A leading Ethiopian newspaper on Wednesday reproduced a cartoon on its entire front page showing silhouette of a woman representing press freedom, blind-folded and being led to a noose to be hanged. It read in bold print “rescue press freedom from the hangman”.
The cartoon protests a controversial press law that was passed on Tuesday by the Ethiopian parliament despite protests from journalists, publishers and international media watchdog groups.
These groups say the newly passed law is restrictive and undermines press freedom in Ethiopia. But the government views it as a step in the right direction.
Bereket Simon, a special advisor to Ethiopia’s Prime Minister Meles Zenawi, says despite public fears, the new law reassures freedom of the press in accordance with the country’s constitution.
“The original one was not so expansive and it does not cover all the necessary areas that should be covered according to the constitution of ethiopia which recognizes the right to free expression.”
Outlining the second reason that prompted the government to pass new press legislation, Simon said, “The government believes that it was necessary to introduce additional provisions that enable citizens to acquire information from the government, such as the information act.”
Editors, publishers and journalists met in the Ethiopian capital on Wednesday to protest and condemn the law. They said the legislation was passed contrary to the country’s constitution. But Simon said the press proclamation is derived from the country’s constitution.
“In the first place, this law is derived from the federal constitution which in article 29 fully accepts the right free expression and has done away with prior censorship.”
Originally the proposed draft press law was discussed with journalists and other stakeholders as far back as 2004. Bereket Simon chaired the discussions under his previous position as a minister of information. Simon says the legislation was passed following discussions with those who are involved in the media business and consequent consultations with outside experts.
“What we have done since 2004 was that we have invited consultants from the developed world, they have studied it, they have advised us, they have come up with a revised version. After seriously discussing the issues with them we have come up with the revised press law.”
Journalists and publishers, however, feel quiet the contrary. They say important provisions that they have suggested have been excluded in the legislation enacted by parliament. They asked the government to re-consider and incorporate amendments that they discussed in bi-partisan meetings with the government.