CPJ concerned by new draft of press law

New York, July 23, 2004—The Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) and five other press freedom groups (Article 19, Media Institute of Southern Africa, Media Foundation of West Africa, Media Rights Agenda, and the International Federation of Journalists) have written to Ethiopian Information Minister Bereket Simon expressing concern about the government’s latest draft of a proposed new press law.

The letter, sent on Thursday, July 22, urges the government to ensure that consultations on the draft with members of the Ethiopian media are inclusive and democratic.

The new draft press law contains some improvements on previous drafts. But, as the letter points out, there are still some serious problems with the law, including restrictions on who may practice journalism; government-controlled licensing and registration systems; and harsh sanctions for violations of the law, including up to five years’ imprisonment.

Criminal sanctions for some press offenses are outlined in the country’s Penal Code. CPJ continues to urge the government to repeal all criminal sanctions for press offenses, which have a chilling effect on press freedom and violate international standards.

The letter also highlights other areas of concern: excessively broad exceptions to the right to access information held by public authorities; the establishment of a government-controlled Press Council with powers to prepare and enforce a Code of Ethics; and powers vested in the courts to engage in prior censorship. Article 6 of the draft press law gives the minister of information the power to ban or censor foreign publications deemed contrary to the national interest.

CPJ and the five co-signatories call on the Ethiopian government to ensure that the ongoing national consultation on the draft press law takes into consideration the concerns and recommendations of international, regional, and national freedom of expression organizations.

Minister Simon invited some members of the media to a July 21-23 meeting in the capital, Addis Ababa, to discuss the draft. However, according to local sources, some leading members of the independent press did not attend due to the controversial split in the Ethiopian Free Press Journalists Association (EFJA). In February 2004, CPJ expressed deep concern about the Ethiopian government’s intervention in the affairs of the EFJA, an independent organization dedicated to promoting press freedom and protecting the rights of journalists.

For more information about the EFJA’s current situation, see CPJ’s February 19 letter.