"No democracy is complete without access to transparent and reliable information. It is the cornerstone for building fair and impartial institutions, holding leaders accountable and speaking truth to power." — António Guterres, United Nations Secretary-General.
"Press freedom is the cornerstone of democratic societies… At a time of growing discourse of mistrust and de-legitimization of the press and journalism, it is essential that we guarantee freedom of opinion." — Audrey Azoulay, Director-General of UNESCO.
This year the World Press Freedom Day was celebrated in Ethiopia on May 3rd. This is the fifth time that an African nation is selected to hold this important event in its backyard. Above all it has significance in terms of giving credit to the efforts underway to completely liberalise such freedom in the country. After Senegal (celebrated with the theme ‘Media and Good Governance’ in 2005), Mozambique (‘Celebrating the fundamental principles of press freedom’, 2008),Tunisia, (‘New Voices: Media Freedom Helping to Transform Societies’, 2012) and Ghana last year with the theme ‘Keeping Power in Check: Media, Justice and the Rule of Law’, Ethiopia became the fourth sub-Saharan African country to be given such an opportunity.
Admitting that it is fundamental to let people express their opinions and beliefs within of course the respect of others’ rights, is a big step forward in the country’s drive towards full-fledged democracy. If we accept that only a democratically elected government can actually resolve the various challenges the country faces today, the role of the media as vehicle of facilitation in the choice becomes clear. Undoubtedly, it is impossible to think of democracy without freedom of expression and freedom of press.
‘Reporters Without Borders’ has written Ethiopia has made ‘spectacular progress’ improving forty steps in the World Press Freedom Index to 110 among 180 countries. No journalist is behind bars and bloggers and foreign based media are allowed. The progress is appreciated but there is still space for improvement. The hope is that the Abiy government will do more in the coming years specifically legislation and technology wise.
UNESCO says World Press Freedom Day gives us the occasion to not only celebrate the principles of press freedom but also gauge the state of such freedom in the world at large, besides defending the media from assaults on their independence. It is also an occasion to give due credit to those who are engaged in the trade risking their lives.
UNESCO decided this year’s celebration theme: Media for Democracy: Journalism and Elections in Times of Disinformation. The issue of fake news and disinformation has now become a real challenge for press freedom and governments are seen suffering from it. How can we avoid this pitfall which is all the more dangerous in countries such as Ethiopia where the level of maturity of the population is relatively low and people are tempted to act emotionally when they see certain postings on social media? The abuse of social media is now becoming a real threat to democracy besides the dangers of destabilization and deterioration of law and order.
This is the 26th time that the day is celebrated and this year it was done jointly with the African Union Commission, AUC, and the Ethiopian Government along with UNESCO.
The message is particularly timely for Ethiopia given the imminent election season coming and the key role the media is expected to play. Time and again the government of Ethiopia has been heard stating that democracy is not an option for Ethiopia’s survival first and its progress next, but an imperative.
Only a democratically elected government by the people can guarantee justice, progress and unity. And there are no alternatives to this. That is why we cannot overstate the importance of free press and strong and independent democratic institutions. Addis Ababa thus proudly hosted this event and Ethiopians hope to earn the maximum benefit from it.
Despite the recent progress mentioned above there are still lots of things for government to improve in terms of provision of accurate and timely information to the various media freely and not discriminate among outlets. There are still problems in the printing press industry due to the prohibitive price of paper and technological gadgets used to record and disseminate news and views. The frequent breakdown of the internet is also mentioned as a challenge.
The road may be rough and long but it can be travelled on smoothly if there is enough understanding in the way we perceive and live this freedom. And the latest efforts of UNESCO, AUC and the Federal Government must endeavour to keep us with good prospects for the future in this.
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