Ethiopia’s access to information law kept in the rear side of the door

This past September, delegates and leading experts in freedom of access to information from all over the world met in Cape Town and launched a landmark attempt to build on the epochal 1991 Windhoek Declaration on press freedom to an African Platform on Access to Information. I together with over a thousand delegates all over Africa did so by launching a declaration– “African Platform on Access to Information – a declaration that builds on its historical ancestor to establish, for the first time ever, general legal principles that define on access to information as a fundamental human right. But what is prospect of this declaration in Ethiopia?
In Ethiopia it took almost half a decade to ratify a law on freedom of access to information. Besides, though access to information is commonly described as other side of the media freedom coin – freedom of access to information receives little attention in the country. My observation is that most global free press ranking is usually made based on the authorities’ treatment of journalists in the country. Hence, Ethiopia’s World Press Freedom Index has been slipping to nadir. In 2010 Ethiopia was ranked 139th and in 2011 even worse. And in their complementary report the publishers, Reporters without Borders, pointed out the slippage to arbitrary arrest and detention of journalists and surveillance of the press but not on the status of freedom of access to information. This freedom is a basic one. There are plenty of journalists and political philosophers who consider it the first and foremost of a certain democracy. African Platform on Access to Information is probably the most robust expression and enshrinement of the primacy of access to information for open governance and transparency and hence democracy.
However, I am not saying that Ethiopia’s World Press Freedom Index ranking would have improved had the report included the status of freedom of access to information. Bluntly speaking Ethiopia’s rank would have fallen even behind probably behind the most common repressive regimes of the press in Africa like Eretria. I found it also important to mention the recent arrest and detention of journalists on allegedly trumped-up charges of the country’s anti-terrorism laws which continue to be a subject of heated discussion and protest amongst custodians of the free press is another big blow for the implementation of access to information law.
I recognized that though the freedom to access to information laws endorsed for all citizens but the most frequent and discouraged users of freedom to access to information laws are journalists and whistleblowers (though there is no legal protection for whistleblowers in Ethiopia). Of course it can also be claimed that freedom to access to information laws need journalists and whistleblowers to realize their potentials as political accountability tool to realize their role as the fourth estate. But to consider the Ethiopian press as a fourth state is probably the most hypocritical concept as the government owns national broadcaster Ethiopian TV and Radio controls the airwave.
In Ethiopia, ‘freedom of access to information’ means freedom to request little development related information and communicating them only as news when the authorities find the information necessary to be in the public domain. In many opinions of authorities, this is ‘freedom’ of access to information. Many journalists and free press activists argue that freedom of access to information in Ethiopia is becoming worse. Some even goes on to argue that in Ethiopia journalism is growingly understood rather in a different way from generally accepted norms that are thought in Ethiopian higher education journalism departments. They claim that journalists are perceived as support staff or public relation officers by authorities, and journalism itself as an intermediary bridge for communicating information the authorities deem enhance communication between government and the public. Journalists from both the dwindling private press and the government media are not actually free to access any information they wish weather the information they request is exempted by law or not .
Such a situation is painful anywhere, but particularly in one of the few countries of Africa that ratified freedom of access to information and that recognizes freedom of access to information as a fundamental right. Ethiopia’s government behavior this calls into question not only its desire but also its ability to commit to the principles underlying the declaration– “African Platform on Access to Information and its own proclamation that supposedly provided freedom of the mass media and access to information.
It is not clear that the situation has improved notably since the passage of the law – Freedom of the Mass Media and Access to Information Proclamation (590/2008) – for instance, let alone journalists even members of the parliament were unable to get access to the full truth about cost of Ethiopia’s war against Somali’s Alshabab as these kinds of information dubbed as national security issues and are exceptions to the law and this makes the law as it stands is hindering the free exchange of ideas and information.
The right of journalists to get access to sensitive topics, including national security, is a basic right. Journalists who do not found accountable of criminal activity by an independent court should not face arrest, incarceration, or any other form of harassment or intimidation for doing their job to defend themselves.
Far from being slanderous and rebellious, journalists who tried to get access to sensitive information and criticize the government’s actions make obvious loyalty to their profession, because no democracy can survive without the open and independent assessment of public policies that government provide. Without implementing freedom of access to information abundantly from local administration to the prime minister’s office, the democratic state cannot survive. Indeed, one of the failings of Ethiopia’s democracy is failing to realize of freedom of access to information law in a coherent and robust fashion.

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