‘Press freedom without code of conduct is a disaster:’ Amare Aregawi
Amare Aregawi is the co-founder and executive chairperson of the Ethiopian Media Council. He is also the founder and owner of Media and Communication Center, a publisher of a biweekly Amharic newspaper called Reporter, and a weekly English newspaper, The Reporter. He as well co-founded and co-owned the ARTS TV.
Why did it take too long to establish the Ethiopian Media Council?
Some challenges went beyond our control indeed. Some 15 years ago, the government came up with a draft law that mandated the government to establish a media regulating Council. And most media representatives rejected it as establishing and running the Council is a matter of media self-regulation.
We fought almost for a year to urge the government into changing its mind. After one year, the government considered our concerns and removed the article that mandated the government to establish the Council and replaced it with an article that allows media self-regulation.
So, what was your next move?
Immediately after that, we engaged ourselves in researching the kind of entity
that we should establish here. We contacted various media councils across the world. And finally, we got some experts who were helping other African and Asian countries on creating a media council. Then, with the support of the UNDP and people who have wealth of experience in creating media council, we had finalized the process and went to then Charities and Societies Agency for registration (now renamed as Agency for Civil Society Organizations).
But the process was not a bed of roses. Another challenge had rolled in our path.
We were told that the law did not allow media organizations to be licensed to
establish the council [for it recognizes only natural persons to establish professional association]. Hence, the establishment had stalled until the law gets amended. It took us four years, and in June 2019 we saw the light of day.
You cannot come to the operation phase immediately after registration. We have to set up an office. And we should also raise funds to run the day to day activities, not to mention providing the office with the required facility and personnel.
Can the Council deliver per its objectives currently?
We have already set the wheels of the Council in motion. The three big structures of the Council are in the making. The Council should have these three bodies – i.e., the speaker, the executive, and the jury. All have their mandates. For instance, the executive runs the day to day activities of the Council. There shall be also another body that summons a regular or ad hoc sessions. What is more, the ombudsman office of the Council is organized independently to handle any complaint that various bodies may lodge. When there is a complaint on a content published in a newspaper or magazine or broadcasted on radio or television, it is this body that handles the case.
Who are the Council’s members?
The members should be from the parliament, legal associations, chambers, media, famous Ethiopians and the like. We have already communicated in writing with all these bodies and are waiting for their responses. Some of them have already responded to our calls positively. We expect the remaining bodies to respond very soon. Following this, the ombudsperson will be formed.
Almost all of them have responded to send three candidates. We have requested each organization to send three candidates, and one representative from each will finally join the ombudsperson.
Many organizations have received the Council’s membership status. We have members from both government and private media institutions – television, radio, newspapers, and magazines. We have also members from associations of journalists, publishers, broadcasters, and editors. The Council has brought 50 organizations under the same roof.
How do you raise funds?
The main source of our fund is membership contribution. There are reputable organizations that show increasing zeal to support the Council as well. We may levy members to contribute a certain amount of their profit to the Council. It could be one-two percent of their profit before tax. This contribution will help run the Council and we will look for alternative funding to execute our programs.
What are your major purposes?
Primarily, we advocate freedom of the press by making members adhere to the code of conduct already in effect. By the way, the code of conduct and freedom of the press are mutually inclusive or they are two-side of the same coin. The code of conduct without freedom of the press or the vice versa is just a fish out of water.
What is more, there are sensitive issues in Ethiopia pertaining to religion, identity, election, and the like. These issues have to be addressed properly with the code of conduct. More to the point, the blurring line between journalism and activism should be dealt with a clear code of conduct. As media and journalists, we can argue whether governmental decisions are bad or good; its policies are sound or not, or whatnot. But, under the guise of journalism and media, one cannot pursue ill-conceived missions be it hatred, killing or the destruction of property.
To what extent will the Council promote freedom of the press?
The Council is very useful in that it enforces the code of conduct to be embraced by the practitioners. In some African countries, even the heads of state and government express their dissatisfactions over the media to a media council. They do not refer a complaint directly to a court of law. This constructive trend, we hope, will be practiced here as well. And when the Council understands that the government is crossing the line, it will resist that too. In doing so, it will play a pivotal role in the creation of an enabling environment for the media.
Had the drafting of the code of conduct been participatory?
Yes, when four years ago while we were in the early stage of establishing the Council, we invited international experts to draft the code of conduct. After the standard draft Code was drawn, all members participated in the process of approving the provisions. It is also flexible and we can amend it if needs arise to do so.
Some people harshly criticize that the media’s support to the ongoing reform is minimal? What is your take on this?
This will be a hasty generalization. Some media are playing a constructive role. There are indeed others that breach the code of conduct. However, this will not be corrected by force. It is education and training that will alleviate the bad trend. In times of clear breaches of code of conduct; the public, organizations or the government will now have alternatives. They will either come to the Council or go to the court. This is, of course, their choice.
But, we are sure that we make a difference. If one goes to court, he/she knows the time and cost it takes. The media as well wants to avoid that hassling. Thus, the Council will be a confluence point to both.
Members will access all the documents and sign to get abided by the code of conduct. The Council will see only cases its members. Media practitioners and/or the media may make errors intentionally and unintentionally. When the Council arbitrates, media outlets can get a chance to regret the error and publish or broadcast the correct information.
Let’s move to a bit different topic, you won the 7th round Bego Sew Award in the category of Media and Journalism. Was that inspiring?
To me, it has sent a clear message that says, ‘please do well, do better, do much better, and be more responsible’. And I will do my best to serve my people much better, and to do everything for Ethiopia’s betterment, unity, economic development, peace, and others.
Source: The Ethiopian Herald