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IPI fact-finding mission reports on state of press freedom

(IPI/IFEX) - After meetings with local media and the head of the Office of Government Communication Affairs (OGCA), IPI's fact-finding mission to Ethiopia found that, despite positive developments, concerns still exist regarding the government's influence over the flow of information within Ethiopian society.

In several meetings over the course of a week, IPI was informed that public relations officers working in individual ministries report to and take their lead from the OGCA, which also guides state media. Journalists within the state media, according to reports, act without editorial independence. Concerns were expressed that the involvement of the OGCA head in governance structures at state media reinforces government influence.

A document loosely translated as, "Our Media's Developmental and Democratic Working Philosophy: Basis and Directions" provides evidence of the government's direction on media development. Published in April 2008 by the government printer, Berhanenna Selam, the document reportedly invites the media to focus on developmental journalism and informs journalists that they should focus on success stories.

With its positive philosophy and detailed presentation of news methods and techniques, the document is viewed by some who have read it as an attempt to shift news reporting away from the traditional news values of holding the government and other Ethiopian institutions accountable.

Asked about these issues, the head of the OGCA, Bereket Simon, disputed the suggestion that the flow of information is controlled. Discussing the employment of public relations officers, Simon said the OGCA has a "dotted line relationship with them." He also denied that the government controls the state media, and argued that the governance structure ensures independence and is in fact proof of a public service commitment, similar to that of the British Broadcasting Corporation.

On the issue of developmental journalism, he said the OGCA is "not interested in media development that is obsessed with negative news."

"Development is at the center of the government agenda and there is nothing wrong with its promotion," Simon said.

Concerning the ongoing legal case involving attempts by media owners Serkalem Fasil, Eskinder Nega and Sisay Agena to secure publishing licenses for several political newspapers that were shut down in 2005, Simon said that the "government has no power to overturn the judicial decision." Asked whether he would be willing to award the license on the basis of supporting a more open media environment, he said, "No."

Although the fact-finding mission met with individuals who expressed concern about the government's handling of the media environment, there were others who were optimistic about developments. There was support for elements of the new media law, especially the element related to freedom of information, as well as the removal of the authorities' power to hold journalists in jail while pursuing an investigation.

Some of those interviewed said the government had learned from its adversarial and aggressive approach of the past and was attempting to engage with the media.

IPI Director David Dadge said, "It is quite obvious that there have been improvements, especially the commitment to the freedom of information law. But too often, the government is intransigent on issues regarding critical media. Contrary to the government's view, the issuing of licenses to critical media is a sign of maturity and confidence in a functioning democracy. The government also has a lingering desire to exert influence over the media, especially state media, which currently falls far short of traditional public service models."

Commenting on the issue of developmental journalism, Dadge said, "Governments always want media to concentrate on what they believe to be the true issues, but they should resist the temptation to try and interfere in the media's right to report independently: attempts to shift attention to developmental issues risks damaging the media's credibility, making it less likely that the public will believe their reporting," said Dadge.

Recommendations of the Fact-Finding Mission:

a) Government should review its relationship with the state media and ensure the proper development of public service media.
b) Government must refrain from attempts to control the information flow and recognize that a plurality of voices, including those that dissent from the government's view, are helpful to Ethiopian society.
c) Government should resist the temptation to adopt the practices of other countries without first asking whether they are: i) Beneficial to the Ethiopian media environment, and ii) In accordance with Article 19 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.
d) Media should discuss ways of introducing independent and voluntary self-regulatory mechanisms that enhance the credibility of the media and reinforce best practices.

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