October 1, 2020

Ethiopia needs Access to Information as much as “Prosperity”

Editorial

With the timely message of Saving lives, Building Trust, Bringing Hope within the global…

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By Admin

With the timely message of Saving lives, Building Trust, Bringing Hope within the global community, the international day of access to justice was celebrated this week on Monday September 28, 2020. This year’s instalment of the internationally commemorated day of access to information focused on the paramount importance of access to information during times of crisis such as this one. 

While the obvious intention of the United Nations for choosing the theme of this year was the novel coronavirus pandemic, for Ethiopia and Ethiopians the lens through which the term “times of crisis” is defined is a bit vast than only the pandemic. Along with the pandemic, recent times have proven challenging to the nation. 

The past summer is a profound example to showcase this reality. In one of the most eventful summers of the country, the nation was swept with riots following the assasination of popstar Hachalu Hunddessa; several prominent politicians and journalists were arrested; signs of genocide were observed in Shashemene, Burayu and Metekel; a regional election was held in Tigray challenging the questionable Ethiopian constitution and the 6th national and regional elections were postponed and reinstated by the legislative upon the recommendation of the executive. 

For this and many more events and reasons, the Ethiopian definition of what the term in “times of crisis” is wider in scope than most nations in the world. Similarly, the relevance of guaranteeing access to information at constitutional, statutory and policy levels is also greater in the context of Ethiopia. This is further compounded by the upcoming elections of the country as information is key to voters in making informed decisions as well as holding officials accountable throughout and at the end of their term. 

It is in this context, that Addis Zeybe writes the following editorial reflecting on the status of access to justice in the post-Abiy era as well as the ways forward to guarantee the access to information of all Ethiopians to save lives, build trust and bring hope. 

Defining Access to Information

Granted, like all human rights principles, the definition of the right of access to information is dynamic with jurisprudence surrounding the right changing every now and then. But, the fundamental elements of the right remain the same. Ergo, the right of access to information is defined as the right of citizens to access information held by public authorities. The right is also recognized as an integral part of the freedom of information and speech, a principle enshrined in Article 19 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and in the Resolution 59 of the UN General Assembly adopted in 1946. The principle is also enshrined in the ICCPR and other regional and national legislations. 

According to a note regarding the right on the website of the United Nations Education, Science and Cultural Organization, the principal assumption made by the idea of the right of access to information is that all information is public unless it is protected by legitimate privacy and security concerns. In other words, the right of access to information presupposes that all information belongs to the public while appreciating some information may be held from the public on legitimate reasons. 

Another important element of the right of access to information can be found in the 34th General Comment of the Human Rights Committee. In paragraph 18 of the general comment, access to information includes both a right whereby the media has access to information on public affairs and the right of the general public to receive media output. This interpretation, therefore, requires the state to guarantee the right to media institutions. An important observation here - especially in the context of the current editorial - is the appreciation of the committee to the important role of the media in the realization of access to information. This is because - even though it must be legally and in principle guaranteed to all - without the media playing to the role of the middleman is quite significant from a practical and an expertise point of view. 

In the same general comment, the HRC also provides measurements and criterions that must be employed before asserting a government is respecting the right or not. The first measurement relates to availability. In this regard the HRC recommends that states should “proactively put in the public domain Government information of public interest”. Accessibility is the second measurement identified by the committee. The HRC recommends in terms of accessibility that states must take appropriate measures to make information available in an easy, prompt, effective and practical manner. Issuing legislations that guarantee the right of access to information is the final measurement employed in gauging a country’s record in relation to access to information.

Granted, access to information has a more nuanced definition now. However, the above definition should suffice in the interest of brevity and because enough groundwork has been laid to discuss the important points of the current editorial. To conclude this section the right of access to information is cumulative accessibility and availability of information held by the state to the media and the general public. 

Ethiopia and Access to information

To understand the challenging history of human rights in Ethiopia generally and access to information specifically, a glance past records of the country in relation to the observance of human rights norms suffices. And the outcome of such an overview of Ethiopia’s human rights record leads one logical conclusion. Like many third world countries, Ethiopia struggles to meet most of the standards enshrined in a number of human rights conventions it has passionately adopted throughout its history.

This is also true in the context of the right of access to information. Not much empirical reasoning and evidence is required to demonstrate this. Censorship, the detention and disappearance of media personnel, bureaucratic hurdles between information seekers and the government, recurrent internet shutdowns, crackdown on media space, restrictive legislations affecting the enjoyment of access to information are among some of the threats of governments spanning from the emperor’s regime to the current “prosperity” seeking government of Abiy Ahmed Ali. 

Now and then

The past couple of years have been key to Ethiopian human rights discourse. Statutory and policy measures have contributed to the creation of better circumstances for the enjoyment of access to information. Freedom House - one of the key advocates of the right of access to information -  said the following reflecting on Dr. Abiy’s administration and the right to the internet:

“Ethiopia experienced a significant improvement in internet freedom during the coverage period, in large part due to changes implemented by the administration of newly appointed prime minister Abiy Ahmed. In June 2018, the government lifted a state of emergency and unblocked more than 260 websites”

reflecting on the changes seen since the introduction of the new administration. According to Freedom House, in addition to the above measures, it is also true that harassment of the media and recurrent internet shutdowns have become less common and grave than the previous administration. However, despite seeming complimentary, the above realities are merely footnotes to the continued lack of accessibility and availability of information in Ethiopia as the Freedom House only gave Ethiopia a score of 28 out of 100 in terms of internet freedom, which is integral to the realization of access to justice. The Freedom House stamped Ethiopia as “Not Free” in its assessment published in 2019.

Like the Freedom House, Addis Zeybe appreciates the change initiatives under the current administration as well as grasping the infrastructural impediments of the country (as it relates to internet freedom only). However, it is also right there with the House when it comes to the commitments of the Ethiopian government both to its people and to the international and regional instruments it has ratified, there is still a long way to go. 

The Upcoming Elections and Access to Information 

In most literature as well as jurisprudence surrounding the right of access to information, the principle is closely associated with good governance, rule of law and democracy. One of the recurring examples used by writers to explain why access to information is important is its relevance to elections. 

It is common to hear the well-founded argument that when access to information is guaranteed citizens can make informed decisions in the process of voting. They can understand policy level arguments that in turn helps them identify the right candidate. Access to information - when guaranteed - also contributes to transparency and accountability which allows voters to vote out officials that are corrupt or incapable of representing their interests. 

This is also true in the context of the sixth round of the Ethiopian national and regional elections scheduled to take place in the current Ethiopian year. It is Addis Zeybe’s firm position that the government must improve its track record in relation to its definition and policies on access to information. 

It must commit to allowing the media to audit it by providing the appropriate information which in turn will allow the public to make an informed decision contributing to the “aspirations” of the current government to hold free and fair elections. It must stop using mass media outlets as propaganda platforms. It must give the public the chance to make informed decisions based on empirical reasoning. 

Misinformation and the role of the government

Analogies comparing Ethiopia to countries with horrible and documented genocide incidents such as Mynamar and Rwanda has become a common denominator of articles by several news outlets in recent times. This portion specially relates to the analogy related to the far eastern nation Myanmar. 

The understandable premise behind the recurring use of the analogy that compares Myanmar and Ethiopia is based on the role social media is playing in instigating hate crime that has led and continues to lead to genocide like attacks in both countries. Many warn that Ethiopia is heading in a similar path assisted by the neglect of social media companies such as facebook. Their fear is well founded. 

However, the lack of access to information in the current administration also contributes to the misinformation and incitement on social media that is causing many harm. Addis Zeybe believes that the gap that allows misinformers and inciters to have the impact they are having is the immense lack of information given to the public by the government. When the state stays silent, uninformed citizens turn to social media. Therefore, the government must bridge this gap, so as to create informed citizens that are not susceptible to voices of incitement because of the evidence they possess.  

Hands off the Switch

In American movies where there is a character playing a president, the “Nuclear Football” is usually part of a very important scene in the movie. If such a movie was to be made in Ethiopia, it is very relatable if the author chose to come up with a similar scene, but with a switch that turns the internet off as opposed to blowing a Russian city beyond recognition. 

Yes, it is definitely more localised and less recurrent. But Abiy’s administration has flipped the off button on the internet several times since the “change” took place. Addis Zeybe appreciates the fact that certain security issues related to the nation as well as its inhabitants may warrant actions on the internet. However, it also calls on the government to progressively build its capacity to maintain peace and security without flipping the switch whenever something happens. Addis Zeybe also reminds the Ethiopian government of its responsibility to follow the proper procedural steps before derogating any human rights principles, in this case a set of rights that include freedom of speech, opinion, information and expression.

Not the tip of the iceberg, we need the full story

Many working in media can attest to the fact that the flow of information, at least in terms of density - is more bulky than before. News is interesting again because different sets of information come from the government on a daily basis. This is encouraging. Due credit is given here. But, more often than not, information is either shared after its relevance ceases or is shared in a manner that satisfies the minimum requirements of the government’s duty to inform, but leave out important details. 

For example, to date not much is known of important details regarding several imperative issues in the country. The students who were kidnapped on their way back from Dembi Dolo University are the first and last example necessary here. Close to no information was shared with the media or the public. Even families of the kidnapped students have faced problems getting updates related to the status of their children and that of those responsible for the crime. The children have now been missing for over 300 days with the status of the investigation still left in the dark. 

Addis Zeybe takes this opportunity to echo the message #BringOurGirlsBack. The government has the responsibility to investigate and report on the status of the girls to the families of the girls and the general public. 

The government must correct its ways and share meaningful information via the media or through its own outlets. It must make sure that questions of the public are answered. And when not answered, the government must follow proper constitutional procedures and explain to the public as to why the information is not shared. Better, accessible and customer friendly websites designed to allow citizens to seek and locate information with ease. In addition to posting phone numbers in such websites, calls on these numbers must be answered. Tweets are good. But they don’t suffice. 

Conclusion

As a news outlet operating in the Ethiopian media landscape, Addis Zeybe is committed to the principles of human rights, specially those rights related to the creation of an independent media space. Access to information is one of these core human rights principles. On the back of the International Day of Access to Information, Addis Zeybe asks the government to consider the points of observation shared above in its statutory and policy decisions regarding the right of access to justice. 

Finally, Addis Zeybe echoes the message of the UN during the celebration of the 2020 International Day of Access to Justice with the following message to the government of Federal Democratic Republic of Ethiopia and its commander in chief, Prime Minister Dr. Abiy Ahmed;

We are in times of crisis. Ethiopians are faced with the natural challenges like the coronavirus pandemic, incidents of flooding and the desert locusts. This is further compounded by ethnic based violence with signs of genocide, persistent constitutional dilemas, political tensions and other socio-political challenges. Therefore to save lives, build trust and bring hope in these times of global and national crisis, the government must renew and observe its commitment to the rights of access to information.