Originally appeared in Ethiopian Review Magazine November 1992
The Council of Representatives of the Transitional Government of Ethiopia last month approved a “Press Law” authorizing government officials to exercise sweeping censorship powers over the press and persons associated with the press. This law is unnecessary and unduly burdensome on the traditional and universal functions of a free press.
The “Press Law” covers both the print and electronic media. Any means used for mass dissemination of information is considered “press” and any person involved in the dissemination of information is considered a “journalist” within the meaning of the law. The press is required to submit its publication for approval to a local or national censor who will determine whether the particular publication passes a test of subversiveness. Appeal may be taken to a judicial body. However, the burden of proving that the publication is not subversive or will not contribute to “illegality” or “social and ethnic conflict” is placed on the press.
Those of us who are in the press have basic concerns about the “Press Law.” First, the law criminalizes the ordinary and legitimate functions of the press to report on important and legitimate issues of public concern. It is impossible for the press to legally prove whether an article in a publication will contribute to “social or ethnic conflict” at some point in the future.
Second, the law creates a hostile and chilling environment for the free exchange of ideas. Anyone writing for a publication, including those writing letters to the editor, may be subject to criminal prosecution if the government censor arbitrarily determines that the piece of writing is subversive or contributes to “social or ethnic conflict.”
Third, the law is ultimately intended to stifle any criticism of government policy or expressions of disagreement with the government. Under the new law, for instance, critical analyses of the Transitional Government’s policy of ethnic enclaves would expose both the publication and the writer to criminal liability. This is intolerable and unacceptable.
A free press is a cornerstone of democratic liberties. A free press is a watchdog against government tyranny and corruption; it is the primary means by which society learns about the performance of public officials and institutions. No society can claim or aspire to be democratic if it imposes arbitrary and undue burdens on the functions of the press.
The importance of a free press has been amply demonstrated in the experience of the most enduring democracies. A medium for the transplantation of proven democratic values and experiences to Ethiopia is desirable and very much in need.
History shows that when the bell tolls for the free press, it tolls for free speech, the right to petition government, the right to assemble…
Alemayehu G. Mariam, Ph.D., J.D., is Senior Editor of ER. He teaches constitutional and international law at California State University and maintains a law practice in Beverly Hills, California.