Wednesday, 20 January 2021

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Reporters with (and without) borders

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2 May 2014 - “A cockroach can’t give birth to a butterfly. Do your duty to clean your neighborhood - crush the cockroaches!”

This propaganda message was broadcasted on Radio Télévision des Mille Collines (RTLM) in the early spring of 1994 in Rwanda. And the devastating fact is that these words of hatred were a precursor to the subsequent genocide.

As we celebrate World Press Freedom Day, UN stresses the importance of a free, independent and pluralistic media environment, which respects and protects the human rights and freedoms of all individuals. A press that incites hatred is not only undemocratic and inhumane, it also undermines some of the core functions of the media: to enlighten and contribute to development.

Media played a crucial role in fuelling the hatred and violence that led to the Rwandan genocide. 20 years later, the field of communications has expanded enormously, opening up new territory for hate speech to thrive. The online propaganda and incitement to hatred related to the current situation in Ukraine is only one example.

But as the media can contribute to infringe fundamental human rights, it also holds the potential to ensure them. Political action is often dependent on the information journalists have gathered, and as journalists report on grave human rights violations, they may also contribute to protecting the freedoms of others. All over the world, journalists are risking their lives in the mission to inform us about grave human rights violations, such as in Syria, The Central African Republic and South Sudan.

Ethiopia is another country where journalism continues to be a dangerous activity. According to International Federation of Journalists (IFJ), the country ranks as one of Africa’s worst jailers of reporters. In addition, Ethiopia has driven more journalists to exile than any other nation.

One of them is Ephrem Shaul. He is now working together with other exiled Ethiopian journalists who have fled prosecution in Ethiopian Satellite Television (ESAT), the first independent media broadcasting uncensored news to Ethiopia. Almost all of the journalists at ESAT have received life imprisonment sentences and death sentences, due to their journalistic activities.

“I was persecuted while I was in Ethiopia and have been brutally arrested in 2001 for peacefully demanding academic freedom whilst being a student at Addis Ababa University. Later in 2005, I was again brutally arrested for demanding the votes of Ethiopian people to be respected, when the regime claimed to have won the election. I was arrested for being a human right activist, peacefully protesting against the repression of the regime. But I never committed any crime”.

The World Press Freedom Day therefore also serves as a day to support journalists, editors and publishers who are harassed, attacked, detained and even murdered. It is also a day of remembrance for those journalists who lost their lives in the exercise of their profession.

The freedom of journalists to monitor, investigate and criticize all aspects of society is both a precondition for democratic development, as well as a manifestation of the respect for democratic values. Freedom of expression in the media realm builds a platform for the public to express their own opinions, and serves to empower individuals in shaping societies. Or as Ephrem Shaul puts it: “Without press freedom, you can neither achieve, nor sustain genuine democracy”.

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