Cablegate: Press Freedom - Oppressive or Permissive: Drl a/S

DE RUEHDS #2159/01 2210620
O 080620Z AUG 08



E.O. 12958: N/A



1. (SBU) During his July 23-25 visit to Addis Ababa,
Assistant Secretary of State for Democracy, Human Rights, and
Labor David Kramer met with media professionals and civil
society leaders on the state of press freedom in Ethiopia and
engaged senior Ethiopian Government (GoE) leaders on press
freedom and the newly passed Mass Media and Freedom of
Information Law (hereafter the "Press Law"). Media
practitioners blasted the Law as repressive and lamented
growing GoE restrictions over the press as one more realm of
the government's broader systematic closure of political
space in Ethiopia since 2005. In stark contrast, Prime
Minister Meles labeled the Law "permissive" and his senior
advisor and former Information Minister Bereket Simon
defended the Law and government dominance over the media
sector as a defense against the previous pervasive
environment in which the private press was intent on
undermining the constitution and calling for "ethnic
cleansing." In the face of the now-approved Law, A/S Kramer
urged GoE interlocutors to adopt an expansive and liberal
approach to registering journalists and media outlets and
confirming its professed intent of guaranteeing press freedom
through implementation of the Law. End Summary.


2. (SBU) In a July 24 roundtable discussion with prominent
private journalists, participants overwhelmingly argued that
the private press is fighting against the GoE for press
freedom which is increasingly in retreat despite significant
constitutional protections on paper. Media practitioners
called the Press Law which Parliament passed on July 1
"repressive." While Embassy Addis is still waiting for an
English translation of the final Law to conduct our own
review, roundtable participants criticized provisions that
grant the Information Ministry sole discretion on whether to
license journalists, that prevent individuals from owning
shares in more than one media outlet, and that declare the
defamation and false accusation of government officials to be
prosecutable matters of the state against which the truth of
the reports may not serve as a defense. According to the
participants, the Law defines biographical information about
GoE officials as classified, places the burden of proof of
guilt in judicial proceedings on accused journalists, and
imposes a maximum penalty of 100,000 birr (approximately
US$10,000) for violations of the law in contrast to maximum
sentences for violent crimes, such as rape, capped at a
fraction of that level. By targeting the entire supply chain
of the press process, the Law can be used to hold everyone
from news sources, to journalists, to street vendors culpable
for information disseminated. Unlike many media regulation
regimes internationally that define actions as permissible
unless they are expressly prohibited, participants argued
that the Ethiopian Press Law renders actions prohibited
unless explicitly permitted. They further noted that whereas
other countries make public information available but protect
private information, in Ethiopia the law makes private
information releasable while it closes access to public

3. (SBU) Media professionals argued that the Press Law
reflects only the latest step in the systematic rolling back
of press freedoms and the broader narrowing of political
space in Ethiopia since 2005. Participants cited the
following examples:

--A Broadcasting Law passed in 2007 prevents private
ownership of television broadcasting and short-wave radio
transmission, limiting private electronic media to
broadcasting via FM stations with a maximum reach radius of
90 kilometers;

--The 2005 closure of most private newspapers which are yet
to be reopened (13 of which were forcibly closed and others
closed in response to indirect pressure, market forces, and

ADDIS ABAB 00002159 002 OF 003

--Before the Press Law, media outlets were legally registered
if the GoE failed to provide a response within thirty days of
application submission, but now registration is not legal
until the Information Ministry explicitly registers the
requesting media outlet;

--The Press Law imposes maximum penalties equivalent to
US$10,000, whereas the previous law capped them at US$1,000;

--The dual functions of the Information Ministry as both the
government spokesperson as well as the regulator of the media
risks undercutting the release of relevant information to the
public; and

--The Amharic word used in the freedom of information portion
of the Law to outline the more than 60 subjects barred from
public disclosure has a double meaning that could be
interpreted as also barring media coverage of these issues,
not just barring the GoE's release of such information.

4. (SBU) One newspaper editor explained the GoE's approach as
being driven by the ideology of the "developmental state"
espoused by the ruling Ethiopian People's Revolutionary
Democratic Front (EPRDF) party. The editor argued that under
the "developmental state," eliminating poverty is the
priority while anything that impedes that effort, including
the disclosure of unflattering developments by a watchdog
press, is secondary. Further, the state must be powerful and
dominant, rather than just a facilitator. Still, media
practitioners did not reserve their criticism for the GoE.
Several argued that opposition political parties also do not
stand for press freedom and protest the watchdog eye of the
media focusing on them.


5. (SBU) In response to A/S Kramer's assertion that the media
is critical to the checks and balances necessary for a strong
democracy, Prime Minister Meles retorted that "the private
press in Ethiopia is an opposition press." Meles argued that
the private press holds similar political views as opposition
political parties and supports the same kind of actions that
would undermine the constitution as opposition parties.
Meles conceded that there is no pro-government press beyond
the state press, noting that some is "less pro-opposition"
while others are specifically linked to individual opposition
parties. Meles deflected all questions from A/S Kramer
regarding the recently approved Press Law, arguing that the
law was submitted directly to parliament without going
through the cabinet. Meles rejected any problems that people
may have with the Law, arguing that "I understand it to be a
permissive law."


6. (SBU) While Meles claimed to be unaware of the details
regarding the press, his senior advisor and former
Information Minister Bereket Simon was expansive during a
July 24 lunch. Bereket argued that prior to 2005, the GoE
tried to maintain a hands-off approach to the press.
Unfortunately, much of the private press was intent on
undermining the constitution. Unchecked in their publication
of extremist rhetoric and misinformation, the press succeeded
in provoking public resentment toward the GoE, which led to
the 2005 post-election violence. Bereket resurrected the
2005/2006 EPRDF mantra arguing that the press was "preaching
to kill Tigrayans along the lines of Rwanda-style ethnic

7. (SBU) A/S Kramer emphasized the constructive role that
civil society and the media play in a democracy and expressed
the USG's hope that the Press Law would establish a conducive
environment for responsible journalism and access to
information. A/S Kramer went on to note with concern the
GoE's closure of 13 newspapers in 2005 and persistent
refusals by the Information Ministry to register new media
outlets affiliated with journalists charged in the 2005
turmoil. Bereket stressed that the Press Law was subjected
to an extensive donor-supported dialogue and the first draft
was improved by input from a USAID-funded media regulation

ADDIS ABAB 00002159 003 OF 003

specialist. He further argued that "no complaints about the
final Law hold water." Ignoring the fact that most
opposition parties opposed the Law, Bereket defended the
consultative process by noting that some opposition leaders
(Lidetu Ayelu of the CUD-breakaway EDUP-Medhin party) offered
minor changes to improve it. Despite the new Law having the
effect of greatly expanding criminal penalties for the
publication of certain types of information, Bekeret
commended the Press Law for stripping the previous criminal
provisions from the Press Law and redirecting them to the
Penal Code. Ultimately, though, Bereket argued that the
Press Law has increased political space and freedom of the

8. (SBU) Following up on a request from Eskinder Nega (one of
the journalists arrested in 2005 and charged with "outrages
against the constitution"), A/S Kramer noted concern that the
Information Ministry had refused to approve licenses for
certain new media outlets. Bereket argued that as long as
journalists accept the law of the land, they would have no
problem, but if individuals were previously engaged in
undermining the constitution, the GoE cannot allow them to
continue, particularly if the judiciary had found them
culpable. EmbOff noted that the High Court not only
acquitted Eskinder, but dropped all charges against him in
April 2007 after the prosecution failed to present adequate
grounds to pursue charges against him. Bereket argued that
Eskinder and others charged "used front men to cover their
criminal writings," manipulated the judicial process, and
charges against them were dismissed on technicalities.
Still, he stressed, the GoE knows that he was among those
journalists most intent on undermining the constitution.
Bereket explicitly alleged that "their papers called for
ethnic cleansing." (Note: The GoE initially charged a dozen
journalists, editors, and publishers and scores of opposition
political leaders with capital offenses from "outrages
against the constitution" to "genocide" in a November 2005
through July 2007 political trial. Upon the conclusion of
the prosecution's case, the Ethiopian High Court dismissed
all charges against the journalists and all charges of
"genocide" against all defendants for lack of evidence.
Several publishing houses were later found guilty on the one
charge of "outrages against the constitution" as corporate
entities, but journalists affiliated with them were not. End
Note.) Bereket clearly emphasized that despite having never
been convicted by a court of law, Eskinder would never be
licensed to practice journalism again in Ethiopia unless the
GoE had a guarantee that he and his colleagues had changed
their ways and would abide by the constitution. When pressed
by A/S Kramer on how they could prove such a change, Bereket
argued that they would have to publicly admit their
involvement in undermining the constitution and accept
responsibility for the violence and turmoil they had caused
before the GoE even considered a new license request.


9. (SBU) A formal analysis of the Press Law by Post (once it
is available) will shed light on appropriateness of concerns
over its provisions. Still, the message from media and civil
society leaders was clear: the media environment is
oppressive and an indicator of the broader narrowing of
political space. Ethiopia's private press is generally of
marginal quality and prone to political bias, but improved
media training offers a preferable remedy over the GoE's
approach of tighter control. Bereket Simon is a tremendously
influential member of the ruling party's central committee.
His comment that the GoE will take executive action in cases
where the judicial system provides an incorrect finding (as
in the case of Eskinder Nega) is alarming and offers an
insight into the mind-set of Ethiopia's ruling elite. End

© Scoop Media

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