Ethiopian press bill flawed, needs revision

July 11, 2008

His Excellency Girma Woldegiorgis
President, Federal Republic of Ethiopia
Addis Ababa, Ethiopia

Via Facsimile: (251) 11 551 8656

Dear Mr. President,

The Committee to Protect Journalists is concerned that the pending Mass Media and Freedom of Information Proclamation, passed by the Ethiopian House of Peoples’ Representatives on July 1, does not fully incorporate public input, including that of local journalists and legal experts. The bill is flawed as a result, and we urge you to reject it and send it back to lawmakers for revision.

The bill was intended to reform the existing 1992 press law in line with international standards on press freedom, according to local journalists. In April, Prime Minister Meles Zenawi told Newsweek the government hoped the new press law would be “on par with the best in the world.”

In principle, the bill upholds constitutional protections against censorship, prohibits pretrial detention of journalists, and recognizes the rights of journalists to form professional associations. However, we are concerned that a number of its provisions allow the government to restrict the independent media, while leaving intact existing repressive statutes that fall well short of international standards.

In particular, the bill allows prosecutors to summarily impound any print publication deemed a threat to public order or national security. The bill also increases fines for defamation to 100,000 birrs (approximately US$10,000). Defamation and libel remain criminal offenses under Ethiopia’s penal code punishable by heavy prison sentences, according to CPJ research.

While the bill recognizes the government’s obligation to provide information of public interest, its mechanisms render the provision toothless. The bill grants information officials in government agencies the exclusive discretion to withhold information deemed sensitive while providing the public and the press no avenue for judicial review, according to legal experts.

The measure does not alter or address repressive elements in the existing press law that grant the government’s Ministry of Information absolute authority over media regulation, according to CPJ research. They include provisions empowering the ministry to “register and issue certificates of competence” to the press, to monitor the activities of the media, and to control the publicly owned Ethiopian News Agency. We believe the ministry’s official function as “the main source of government information” with a duty to “promote government policies and image building” compromises its mandate to “facilitate conditions for the expansion of the country’s media both in variety and members.”

This year, the Ministry of Information denied licenses without explanation to three independent newspaper editors known for their critical coverage of the disputed 2005 elections, according to CPJ research. Editors Serkalem Fasil, Eskinder Nega, and Sisay Agena remain blocked from securing necessary commercial licenses to launch their new publications.

The Mass Media and Freedom of Information Proclamation was adopted without full public consultation and was opposed by most opposition party lawmakers in the House, according to local media reports. As an independent, nonprofit organization upholding the principles of press freedom worldwide, we urge you to reject this bill and call for its revision in consultation with journalists and legal experts. Thank you for your attention to this matter.

Joel Simon
Executive Director