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The newly formed Ethiopian Press Publishers Association expressed disappointment about the ban of the Amharic weekly Feteh newspaper three weeks ago. According to the association the order given by the Ministry of Justice to block the dissemination of Feteh on July 20 didn’t follow due process of law. Feteh publishers paid 80,385 birr for Berhanena Selam Printing Enterprise to publish 30,000 copies on July 20.
On Thursday July 19, Feteh newspaper publishers turned down the request of the Berhanena Selam Printing Enterprise to sign the standard contract sent earlier to all publishers. When this happened, the printing enterprise refused to print Feteh newspaper on Friday July 20, 2012. After a long negotiation between the publisher and the printers the printing enterprise agreed to print Feteh in the afternoon but the paper didn’t appear on Saturday July 21 due to the banning order by the MoJ.
In accordance to the Ethiopian Constitution censorship in any form is abolished. But by the order of the Ministry of justice written on July 20, the dissemination of the July 21 newspaper was banned. This is unconstitutional because banning the paper in an order written a day before it was printed entails that someone read or presumed the paper contained a grave danger prior to the print. This is tantamount to censorship which is categorically prohibited by the country’s supreme law.
The law gives a clear mandate to the federal or regional prosecutor to act in time of necessity. In article 42 sub-article 2 of the freedom of the Mass Media and Access to Information proclamation it says: where the Federal and the Regional Public prosecutor as the case may have sufficient reason to believe that a periodical or a book which is about to be dismantled contains illegal matter which would if dismantled lead to a clear and present grave danger to the national security which could not be otherwise be averted through a subsequent imposition of sanction may issue an order to impound the periodical. If the blocking is a necessity, the letter of order should be written same day the paper was printed.
Even if warrant from the court is not obtained on the date the paper was printed, the law allows the prosecutor to go to court in 24 hours to get the court order after blocking the dissemination.
To block dissemination, this article stipulates there must be clear and present grave danger. What was the clear and present grave danger that the distribution would bring about? We were not officially told about the illegal matter that the July 21 Feteh paper issued. The Guardian August 8 issue presumed that reporting on the Prime Minister’s whereabouts was the cause for the blocking of Feteh.
How is being informed about the wellbeing of their leader may a clear and present grave danger? As the article clearly stipulates the prosecutor has the right to impound if the danger is not averted otherwise. Why the law makers put this kind of strict order before taking measure to impound? As the law intends to protect the freedom of the press, this hampers the prosecutors from not taking hasty action.
No one argues that journalists or the media in general are above the law. People in the media believe that every necessary action can be taken against those who violate the law or ethics of the profession. But this has to be done in accordance with the country’s law.
The publishers are protesting, in the Feteh case, the direct involvement of the Printing Enterprise, of the printers’ insistence to have the right to review and to refuse to print any content they consider to be illegal. First, no one has the legal mandate to decide whether or not the content goes against the country’s law.
On the basis of the freedom of press which is guaranteed by law in Ethiopia, many press products addressing various issues have been published in the country this time. This differentiates the current regime from the past two regimes, the Imperial and the Derg, in whose regimes censorship was the order of the day.
After censorship was legally abolished in the last 20 or so years the practice was that the publishers take full responsibility for what is written in the papers. Publishers have been sued for what have been written. Some of them were punished and others have won court cases.
This is what the law presupposes. This was the second time the dissemination of a newspaper was blocked. The massive blocking of distribution took place right after the 2005 election. By then more than five newspapers including Menelik, Addis Zena and Netsnet were eventually ordered to be terminated.
It was witnessed by then that most publishers at that time appealed to the authority claiming that blocking the distribution of their papers is an act that goes against the constitution. What is seen this time is also a repeat of that. Feteh went high up to be back in track. But so far Feteh is not successful.