendas.
In connection with the World Press Freedom Day, the Office of Government Communications Affairs and the Horn of Africa Press Institute jointly organized a discussion forum on Thursday under the theme “Access to information: the right to know”. The workshop featured the presentation of discussion papers by Shimelis Kemal, the deputy head of the office of the Government Communications Affairs and Amare Aregawi, General Manager of Media and Communications Center. The papers dwelt on the different outlooks on freedom of information in Ethiopia and were followed by a lively debate on media operations in Ethiopia.
Bereket Simon, head of the Office of the Government Communication Affairs with the rank of Minister, kick-started the workshop with a brief keynote address. In his speech Bereket underscored that currently Ethiopia had embarked on a democratic path where freedom of information occupies the center stage. He noted that freedom of information is a fundamental constitutional right in Ethiopia and that currently the country is, one of the few countries in Africa to have a legislation that guarantees freedom of information. He pointed out that with the aim of making the government more accessible to the people, his office was training public relations professionals to facilitate the flow of information to the public and mass media. He also expressed optimism that the Freedom of the Mass Media and Access to Information proclamation was instrumental in improving the medium of information transfer in the country.
Following Bereket’s address, Shimeles Kemal presented a paper on the status of the mass media and access to information legislation. Shimeles, at the start, tried to bring to attention the significance of the proclamation to the democratization process. In his view, the proclamation was nothing less than a milestone in the history of the country and that the result seen so far was encouraging. “The law is intended to be enabling for media institutions by safeguarding journalistic freedom and editorial autonomy,” he said. He noted that the law prohibits pre-trial detention of journalists and bars the institution of criminal charges against offences that took a long time ago through a statue of limitation clause. Furthermore, he argued that the overall spirit of the law ensured transparency in information transfer media with the exception of few areas. The deputy head also underlined the need to exempt certain information from applicability under the legislation on the basis of their basic nature. However, he did point out that the proclamation was not enacted to replace the present system of information transfer in the country but rather there to improve on it.
Commenting on the current status of the proclamation, Shimeles mentioned that the Office of the Government Affairs, communications had, with other governmental stakeholders, prepared a consensus document on the implementation of the law, which later gave birth to the national steering committee that made possible the formation of other sub-committees to handle technical implementation issues.
Shimels concluded his presentation by emphasizing that the workshop was critical to identifying the role that non-governmental institutions (media houses and civil society organizations) played in the implementation of the law. However, he criticized the private media saying that they played a negative role in popularizing the proclamation.
Amare Aregawi’s paper, entitled “Freedom of information: the right to know”, examined the positive and negative impacts of the proclamation and the overall information transfer system. Amare described information as the ‘oxygen of democracy’. A free and democratic society, according to Amare, possesses the right to demand and retrieve information from the government. He said that the media play an important role in passing on information to the public and that as such the capacity of media organizations and the overall legal environment were vital factors in this process. Amare’s paper tried to highlight the negative aspects of the press environment while praising the positive sides as well. In this regard, it critically assessed the role of opposition parties in ensuring freedom of information and the right to know. He underscored that in general opposition parties had the chance to do better but that so far their contribution was not adequate. Even though the constitution upholds the right to access information, some of the government’s directives were actually eroding these rights. He hence called for such practices to be reconsidered. In this regard, he cited the restriction imposed on electronics media and the government media as prime examples. According to Amare, the regulatory body of government media should be free from the executive branch’s influence.
Amare also said the anti-terrorism law and the election observation regulation were also among the major obstacles in ensuring media freedom. Furthermore he pointed out that corruption in the government media and the weakness of international media watchdogs in addressing concrete issues with regard to media freedom in the country instead of exploiting them for inappropriate financial gain were debilitating problems.
In spite of the fact that two the speakers addressed different aspects of freedom of information in Ethiopia, the discussion on them focused on specific media freedom issues. The workshop ended by passing resolutions to work together towards achieving the common goal of freedom of information in the country.