Clampdown in Addis: Freedom of Information

Art. 8, Sec. 1 of the Press Proclamation grants the press “the right to seek, obtain and report news and information from any government source of news and information,” yet the private press continues to be denied access to government officials and their agencies. Moreover, independent journalists have been refused confirmation of information, or answers to questions posed to government representatives, in violation of Art. 19 of the Press Proclamation, which states that “government officials shall have the duty to cooperate with the press.” As a result, many publishers use personal contacts and fellow journalists in both the state and independent media as sources for acquiring government information for their publications.

One independent journalist told CPJ, “They [government officials] know they have a duty to obey the law. Now when you ask for information they tell you, “If I give you this information, all the other journalists will go against you because I didn’t give it to them,’ or, “I’ve given [this information] already.’ But they will never say “no’ outright.”

The private press is also barred from attending government-sponsored press conferences, including those held by the diplomatic community in conjunction with the Ethiopian government. By complying with this restriction on the private press, the international community has sent mixed messages to the Ethiopian government, quite possibly undermining its own efforts on behalf of independent journalists. When CPJ asked Prime Minister Meles whether his administration has plans to grant the private press access to government information, he replied that an “official decision has not yet been made.” Perhaps, he said, “we will have to relax, and every member of government will make his own individual decision about whom to speak with.”

The question of access will be central in parliamentary discussions that begin in October 1996. Speaker of the Parliament Davit Yohannes told CPJ that decisions will be made regarding the appointment of a government spokesperson or the creation of a Department of Information, which would be responsible for informing the media about government policies and activities; and the establishment of a press council, accessible to all media, which would promote and offer support to the press.

CPJ strongly urges the Ethiopian government to appoint a government press secretary to disseminate information to all press. Such an appointment would leave independent journalists less vulnerable to charges of publishing false information.