Addis Ababa, Ethiopia – Elias Meseret, an Ethiopian journalist with more than 11 years’ experience, is feeling optimistic as he marks World Press Freedom Day on Friday.
Little more than a year ago, Ethiopia was known as one of the world’s worst persecutors of journalists with the ruling Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front‘s (EPRDF) tight grip leading to dozens of journalists being exiled, as others were imprisoned.
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However, since reformist Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed took over the chairmanship of EPRDF and the premiership in April 2018, Ethiopia has moved to unblock hundreds of dissident websites, welcome back exiled journalists and media outlets, as well as ease the work environment for journalists.
Meseret has taken advantage of the more relaxed atmosphere, launching a social-media news service to fight fake news and hate speech, which have grown recently.
The new order is being abused, he said, because once-repressed voices have been given the chance to be aired publicly.
“I see that the opening of the media space has presented Ethiopians with new opportunities to express their views freely and with it also the dangers of hate speech,” said Meseret.
The Ethiopian government says it is aware of this and is preparing legislation that would impose up to three years in prison for those found to be disseminating hate speech and fake news.
Billene Seyoum, a spokeswoman at the prime minister’s office, says Ethiopia is trying to ensure accountability comes with renewed press freedom by drafting anti-hate speech legislation.
“Both citizens and government have responsibility to ensure the fabric of Ethiopian society isn’t broken,” she said.
Meseret, however, is concerned that newfound media freedom could be curtailed with the anti-hate speech draft legislation.
“Generally I’m against the involvement of the government in enacting any kind of laws,” he said. “As we’ve seen, the government can infringe on the rights of individuals using laws such as the 2009 Anti-terrorism proclamation.”
At state news outlets, there is a slightly different story.
Pawlos Belete, chief news editor at Walta Information Center, a pro-government TV station, said while his station has started inviting formerly outlawed individuals and groups for interviews, the channel is grappling with old habits.
“I’m afraid the momentum for greater editorial independence at Walta won’t continue, with the old habits of secrecy, increased editorial control by management and the tendency to block alternative opinions returning back,” said Belete.
“The media should be given a relatively free environment to operate, to expose faults to help the government take corrective measures and ensure public accountability. If the media reverts to its old self of blocking information on urgent matters, it could put the country and the people in danger again.”
For Asmeret Haileselassie, lecturer at Addis Ababa University School of Journalism and Communications, the ethnic divides in the booming media scene should concern everybody.
“Nowadays people are organising themselves and their media outlets along ethnic lines, opening up even more potential to deepen ethnic differences,” said Haileselassie, citing the dangers of biased media in a country grappling with around three million internally displaced people, partly as a result of ethnic conflicts.
Polarisation can also have dire consequences on the safety of reporters, as evidenced by recent assaults on journalists by civilian mobs.
The Ethiopian government should prioritise providing digital literacy, she said.
“If the national elections in 2020 goes as planned, the public needs to make informed decisions, to avoid a repeat of the post-2005 national elections violence when some media outlets were accused of fanning divisions, contributing to the bloodshed” said Haileselassie.