journalist safety, international observatory of human rights
Valerie Peay, Director of IOHR

International Observatory of Human Rights (IOHR) calls for the appointment of a UN Special Envoy dedicated to journalist safety on World Press Freedom Day in Ethiopia

• The International Observatory of Human Rights participated in the 26th celebration of World Press Freedom Day which took place in Addis Ababa from 1 – 3 May.
• The event was jointly organised by UNESCO, the African Union Commission and the Government of the Federal Democratic Republic of Ethiopia.
• With local partner EILCO-Ethiopian Institute for Leadership, Innovation and Organisation, IOHR hosted a panel discussion at the Partners forum to call for the appointment of a UN Special Envoy dedicated for the safety of journalists.

To pursue the call for the appointment of a UN Special Envoy dedicated to the safety of journalists, IOHR attended the 26th World Press Freedom Day in Ethiopia. This global forum was awarded to Ethiopia in 2019 in recognition of the extraordinary turn around of press freedoms in the country following the election of Dr. Abiy Ahmed.

What’s happening in Ethiopia?

In the annual global World Press Freedom Index, Ethiopia is 110, according to Reporters Without Borders. This is an unprecedented rise of 40 places in the rankings and is due to the release of all jailed journalists.

7000 political prisoners have also been released in the last 18 months and Ethiopians have for the first time the freedom experience a sense of justice and press freedom in their country

However, the call for the appointment of a UN Special Envoy is echoed by many NGOs, civil society groups, individuals and media outlets to combat the unprecedented attack on journalists worldwide. In 2019 there have already been 9 journalists killed including Lyra McKee in the UK. Over 90% of cases are not solved so it is also a reminder that so many still desperately need support. In many countries, publications are censored, fined, suspended and closed down, while journalists, editors, and publishers are harassed, attacked, detained and even murdered.

Under the campaign #DefendJournalists, IOHR, with its local partner EILICO, hosted a panel discussion at the UNESCO media forum event on the 1st May. This pre-event attracted over 900 participants and discussed essential aspects of press freedom under—a panel titled Challenges and opportunities for the media in the age of disinformation.

Alastair King-Smith, Co-ordinator for the Global Campaign for Press Freedom for the UK Foreign & Commonwealth Office spoke of the UK Government’s commitment to support a free press and highlighted the need for aligned frameworks to encourage other potential governments to follow the lead of Ethiopia in embracing press freedom. IOHR Director, Valerie Peay, described a waterfall effect if a UN Special Envoy could be underpinned by independent verification of due process and adherence to law.

Paey said:

“I’ve just come from New York after attending the launch of TrialWatch, The Clooney Foundation’s initiative to monitor courtrooms worldwide and rank the fairness of the proceedings while using an app designed by Microsoft to disseminate the information to policy-makers.

“It’s this type of accountability and action that will underpin constitutional pledges of press freedom. We need to turn words into actions.”

The journalist safety situation right now

Ruth Nesoba, Deployments Editor for the BBC Worldwide in Africa identified the frequent harassment, attacks and arrests that affect her journalist teams on a regular basis. She described the difficulties as a woman journalist in Africa and the hope that young journalists can develop their voice and confidence in a safe environment where they can thrive.

At a local level, the panel brought together renowned Ethiopian journalist Woubshet Taye and blogger Bekafadu Haile, both of whom had spent considerable time in prison in Ethiopia. Taye was imprisoned for 7 years when he criticised the previous government and Befakadu was imprisoned at least 4 times where he was tortured, beaten and held in solitary confinement in a bid to silence him.

They debated the current draft legislation aimed at tackling hate speech in Ethiopia primarily to combat the use of social media to stir up ethnic tensions and spread disinformation. Both journalists agreed that such legislation in the wrong hands could be used to once again silence free speech and there was a need for a different approach or more consultation with the government.

The panel was moderated by IOHR Correspondent Trish Lynch who asked Sirgut Yadeta, co-founder of EILCO and a former Telegraph journalist, what she saw as the major obstacles for Ethiopia.

Yadeta said:

“There is a lack of structure here.”

“We need to create the framework for a union to ensure professionalism and ethics are also brought to bear with new journalists entering the work market.”

Prior to the panel, IOHR and EILCO were invited to the British Embassy to meet with H.E. Ambassador Alastair McPhail to learn about their program poised to support the training of young journalists. The British Embassy in Ethiopia has already reached over 100 journalism students in training events across all geographical areas of Ethiopia and has established itself as a supportive hub for future development.

On 2 May, the opening ceremony of the 26th celebration of World Press Freedom Day took place and during which, Jeremy Hunt, the UK Foreign Secretary, announced £15.5m to support Ethiopia’s elections next year.

Hunt said:

“If successful and peaceful, the elections in May 2020 will be a major step towards building a democratic culture in Ethiopia and will lay a platform for a continuation and deepening of the inclusive reform Ethiopia has been making.”

H.E. Sahle-Work Zewde, the President of Ethiopia, also gave a speech in which she emphasised that it was a great honour to be hosting the celebration of World Press Freedom Day in Addis Ababa.

“I know what it’s like in a country at the bottom of the World Press Freedom Index,” the President said, highlighting the impressive reforms that have taken place under Prime Minister Dr Abiy Ahmed.

In her opening remarks launching the global event, Audrey Azoulay, Director-General of UNESCO spoke of the “historical moment” Ethiopia is experiencing.


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