Freedom of the Press is at the Tip of its Grave in which Updating a Facebook Status could also be Considered as a Crime.

By Betre Yacob

Facile Girma is one of the journalists and media professionals, who are in exile as the result of the repression and human right violation in Ethiopia. He was one of the invited spokespersons in a meeting held yesterday on may 8, 2014, which discussed the situation of press freedom in the region. The meeting was organized by Journalists for Justice, an organization working in the region. Filled with passion, Facile made the following interesting speech which touched the heart of every participant. In his speech, he illustrated enough the existing situation of the press freedom in Ethiopia.

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The Full Speech

At this current time, in my country Ethiopia, freedom of expression in general and freedom of the press in particular is at the tip of its grave in which updating a Facebook status could also beconsidered as a crime.

Recently, at the end of last month, six bloggers and three journalists were detained by the government authorities in Makelawi, the notorious Federal Police Crime Investigation Sector.

Human Rights Watch reported that most of detainees held in Makelawi are subject to ill treatment and torture.

TesfalemWeldeyes, Asmamawe W/giorgis, and Edom Kassaye are the three journalists among the detainees with the six bloggers of Zone Nine which are BefekaduHailu, AtnafBerahane, NatnaelFeleke, MahletFantahun, ZelalemKibret and Abel Wabela.

They are accused of inciting violence to the public, communicating with international human rights organizations, and receiving money and materials from these organizations.

I personally know Tesfalem, Edom and most of the detained Zone Nine bloggers and I am familiar with their works.  I can witness that their workas a journalist and as bloggers has nothing to do with the allegation.

I know and the world knows this accusation is one of the customary actions of Ethiopian government to suppress the press critical to the rulingparty as it did to other journalists serving imprisonment.

Evidently, a veteran journalist EskenderNegawas sentenced 17 years of imprisonment in a politically motivated prosecution of inciting violence to the public among others similarly.  He is now serving his prison sentence since September 2011. After all, the entire trail was also not fair and free, and his appeal was rejected a couple of times.

It is frequently reported that, Eskender is one of the few critical journalists who is devoted to his work and is willing to put his and his family’slife at risk in writing critique over the government actions.

Furthermore, ReeyotAlemu, WebshetTaye, YesufGetachew and others also had similarlyaccused of ‘inciting violence’ referred from the anti-terrorism low that the world is crying out since it is used to silence journalists.

These all have experienced unfair court trail and are now serving their imprisonment sentence under harsh conditions of prison facility.

Recently, I mate ReeyotAlemu’s faience’, SileshiHagos, here in Nairobi on his way back to Ethiopia from Angola after participating the African commission meeting in Luanda.

With trembling voice, he told me that it has been eight months since he visited his faience’ forthe last time because he is denied to visit her by the authorities since then.  He also witness that Reeyot went through a major burst surgery that cause serious infection later due to the poor condition of the prison facility.

Ethiopia has fancy constitution in terms of freedom of expression and freedom of the press. The constitution guarantees freedom of expression including press freedom and banns censorship.

However, after the 2005 election the ruling party brought three controversial laws that curb freedom of expression which are the Anti-Terrorism proclamation, Freedom of Mass Media and Access to Information Proclamation which, is also known as the press law, and Charities and Societies Proclamation.

The anti-terrorism law is free for any kind of interpretation. Hence, the ruling is using this law to prosecute media houses and journalists.

Strangely, this law is against the country’s constitution of article 29 that guaranteesfreedom of expression and freedom of the press.

Most of the imprisoned journalists are found guilty under this controversial law.

BefqaduHailu, one of the detainedZone Nine blogger who is now at Maekelawi, once tweeted ‘the word journalism become synonym to the word Terrorism in Ethiopia.’ Now, based on the anti-terrorism law, he might be judged as a terrorist just because of this tweet.

The press law allows the public prosecutor to issue an order to impound any publication where there is a reason to believe the publication contained illegal matter in which, if distributed would bring clear and grave danger.  However, this ‘illegal matter’ is not explained and is free for interpretation.

Due to the charities and societies law that ban more than 10 percent of foreign fund of annual budget for civic societies, Ethiopian journalists failed to have strong and vibrant association which could defend their rights.

So far, there are fivelicensed journalist associations in Ethiopia. It is believed thatsome of the associations are subjected to the government tight control while others are purely pro governmental.

It seems that the government is working hard to insure no internal voice or institution that could speak out loud for the rights of journalists and the press in order to control the flow of information in the country.

The sole Ethiopian television and Radio Ethiopia are under the complete control of the government. The daily papers are also subject only for the governmentpropaganda.

The few FM radio stations operating in the capital Addis Abeba are also either controlled by the government or function based on pro-government editorial policy.

There are few private newspapers in the country published under the harsh conditions of press freedom, where there are few advertisers and sponsor besides the government’s tight control.

According to the Ethiopian Broadcast Agency,  the circulation of all newspapers published in the country, both the government and private newspapers, does not exceed 100, 000 of copies a week for a 90 million population.

Ethiopia has the second lowest internet penetration rate in sub Saharan countries.

These all shows the negative impact of the strange laws on freedom of expression and press freedom in Ethiopia.

Requesting the government to respect human rights and freedom of expression is being interpreted as inciting violence which also could be a terrorism act according to the notorious anti-terrorism law.

However, I believea call to Ethiopian government to respect the constitution that guaranteed freedom of expression including press freedom should continue locally and at the international level.

We must leverage public pressure to make our leaders understand what these laws and their actions mean in the digital age, to beat back bad laws that threaten our rights, to connect and communicate, and to support new journalistic efforts in all their forms.

Human rights organizations and International organizations for freedom of expression should continue pressuring the government until it exists in Ethiopia.

We all are created free to tell our story freely!!!

Thank you!

By; FasilGirma

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