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Press freedom remains elusive in Ethiopia

By Abraham Fisseha

ADDIS ABABA, May 1 (AFP) — Freedom of the press in Ethiopia has remained as elusive as ever since the current government overthrew dictator Mengistu Haile Mariam in May 1991, Ethiopian media experts and lawyers said ahead of Monday’s World Press Freedom Day.

"After the current government came to power more than a decade ago, press freedom has become increasingly elusive and the talk of it has only been for the consumption of international donors and financial institutions to attract their fundings," communications analyst Assefa Chewaka said.

"The government has used the press law to manipulate international donors and financial institutions," Chewaka told AFP.

"Society and even the people in power are newcomers to the idea of press freedom but, nevertheless, this does not mean the core principles of press freedom are not known within both circles," he explained.

An opposition MP said the previous governments of the deposed Emperor Haile Selassie and Mengistu had clear laws guaranteeing the right of expression, "but still there was no free press, as such."

"The present government of Prime Minister Meles Zenawi has only allowed circulation of newspapers and magazines as a smokescreen to its real image," added the MP, who asked not to be named.

Hundreds of newspapers went into print in May 1991 and subsequent years, but more than 200 journalists have since been either arrested, exiled or killed.

Reporters without Borders said in its most recent annual report that Ethiopia’s journalists "continue to work in very difficult conditions," and government pressure on editors "reinforced self-censorship in the privately-owned press."

"Many have been released on parole after being detained, and could be imprisoned at any moment. The authorities have still not taken the necessary steps to open up broadcasting to the private sector," the international press freedom advocate said.

Abera Tsegaye, a former journalist-turned businessman said a "lack of professionals and finance, in addition to heavy-handedness by the authorities, have prevented Ethiopia from attaining the desired and most needed goals of press freedom.

"I have been in and out of prisons for more than three years, for a simple reason that I have reported ethnic clashes in southeast Ethiopia. I have paid a price and, indeed, it is a small price I can pay to attain freedom of expression in our society," Tsegaye said.

Tsegaye said many of his colleagues are now out of the media - some went into exile while others are struggling with the few opportunities that exist.

"In reality, freedom of expression in Ethiopia is next to nil," he said.

Lawyer Dawit Amedie agreed, citing a lack of professionals and a stifled cultural outlook as the main obstacles to advancing press freedom.

"Leave alone society in general, we the so-called educated class have mixed attitudes towards the principles of press freedom. We are poles apart, our attitude is determined by the positions we hold," Amedie said.

"The so-called educated people are the ones who are unable to make a difference, because whenever they secure a job in the government, they abandon everything and join hands to criticize those who raise the issue, and even try to curtail the freedom," Amedie said.

"We have to learn to be consistent, we should not be a chameleon that changes its color with the surrounding, we the so-called educated have a role to play if press freedom is to take root in the country," he added.

Ethiopia ranked a lowly 142nd out of 193 countries assessed for print, broadcast and Internet freedom, according to a report by the New York-based Freedom House watchdog group released Wednesday.

The report said Ethiopia ranked as "Not Free", in the same category as Angola, Djibouti, Iraq and Leban

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