Last week, different organisations, journalists from all over the world, and other people who believe in a free press, met to discuss how far journalism has come, the threats that continue to exist and what needs to be done in order to keep the press free during the World Press Freedom Day celebrations on May 3.
Ethiopia was a choice selection. With the new Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed entry onto the scene last year, the country’s media has seen some positive changes. The prime minister has since released all journalists who had been jailed, marking the first time in a long time in the country that no journalist was in prison.
The country also saw Internet access opened up and 260 websites unblocked. These actions saw Ethiopia, according to the World Press Freedom Index, rise 40 steps up, from 150 to 110 within just a year.
These are stories the media in different countries, including Uganda, should be applauding. It is also important for the media, especially in countries where press freedom is low, to understand how and why this change came about, and what their role is, in bringing about such a change in their own countries.
However, even as thousands of people commended these events and what they meant for Ethiopia, many were cautious. Some are worried about how fake news, hate-speech and tribal sentiments are making their way through, now that the space has been opened. Others, having seen what Ethiopia has gone through in the past, would rather wait for some more years before concluding the government is serious about allowing press freedom to thrive.
As a neighbour, it is important that we view all these happenings and pick lessons. The stories of how journalists and the media in our backyard are being ill-treated have been all over the news in print, broadcast and online, from Uganda Communications Commission’s (UCC) irregular and constant picking on broadcast media, to government officials and security forces beating and manhandling journalists going about their duties, destroying their equipment and throwing them into jail.
And yet hope remains. It must remain because freedom of expression is important for a democracy to thrive. Even as various Bills that threaten a free press keep being made Acts, the Constitution still states clearly that freedom of expression is a right.
The media must, therefore, keep pressing on, doing their work and ensuring they report correctly and fairly. They must also not shy away from calling out what is fake as this threatens their existence. The times when it is the hardest are the times people must work even harder.