The Berhanena Selam Printing Enterprise recently brought to the fore a new draft contract to be signed between the publishers and the printers. The new draft contains two articles, that denote the re-emergence of censorship.
The following is written in article 10: ‘Declining to print content violating the law’
‘10.1. The printer has the right to refuse to print any written script that the publisher submitted for printing, should it have adequate reason to judge that the script breaches the law.’
‘10.2. The printer reserves the right to terminate or cancel the contract at any time, should it have adequate reason to judge that the publisher has a propensity to publish a content which entails liability.’
When this issue was raised during the World Press Freedom Day (WPFD) that was marked on Thursday, May 3, at the newly built African Union Hall, Amare Aregawi, General Manager of the private newspaper Reporter argued that freedom of expression in Ethiopia is facing a more serious challenge than ever before. In the Ethiopian constitution, freedom of the Mass Media is guaranteed and censorship in any form is prohibited. Any administration measures that impair freedom of the mass media are also strictly forbidden in the constitution. “Despite this clear and imposing constitutional right,” Amare stressed, “the recent print standard contractual document sent to the publishers by the Berhanena Selam Printing Enterprise tries to enforce undue burden on the publishers demanding that they not print articles that transgress laws of the land. We firmly believe that the printer lacks both the mandate and the technical capacity to verify that the materials intended for publication comply with or violate the thousands legislations enacted by the lawmakers.”
In response to this solid argument Shimeles Kemal, State Minister of the Government Communication Affairs Office said that what the printers demanded is not related to the constitution. In his view this is the contract that takes place between the publishers and the printers. “It is also a draft contract. Which means it is possible to change or amend articles that are not agreed upon by both parties,” he said.
Shimeles added that he knows about unfair contracts. “This can be an unfair contract. But it is not related with the violation of constitutional rights,” Shimeles stressed.
The publishers are denouncing the new standard contract as a gateway to censorship which is prohibited by the constitution. On the other hand, the government high officials who are given the right to protect the press freedom are not that worried about the implication of the new standard contract.
In a discussion held on Monday, May 7, with the printers at the meeting hall of the Berhanena Selam their top managers insisted that there is no intention to bring back censorship in the industry. “Articles 9 and 10 are meant to protect the Enterprise from a possible liability if the script breaches the law after appearing in the publication,” an official argued in the meeting.
The publishers on their part argued that Article 29 of the Ethiopian Constitution in a clear and solid manner prohibits censorship in any form. What was observed from attendance was that the two parties had one thing in common. The publishers time and again expressed gratefulness for the contribution Berhanena Selam has made in the last 20 or so years. As one publisher in a very articulate way puts it, all these private news papers would not have been printed without Berhanena Selam. In this sense the printer played a key role in the realization of the press freedom law.
On their part the officials it was said that the Printing Enterprise has expanded its operation because of the existence of the free press. It is confirmed that the enterprise collected 30 million birr per year (in 2011) from one single private publishing house. In our country’s standard this is a huge income from a single source.
Respecting the rule of the land the publishers forwarded the complaint to Prime Minister Meles Zenawi. They have also decided to forward same complaints to other concerned legal bodies such as the Constitutional Inquiry Commission and the Parliament Legal Affairs Standing Committee.
What is interesting to note is that this controversy surfaced at a time the United Nations is pushing all countries to respect and implement the basic principles of the law of free press. This was put forward in connection to the World Press Freedom Day that was marked on Thursday, May 3, at the newly built African Union headquarters. UNESCO suggests that ‘free media transforms societies by enlightening the decision making process with information, and thus empowering individuals to take control of their destinies. In this context, media freedom plays a crucial role in the transformation of society by reshaping its political, economic and social aspects.’
The cry of the Ethiopian publishers is that this fundamental right of the people should not be violated. This is the right fully accepted by the United Nations and adopted by the Ethiopian government in the constitution. The constitution that prohibits censorship in any form further says; in the interest of the free flow of information, ideas and opinions which are essential to the functioning of a democratic order, the press shall, as an institution, enjoy legal protection to ensure its operational independence and its capacity to entertain diverse opinions.
That is why the publishers in unison wrote complaints to the Prime Minister to gain the legal protection as stipulated in the constitution. In line to this article the publishers requested for a change of the new contract by the Berhanena Selam Printing Enterprise.