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2/13/03 - PRESS FREEDOM IN ETHIOPIA - 2003-02-14

The government of Ethiopia wants to tighten its control over the press. Under a proposed new press law, the Ministry of Information would be authorized to prohibit the publication of anything deemed by it to "undermine the sovereignty of the country." For violating this or other vague and arbitrary provisions, Ethiopian journalists could be fined or imprisoned for five years.

Ethiopia's already stringent press laws are used to silence and intimidate political opponents. If adopted, the new legislation will make that task even easier. Newspaper editor Amare Aregawi [ah-mah-reh ah-reh-gah-wee] calls the proposal "a death sentence passed on freedom of the press in Ethiopia."

Under the proposed new law, Ethiopian journalists would be licensed by the government. They would be practically forbidden to report on the activities of opposition parties or publish any government document considered classified or confidential. Funding or assistance to the private press from any foreign source would be prohibited -- an ironic provision since the Ethiopian government itself is heavily dependent on foreign aid. Press releases from any international organization, including aid organizations that deal with Ethiopia's food crisis, would be considered "advertising" and would require the approval of the Ministry of Information.

Even without more censorship, the Ethiopian government has considerable control over the information available to the public. Government-owned print and broadcast media report only the officials' view. Officials themselves cooperate only with government media. Using press laws that forbid the publication of so-called "false" information, the government has jailed or forced dozens of journalists to flee the country.

To be sure, some of Ethiopia's journalists lack a world-class level of professionalism. Their reporting is sometimes inaccurate. Some are accused of having links to violent extremists. The government has a right to investigate genuine terrorist activity. It has no right to misuse the issue of terrorism to suppress press freedom.

Dealing with journalistic failings is a matter for professional journalists and the public. "Let us have democracy, access, and true freedom, and then accuse us afterwards if we distort the truth," said Dagnachew Teklu [dahn-nah-chew teh-kloo], a writer for the Daily Monitor newspaper. As the director of the Committee to Protect Journalists put it, it is time for the government of Ethiopia "to stop regarding the private press as enemies."