World Press Freedom Day is celebrated around the world on May 3, and this year the main celebration took place in Addis Ababa, over three days, May 1-3. The theme for 2019 was “Media for Democracy: Journalism and Elections in Times of Disinformation” and the event has provided a platform for officials, representatives of civil society, media organizations, professional associations, academia and the judiciary to discuss current issues, threats and achievements, on the freedom of the press. The occasion saw the attendance of thousands of journalists from across the world, NGO representatives and officials from government and regional and international organizations. There’s been a wide range of plenary sessions, debates, talks and other opportunities to address different aspects of the theme as well as an academic conference on the safety of journalists and the dangers they face and a Youth Newsroom for young journalists and journalism students to cover the event and extend their reporting skills.
It’s entirely appropriate for Ethiopia to host the occasion this year as it has demonstrated the largest improvement in the treatment of journalists over the last year. Prime Minister Abiy laid out a new approach to the media in his acceptance speech a year ago: “we need to respect all human and democratic rights, especially of those of freedom of expression”, and followed this up in a spectacular manner to provide for freedom of the press, releasing a wide range of political prisoners, including both journalists and social media activists and bloggers. Within a couple of months, 264 websites had been unblocked and two externally based opposition TV stations set up inside Ethiopia. Working groups are revising the main laws covering media activity, and the changes have allowed a free press to flourish again in Ethiopia. Ms Vera Songwe, Executive Secretary of the United Nations Economic Commission for Africa, noting the changes, said she hoped Ethiopia would be ranked in the top 20 for press freedom next year; African Union Commission Deputy Chairperson Thomas Kwesi Quartey praised Ethiopia for notable achievements in reforming aspects of government functions, referring to a year “of remarkable reform.”
In his address at the official ceremony of the UNESCO/Guillermo Cano World Press Freedom Prize dinner ceremony on Thursday (May 2), Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed said, “We acknowledge with great honor Ethiopia’s selection to host World Press Freedom Day,” adding that as Ethiopia strives to introduce comprehensive legal and institutional reforms, it was reassuring to note that “our measure so far to effectively realize the right to freedom of expression and the press, are duly recognized by the international community.” He added that the symbolism of such a grand gesture was even more significant, given that only a year ago, Ethiopia was labeled as Africa’s foremost jailer of journalists and one of the worst environments in the world for the functioning of independent media.
Prime Minister Abiy underlined that his government has no misconception that a free, independent and responsible media, augmented by the workings of citizen journalism, is an imperative prerequisite for building a viable democratic political order. However, the Prime Minister underscored, “It is also important to highlight that freedoms come with responsibilities. Media establishments and citizen journalists need to seize this current enabling environment and use their voice and pen with ethical considerations. We need to ensure that the opening up of the media space does not facilitate misinformation, the spread of hate speech and fake news.”
This year’s theme, “Media for Democracy: Journalism and Elections in Times of Disinformation” also relates to the media’s potential in supporting peace and reconciliation processes, a subject of particular relevance to Ethiopia today, and for the elections due next year. To quote UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres, “no democracy is complete without access to transparent and reliable information.” The theme is aligned with the Sustainable Development Goals. SDG 16, for example, concerns issues of peace and democracy as preconditions for equitable and sustainable development: “When freedom of expression and safety of journalists are protected, the media can play a vital role in preventing conflict and in supporting peaceful democratic processes.” It also urges states to “ensure public access to information and protect fundamental freedoms, in accordance with national legislation and international agreements.”
This year’s UNESCO/Guillermo Cano World Press Freedom Prize was awarded to jailed Myanmar Reuters journalists Kyaw Soe Oo and Wa Lone by Ethiopian and African Union officials.Distributed by APO Group on behalf of Embassy of the Federal Democratic Republic of Ethiopia, London, UK.