The violation of the mass media proclamation in the nomination and appointment of EMA’s board members have far-reaching and grave implications. One of them is its potentially chilling effect on freedom of expression. Article 29 of the Ethiopian constitution explicitly guarantees freedom of the press and states that the press shall, as an institution, enjoy legal protection to ensure its operational independence and its capacity to entertain diverse opinions. This provision is a replica of Article 19 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR). Article 29 enshrines the right to hold opinions without interference as well as the right to freedom of expression without any interference including freedom to seek, receive, and impart information through any media of one’s choice. The mass media proclamation reinforces these principles and acknowledges that the media play an irreplaceable role in ensuring respect for the success of efforts towards building a democratic system in Ethiopia. In recognition of this it provides that EMA shall be independent and free from any interference and influence, namely from the government, political parties, the media sector it regulates, religious institutions, commercial and other social groups and institutions. The appointment of members of the ruling Prosperity Party to the board of the Authority casts serious doubt over whether it can be truly neutral in cases where the party has a vested interest.
Ever since the legal framework enabling the private sector to engage in media activities was enacted in 1993, the private press has been operating under a constrained environment. While there can be no denying that internal problems have played a part in preventing private media outlets from developing to their full potential, external factors have also contributed to the woeful state it presently finds itself in. The external challenge mainly stems from the government. Though, a modicum of improvement has been registered under the current administration, many still needs to be done. Some government officials consider the private media to be “public enemy” and restrict their right to right of access to information. Moreover, journalists are occasionally jailed on flimsy charges and no one is held to account when they are subjected to abusive and unlawful treatment. Coupled with the backward step the appointment of EMA board members represents, these challenges are bound to endanger the survival of the private media.
Another equally, if not more alarming, ramification of the appointment is the fact that it makes a mockery of the much-touted reform of Ethiopia’s institutions of democracy. The utter disregard of the mass media law demonstrates that the ruling party, and by extension the executive branch of government it heads, continues to wield influence over the legislature, undermining the principle of separation of powers on which constitutionalism rests. As such Parliament’s role is to rubber stamp whatever bill is submitted to it; it has no meaningful role in enacting laws or exercising oversight of the executive. There can be no logical justification as to why lawmakers cannot challenge the government when it tables a resolution that flies in the face of common sense and a law they adopted themselves. The debacle signals a slide in the broadening of the democratic space, albeit slowly, witnessed since Prime Minister Abiy came to power in April 2018 and a return to the undemocratic practices of the ruling party’s predecessor—the Ethiopian Peoples’ Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF). As the saying goes bad habits die hard.
As a media institution we would like to reiterate that an act infringing press freedom is a serious blow to the constitution. Citizens in general and the private media in general should be given the space to to exercise freely the right to hold opinions and to freedom of expression. Accordingly, it’s of vital importance to guard against any and all measures endangering press freedom. When press freedom is respected democracy can take root. When press freedom is respected transparency and accountability will be fostered. When press freedom is respected it will be possible to create an informed society that plays a crucial role in accelerating sustainable development. As an act that not only undermines the rule of law, but also curtails the independence and neutrality of the EMA we call on Parliament to rescind its appointment of government officials to its board. The sooner the better!