Ethiopia: Unfreedom of Information By Alemayehu G. Mariam
Life and Times of Democracy in Africa
The long march of democracy in West Africa seems to be well underway. In July 2009, I wrote a weekly commentary marveling about Ghana’s multiparty democracy. Wistfully, I asked the rhetorical question: “Why is democracy in motion in Ghana, and on life-support in Ethiopia?”
In May 2011, in another commentary I expressed my admiration for Cote d’Ivoire President Alassane Ouattara when he publicly asked the International Criminal Court (ICC) to conduct an investigation into gross human rights violations in his country, despite the high risk that he and his top leaders and supporters could potentially be implicated in such an investigation. I rhetorically asked: “Could the election of Alassane Ouattara signal the beginning of Africa’s second independence? Is there hope for the end of thugtatorship in Africa and the beginning of a new era of democratic governance, openness and political accountability?”
Hope springs eternal in Africa and light is now visible at the end of Africa’s thugtatorship tunnel. On May 31, 2011, Nigeria’s newly-elected president Goodluck Johnathan’s lifted the dark curtain of secrecy that had shrouded Nigerian politics for decades by signing a freedom of information act (FOIA). Nigerians now have the legal right to demand open government, political accountability and transparency.
Meanwhile, democracy in East Africa remains on life support. It suffered a massive stroke in Ethiopia in May 2010 when dictator Meles Zenawi declared election victory by 99.6 percent. Since 2005, Zenawi has put that country’s tiny private independent press on the ventilator and tethered the rule of law to the heart-lung machine. He put human rights in intensive care and has managed to anesthetize the population into silence. A couple of weeks ago, he secretly sought to negotiate a deal with the Governing Board of the Voice of America (VOA). If the VOA blacklists and blackballs his critics in the U.S. and banishes them from ever appearing on VOA broadcasts, the electronic jamming will be lifted. Last week, Zenawi’s henchmen appeared before the Human Rights Committee of the U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights to boldly claim that the independent press operates freely in the country, there is not a single instance of official torture and so on.
In Uganda, Yoweri Museveni, who seized power in 1986, became president-for-life in 2011. In Kenya, democracy survived by the skin of its teeth after 1,500 people were killed and 600,000 displaced in election-related violence in 2008. Somalia? What more can be said about Somalia?
Freedom of Information in Nigeria
Nigeria’s FOIA, like Ouattara’s request for an ICC investigation, is one of those bellwether events that could be used to determine whether Africa is poised for a second independence from thugtators in uniform or designer suits. The law has been in the planning and deliberation process for over a decade. It aims to deal with the core problems of governance in Nigeria – endemic corruption, lack of accountability and transparency and official secrecy. Gbenga Adefaye, President of the Nigerian Guild of Editors, explained that the Act “has expanded the frontiers of press freedom for Africa’s most vibrant press.” He praised Johnathan for his “personal commitment to openness, transparency, accountability and good governance.”
The consensus among Nigeria’s opinion leaders is that the law will not only serve to improve governance but also empower citizens and enhance their ability to effectively participate in the democratic process. Armed with critical information on the functions and operations of government institutions and performance of political leaders, citizens could help keep government clean, expose and fight corruption and hold accountable those officials who rob the public treasury and abuse their powers.
The law establishes “the right of any person to access or request information” from “any public official, agency or institution.” One need not give a reason to request information. A public agency must provide the requested information within 30 days. If the information is not turned over, the person requesting can get a court order to compel disclosure. The law makes a narrow exceptionfor information that is likely to “ jeopardise national security, affect the conduct of international affairs or would amount to the release of trade secrets of the country.”
All “public institutions” are required to keep “records and information on all of their activities, operations and businesses”. The information to be kept include a wide variety of documents ranging from organizational manuals, official decisions, rules, regulations, planning documents, reports and studies to applications for any contracts, permits, grants, licenses or funds and even the names and salaries of public employees. Such information must be “widely disseminated and made readily available in print, electronic and online sources, and at the offices of such public institutions.”
A public institution may deny a request but must “state reasons for the denial.” If a “wrongful denial of access is established, the defaulting officer or institution shall on conviction be liable to a fine of N500,000.00].” Any public employee who “willfully destroys any records kept in his/her custody or attempts to doctor or otherwise alter same before they are released” is subject to imprisonment for one year.
Unfreedom of Information in Ethiopia
In 1991, Zenawi as a victorious rebel leader declared, “Now is the beginning of a new chapter. It is an era of unfettered freedom.” Twenty years later today, we have an era of “unfettered” unfreedom of information. While Nigeria is opening its political process to the light of public scrutiny, Zenawi has blanketed the country with an electronic information blackout and kept busy drawing up blacklists of imaginary enemies he wants to censored and gagged in the U.S. and elsewhere.
Since 2010, Zenawi has electronically jammed the broadcasts of the Voice of America, Deutsche Welle and the Ethiopian Satellite Television (ESAT). Following the 2005 elections, he managed to totally decimated the independent press by shuttering newspapers and jailing journalists. Last month he jailed two young journalists, Woubshet Taye, deputy editor of Awramba Times (a struggling weekly paper) and one of the few female journalists in the country, Reyot Alemu of Feteh (another struggling weekly paper) newspapers, on bogus charges that they were “organizing a terrorist network.” According to the Committee to Protect Journalists, “Alemu had recently criticized the ruling party’s public fundraising method for a major dam project on the Nile, and Taye has critically covered local politics as the deputy editor of his newspaper.”
Last week, Zenawi jailed Swedish photojournalist Johan Persson and reporter Martin Schibbye, on charges that they crossed over the border from Somalia without accreditation. Press repression in Ethiopia is so massive and intense that Zenawi even censored World Press Freedom Day events this past May. Ethiopia has the second lowest Internet penetration rate (after Sierra Leone) in sub-Sahara Africa. Every Ethiopian pro-democracy website is blocked from access in Ethiopia.
President Ronald Reagan said, “Information is the oxygen of the modern age. It seeps through the walls topped by barbed wire, it wafts across the electrified borders.” If that is true, Ethiopians today must be suffering from an acute case of hypoxia and breathing through the heart-lung machine. Supposedly, Ethiopia has a freedom of information law (Proclamation No. 590/2008 – A Proclamation to Provide for Freedom of the Mass Media and Access to Information.) Anyone who has carefully studied this proclamation will be impressed by the lofty platitudes, truisms and boilerplate legal clichés and verbiage borrowed from the laws of other nations. But as a piece of legislation, it is hollow, vacuous and meaningless. In Article 4, it provides, “Freedom of the mass media is constitutionally guaranteed. Censorship in any form is prohibited.” Yet the proclamation bursts with heavy-handed censorship. Onerous burdens are placed on “editor-in-chiefs”, “media owners”, “publishers”, “importers”, “printers”, “distributors” and ordinary citizens who seek to gather or disseminate information through an elaborately camouflaged system of registration, certification and licensing requirements. It compels self-censorship through direct threats of serious criminal and civil prosecution for “offenses committed through the mass media” (Arts. 6-9; 41.)
Under the proclamation, citizens supposedly have a right of “access, [to] receive and import information held by public bodies, subject to justifiable limits based on overriding public and private interests.” But the “justifiable limits” include non-disclosure of any Cabinet documents or information (Art. 24), any information relating to the “financial welfare of the nation or the ability of the government to manage the economy of the country” (Art. 25), and any information on the “operation of public bodies [including] an opinion, advice, report or recommendation obtained or prepared or an account of a consultation, discussion or deliberation… minutes of a meetings…” (Art. 26). Simply stated, no information may be released on the activities of government ministers and officials, banks or any other official financial institutions and the internal proceedings or external reviews of public institutions. To top it all off, any public body may refuse a request for information if it determines for any reason the “harm to the protected interest which would be caused by disclosure outweighs the public interest in disclosure.” (Art. 28.) Such is freedom of information by smoke-and-mirrors.
Nigeria now has a reasonable chance of having openness and transparency in government with its FOIA. For decades, Nigeria’s government has suffered a reputation as one of the hopelessly corrupt in the world. Allegations of massive graft, fraud, abuse, waste and conflict of interest in government have persisted year after year. Despite anti-corruption laws and enforcement efforts, the problem of corruption in Nigeria has not diminished. The Nigerian judiciary and law enforcement agencies are criticized widely for lack of integrity and professionalism.
There are many who say implementation of the law will be nearly impossible because of the prevailing culture of corruption in Nigeria. No one believes the FOIA is a panacea to the problem of corruption or governance in Nigeria, but the availability of a legal tool that can be used aggressively by a determined few in the media could put a big chill on the criminal activities of the thugs and gangsters that have a chokehold on power. Minimally, Nigeria’s FOIA could be used to name, shame and prosecute some of the most corrupt officials and create broad public awareness for clean honest government.
It is said that “absolute power corrupts absolutely.” Freedom of information is the principal tool by which the absolute powers of dictators can be curbed. African dictators, like hyenas on the African plains, like to operate in the dark invisible to the prying public eye. It is through freedom of information laws that these hyenas could be forced out of the dark and into the public square and be held accountable.
Hope springs eternal in Africa. The rising sun of democracy over North Africa is casting rays of hope on West Africa. The sun that rises for North and West Africa will also rise for East Africa. The African Lords of Darkness should not feel victorious because keeping a nation in the dark does not mean the people are blind, deaf and dumb. The light of freedom shines in the hearts and minds of the oppressed during the day and at night; and there is no power on earth that can put out that light. Those condemned to live in darkness should always remember that night always turns into light; the moon, the stars and the heavens shine brightly in the darkest of nights, and it is always darkest before the dawn. Until dawn breaks, let us reflect on the words of Shakespeare: “There is no darkness but ignorance…I say, this house is as dark as ignorance, though ignorance were as dark as hell; and I say, there was never man thus abus’d.” I say there was never nation thus abus’d.