As Ethiopia struggles toward democracy, press under fire

New laws are expected to be approved by Ethiopia's parliament next month that would restrict the country's private print media.

Down the cobbled alleyways of this capital, up above the grocery stores, and tucked away behind garages and hairdressing salons, are the offices of Ethiopia's thriving private presses.

There sit the journalists, hunched and crowded around rickety tables, typing away under flickering lights and bemoaning the broken phone lines, the low salaries, low prestige - and the new press laws.

Since the "Derg" regime of dictator Mengistu Haile Mariam ended 11 years ago, private newspapers have been sprouting in this country. At last count, there were 93, most of which have an average staff of two (who usually need to subsidize themselves), a readership of a few thousand (approximately 65 percent of Ethiopia's 65 million people are illiterate), and scant advertisers. Their biggest fan club? Boiled bean vendors, who use newsprint to wrap their wares. This might, say detractors, be the best use for some of them.

While the number of responsible, professional private papers here is growing, many editors rely heavily on "borrowed" copy from the Internet or unverified stories that have little relation to the truth: The Ethiopian president is reported dead, the exact date of a US invasion of Iraq is announced, and various businessmen are charged with corruption.

Not surprisingly, the government wants more accountability. Introduced earlier this month, the proposed press laws seek to regulate printed press, and are expected to sail though parliament next month. But journalists see it as a blow to this country's emerging democracy.

"This is a death sentence passed on the freedom of press in Ethiopia," writes Amare Aregawi, editor of the "Reporter." He points out that in a country where both radio and TV are still state owned, the private print press is the only nongovernment voice being heard. "Itwas born out of anger and the wish to exact revenge," he claims, "and makes the country, the public, and the government a laughingstock of the world."

But Ethiopia is just one of several young African democracies where reporters and the government are fighting over the right balance between encouraging a responsible press and allowing journalists to perform their role freely as watchdogs.

Diplomats and other observers here say that, while perhaps not quite as draconian as journalists assert, Ethiopia's proposed new laws - with their long, ambiguous clauses - are a clumsy step in the wrong direction for this fledgling democracy. They had hoped, they say, that the Ethiopian government and the press - both equally unused to the powers of freedom of expression - might have found a better way of regulating the media.

"This is a country with no real experience in plural democracy," says Laura Williams, a political secretary at the British Embassy. "So you have [a] government which understands, intellectually, that it needs to loosen up, but emotionally finds it hard to accept criticism from the outside." On the other hand, she points out "...there are some papers that don't understand journalists have a duty to tell the truth." The outcome, she concludes, is that government "...tars all papers, good and bad, with the same brush - and now plans to further deny them access or freedom. It's not good."

The law, if passed, will prohibit any reporting on opposition party activities, for example, as well as ban the printing of any government documents, henceforth classified as confidential. No funding or assistance to the private press from outside sources will be allowed (which seems to include both fundamentalist Islamic organizations and invitations to professional conferences at the American Embassy alike) and press releases from nongovernmental organizations will be considered ads that must be paid for and taxed. Access to government officials, now notoriously difficult, will be made even harder.

"We want the government to stop regarding the private press as enemies," said Josh Friedman, director of the board of the New York based Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ), on a visit to Ethiopia several months before the new laws were presented.

The British Embassy here had been trying to organize workshops for the government and the private press to discuss the problems at hand and avert a wider clash between them. At the first meeting, the private press, denied the right to speak, walked out. Next month, the Embassy plans to try again.

Few African countries have found a comfortable balance between the government and free press. The Economic Freedom of the World 2002 Annual Report - put out by the Fraser Institute of Vancouver, British Columbia - found that with few exceptions (South Africa, and, to a lesser degree Botswana and Mauritius) African governments were the worst offenders in the world in restricting the freedoms, including press freedom, of their citizens.

For example, in neighboring Eritrea, its authoritarian rulers have shuttered the independent press completely, and jailed those who dare criticize them. CPJ ranked President Issaias Afeworki of Eritrea, together with Zimbabwe's Robert Mugabe, as one of Africa's "most repressive" leaders when it came to press freedoms. The Ethiopian government - which blanches at any comparison with Eritrea - argues that its own situation is completely different. "The new press laws are not censorship," states Netsannet Asfaw, state minister for information. "They are a demand that responsible press use some self-censorship."

Ms. Asfaw fought on the front lines against the previous regime. Today, she sees that fight continuing - only now, it's directed against the private press which, she believes, represents little more than the leftovers of the old Marxist regime. "They are never accountable for what they write," she says. "They write things just to spite us, stirring up ethnic and religious tensions and then hiding behind talk of democracy."

Dagnachew Teklu, chief writer of the private paper Daily Monitor, begs to differ. "Let us have democracy, access, and true freedom, and then accuse us afterwards if we distort the truth," he says.

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