Ethiopian leaders confronted over press repression

The sixth African Media Leaders forum in Addis Ababa last week had been billed as a chance to “discuss how the media can contribute to a fresh narrative about the region.” But at the conclusion of the event, it would be apt to exchange “fresh” for “brutally honest”, as the conference found itself as the forum for journalists from Ethiopia and beyond to confront the Ethiopian government over seven reporters jailed on “terrorism” charges in the country.

Even before the start of AMLF, it drew criticism for being held in a country where press freedom has eroded rapidly over the past eight years. Ethiopia is currently no. 137 on the Press Freedom Index. By comparison, its southern neighbour Kenya is no. 71 and to the north, Eritrea is firmly at the very bottom, at 179.

However, whether it was intended to be the at the heart the agenda or not, the AMLF did help shine a harsh spotlight on the issue of media freedom in Africa. On the first day there was a public forum where local journalism students xxxxxxx xxxxxx xxxxxxx. Some said they were afraid to tweet, for fear of reprisals from the authorities.

Attending the forum, CBA Secretary-General Sally-Ann Wilson observed the palpable tension at the event, both due to the tight security, but also the  heavy use of anti-Western sentiment by the Ethiopian Deputy Prime Minister Demeke Makonnen, and the Kenyan Deputy President William Ruto to explain away suppression of the media. The idea of journalists being jailed for their journalism was “Western propaganda” and Ruto argued that campaigns for media freedom of expression underpinning the theme of the conference were, in fact, foreign, Western, imperialistic “narratives”.

“We need to ensure that African journalists are free to tell their own story,” said Sally-Ann Wilson. “Media in the West is free – however with freedom comes responsibility. We must report on Africa in a fair and balanced way, beyond the stereotypes of war, famine and corruption. Wilson also noted that the forum was dominated by print media and commercial broadcasters. “The lack of representation from public and state broadcasters was surprising,” she said.

The forum’s organisers, the African Media Initiative (AMI), defended the choice of host country, arguing for the importance of  direct engagement and highlighting that they were close to gaining permission to visit the jailed Ethiopian journalists, where other delegations had been refused outright.

The AMI said in a statement: “We embarked on this admittedly risky pursuit because we believe in respectful and candid dialog; after all, the same strategy of engaging leaders directly has helped free journalists this year in two other African countries.”

Tweets from the conference showed that Ethiopian journalists at the forum kept press freedom firmly on the agenda and directly challenged the leaders at the forum. Ironically however, there were also many comments over twitter reporting the blocking of social media services such as Storify while the conference was taking place.

The conference took place against the backdrop of a press-restricting media bill being tabled in Kenya at the same time, making the comments by the visiting Kenyan deputy leader appear ominous indeed.

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