Abiy was awarded the 2019 Nobel Peace Prize today for ending decades of hostility with neighbouring Eritrea and achieving reconciliation at home. Ethiopia’s media and journalists have been among the leading beneficiaries of his premiership, which began in April 2018.
Within weeks of his becoming prime minister, Ethiopia’s prisons had ceased to hold any journalists, a situation with no precedent in more than ten years. Hundreds of radio and TV stations and news websites that were banned under the previous government are now permitted. Formerly exile media outlets such as OMN and ESAT can now operate legally within Ethiopia. Freedom of expression is not suppressed and media access to government officials has improved.
These changes were responsible for Ethiopia’s extraordinary 40-place rise in RSF’s 2019 World Press Freedom Index. No country has ever risen so fast in the Index since its launch in 2002. These achievements were recognized by UNESCO when it chose to celebrate this year’s World Press Freedom Day, on 3 May, in the Ethiopian capital.
“Ethiopia’s journalists and media have unquestionably enjoyed a new lease of life since Abiy Ahmed became prime minister but this Ethiopian press spring will only last if these changes are institutionalized,” RSF secretary-general Christophe Deloire said. “We urge the prime minister to lose no time in adopting legislation that gives journalists more protection. And, reinforced by this Nobel Prize, we also urge him to promote press freedom at the regional level, especially as several Horn of Africa countries are news and information black holes.”
Last July, RSF warned the Ethiopian authorities against any temptation to “reverse course” on press freedom after several journalists were briefly arrested or were subjected to intimidation during a surge in ethnic conflict. One general even threatened reprisals against any media outlets that “tarnish the reputation of the armed forces.”
The 2009 terrorism law, which was widely used by the former government to arrest journalists and bloggers, has still not been repealed, while the promised reform of press legislation has yet to materialize. No bill has been submitted to Ethiopia’s parliament and the committee tasked with drafting the new legislation has said nothing publicly about how its work is progressing.
The changes seen in Ethiopia have yet to reach its neighbours. Eritrea continues to be sub-Saharan Africa’s biggest jailer of journalists with at least 11 currently held without access to families or lawyers, some of them for 18 years. Like its Eritrean neighbour, Djibouti allows no independent media outlets, while Somalia continues to be Africa’s most dangerous country for journalists, with 58 murdered or killed in connection with their work in the past ten years.
Ethiopia is ranked 110th out of 180 countries in RSF’s 2019 World Press Freedom Index.