Part two of chapter three of the 1994 Constitution of the Federal Democratic Republic of Ethiopia, which enshrines fundamental democratic rights, has a provision, Article 29, entitled “Freedom of thought, Opinion and Expression!!”
A sub-Article of the Article reads, “Everyone has the right to hold opinions without interference.
Affirming that everyone has not only the right to hold opinions but also to freedom of expression, sub-Article two states, “Everyone has the right to freedom of expression without interference. The right shall include freedom to seek, receive and impart information and ideas of all kinds, regardless of frontiers, whether orally, in writing or in print, in the form of art, or through any media of his choice.”
And recognizing that the press, in particular, needs to be accorded protection while exercising this right, sub-Article four provides, “In the interest of the free flow of information, ideas and opinions which are essential to the functioning of a democratic order, the press shall, as an institution, enjoy legal protection to ensure its operation, independence and its capacity to entertain diverse opinions.”
The Constitution cannot be more explicit about this right. In fact, Article 29 was taken word for word from Article 19 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), of which Ethiopia is a signatory.
Two proclamations have been promulgated by parliament, on the basis of the Constitution, that specifically deal with broadcasting in Ethiopia. The first, a Proclamation to Provide for the Systematic Management of Broadcasting Service No. 178/1999, defines broadcasting service as “a radio or television transmission programme conducted to educate, inform or entertain the public.”
A subsidiary legislation has thus affirmed that one of the means through which the constitutional right to seek, receive and impart information and ideas of all kinds regardless of frontiers can be exercised is braodacasting service using radio and television.
Some may try to hold out that broadcasting services can be undertaken by the state alone. However, a second piece of legislation, the Broadcasting Service Proclamation No. 533/23007, which replaced Proclamation No. 178/1999, stipulates in its Article sixteen, sub-Article one, that “categories of broadcasting services shall be public, commercial and community broadcasting services.”
This proclamation further lays down the requirements that the entities that are entitled to provide private braodacasting services have to fulfill in Ethiopia.
The EPRDF should be or should have been proud that it was instrumental in causing the adoption of a Constitution which unequivocally recognizes and protects freedom of expression as well as that of the broadcasting proclamations of 1999 and 2007 that reaffirm the constitutional right to engage in private broadcasting services.
Is this the reality on the ground? Sadly, apart from a handful of private FM radio operators, no-one has been licensed to operate a private television station to date. Why hasn’t the right enshrined in the Constitution and elaborated by the 1999 and 2007 broadcasting proclamations been properly given effect to?
It’s not because launching a broadcasting service requires extensive deliberation, unique expertise or sophisticated equipment in Ethiopia. It’s simply because the executive does not have the desire to license private television operators and the legislature, to whom it is accountable, does not exercise its oversight power over it and let’s it have its way. This notwithstanding, there’s the absence of an informed and organized civil society which demands respect for its rights as well as an opposition which tables alternatives that are grounded in the national interest.
It’s in this backdrop that some half a billion birr was allotted to the state-owned Ethiopian Radio and Television Agency (ERTA) to enable it to start eight new television stations soon. Following that the agency has floated invitations calling on anyone interested to lease air time to broadcast their programmes.
We have no beef with ERTA expanding its service as long as it is constitutional, lawful, democratic, based on professional, sound and ethical considerations and is not open to corruption. As a matter of fact, we have been calling for quite some time now for the agency’s services to be improved.
However, side by side with strengthening the state-owned broadcast media, the constitutional right of the public should be given due consideration. Accordingly, private operators should not just be entitled to lease air time from ERTA; they must be allowed to own and operate their own television stations that compete with ERTA.
This means parliament has to demand the executive to explain why the laws it had enacted pursuant to the Constitution have not been properly implemented and instruct it to begin executing the Constitution and the law immediately. On its part, the government needs to demonstrate that it is not above the Constitution and the law; it has to acknowledge that it failed to put properly to effect the Constitution and the broadcasting laws which it had a major hand in and rectify its errors forthwith.
There can be no trifling with the Constitution and the law. They can not and must not be infringed by directives or procedures. They have to be implemented faithfully.
In short, both parliament and the executive have to start doing their jobs properly. It’s high time for privately owned television stations which educate, inform and entertain the public to hit the airwaves in Ethiopia.