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Press freedom in Ethiopia debated in London

By Shuvra Mahmud

Sept 28, 2006 (LONDON) — Labour sector organizations such as the National Union of Teachers (NUT) must build strong links to support their counterparts worldwide, especially in countries where there are restrictions to the freedom of expression and the press, speakers told delegates at a public debate on press freedom and state control in Ethiopia at the School of Oriental and African Studies on 27 September.

Exiled President of the Ethiopian Free Press Journalists Association (EFJA), Ato Kifle Mulat, now living in Uganda, appeared with his hands bound in chains to give accounts of the struggle of journalists, lawyers and other human rights activists as well as his personal struggle in the face of restrictions by the Ethiopian government.

Mulat is reportedly one of the foremost personalities in African journalism. He has been editor-in-chief of many African and bi-lingual newspapers in Ethiopia and internationally. He has been incarcerated on several occasions by the Ethiopian government for his work of press freedom, and was awarded the "Human Rights Journalism Under Threat" award by Amnesty International (AI) UK in May 2004 amongst other accolades.

He said that "at present, there is no independent media in Ethiopia". Every reporter and editor in Ethiopia must have been arrested at least once for their work, according to the speaker, with many exercising self-censorship or fear long-term jail sentences. He appealed to the international watchdogs to come together to protect the media, which he called the "eyes and ears of the down-trodden masses".

Mundimu Mukemu, former lecturer and accountant, told delegates of the struggle not only of media workers but teachers, lawyers and judges also. He warned that the Ethiopian government had become adept at creating "clones" of labour organizations, with a more pro-government agenda than their counterparts, such as the Teachers Association of Ethiopia.

Calling on international coordination, support

The UK section of Amnesty International’s Africa Programme researcher, Dr. Martin Hill,called for the solidarity of all human rights defenders in the Horn of Africa against authoritarian regimes. He said that although international watchdogs such as AI, Reporters Sans Frontieres (RSF), Article 19 and others were initiating their own projects and response to protect journalists, there was a distinct lack of international coordination. He said that AI wants to build links between international organizations, such as the UK-based National Union of Journalists (NUJ), National Union of Teachers (NUT), and judges and lawyers groups amongst others; to support their counterparts struggling in countries such as Ethiopia, Somalia and Sudan.

NUJ President Chris Morely said that the NUJ was working with its international counterparts to support their colleagues in Africa. He stressed the power of "organized labour", not only from the journalistic professions but teachers and lawyers too, to influence politics and highlight "strong stories" for the attention of the media worldwide.

Paris-based RSF Africa desk officer Leonard Vincent reiterated the organization’s concern for the violations of human rights against journalists in Ethiopia. In the past year, he said, Ethiopia "disturbed us". The role of international watchdogs is to create problems to "restrictors" worldwide, he told delegates, producing "bad publicity".

However, he emphasized the need to understand the systems and personalities which fall under the category of "restrictors". He said: "Above all, we do not know our adversary and his point of view enough. We have some idea of their intentions, but are we sure we have understood the meaning of their acts?"

He called on international watchdogs to be "clear beyond personal convictions", to separate personal political perspectives with facts. "If we cannot understand," he said, "we cannot be understood."

Vincent called for the coordination of the varied approaches taken by international watchdogs set out in a "common text".

(BBC Monitoring)