Pangs of freedom

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Amen Teferi
I think being a journalist is a privilege; a privilege to work for the betterment of the lives of fellow citizen in particular, and the humanity in general. Then, an important question follows; “Do Ethiopian journalists perform commendable job in discharging their professional duty?” We can sensibly assume that the answer to this question may vary, inter alia, depending on the practical knowledge we have about the modus operandi of the Ethiopian media and our political disposition may also contribute to our judgment.
However, I would self-assuredly say, that the Ethiopian press did not, in many respects, exhibit much appreciable progress when it is weighed against the professional standards and its contribution in creating informed and vigilant democratic citizenry. If we appraise the role of the Ethiopian press in advancing and promoting the causes of democracy and development in the last two decade, we may be stunned by our finding. The private press in Ethiopia has screwed itself to the self-imposed mission of serving as an activist to the opposition political parties. Hence, its performance has demonstrated all the improprieties of the so called gutter presses.
I tried to figure out what factors have hampered the healthy evolutionary development of the Ethiopian press. I have found that the most serious problem that has arrested and crippled the growth of the Ethiopian press is its militant and confrontational tendency towards the government. This combative tendency has resulted in the erosion of the noble etiquettes of professional journalism and wrong orientation of press freedom. The most distressful current condition of the Ethiopian press, therefore, is lack of objectivity, balance and impartiality. Thus, we can briefly summed-up the problem as “lack of professionalism.” The rampantly damaging shortcoming of the press industry in Ethiopia is the wrong deep-seated notion of press freedom; which basically orient the action and the mind-set of journalists working in the private presses. Moreover, the pathetic defect that has impacted the Ethiopian press is its confusion over the meaning of the notion freedom of the press. 

Freedom of the press may be defined as the right to communicate ideas, opinions and information through the printed words. Nonetheless, in the age of the broadcast and computer technology; “the press” has expanded its meaning to include mediums of communication other than the printed words.
The ultimate purpose of freedom of the press is to encourage the existence of an educated and informed electorate who can make decisions about public affairs. In fact, its meaning has been contentious and more and more debatable. The continuing debate about the essential nature of this concept of freedom revolves around the romantic notion of freedom of the press, which propounds the absence of any legally sanctioned restraint or responsibilities. The debate over the extensions (or limits) of the press freedom has often contented on whether that freedom is absolute or conditional. As the kind and degree of restriction upon the exercise of this freedom is also so diverse.
Therefore, some take freedom of the press as the absence of government licensing on printing and publishing activity, while others took it as the absence of “prior restraint,” that is, the absence of any form of pre-publication censorship. Still others deemed it as an indispensable tool for ensuring the satisfaction of the society’s need for maximum flow of information and opinion, and also the individual right of self- fulfillment.
The press is considered as the promoter and protector of other rights that serve as a central tool to the functioning of democratic government and a free citizenry. Of course, press freedom remained to be a linchpin in any democratic systems of governance. It is a tool by means of which the citizens exercise control over the performance of their government that vowed to be dictated by the will of the general public. These elected leaders, working in the democracy have committed themselves to follow the will of the people, which is expressed through the periodic and democratic election.
Thus, the press has earned an endearing name i.e. “watch dog” which discharge a public duty to oversight public affairs. The press should act as a “watch dog” and not as partisan proponents of certain political agenda. Therefore, it should not engage itself in promoting the political programs of opposition political party. If it does, it would be an institutional agent of partisan political ideology. Then, it cannot serve as the function of all other freedoms and rights. The press can only discharge its natural duty when it manages to work based on objective facts catered in a balanced manner that would win the trust and credibility of the general public. By doing an impartial and responsible job in catering opinions it can win the trust and respect of people. When the press fail to discharge this natural function it will gradually lose the respect of the public.
Those who follow the track record of the Ethiopian press have been declaring their worry over the dominant feature of the Ethiopia press since the early 1990s. They identify very few commendable tendencies in the press. Even some commentators have gone further to highlight the press may assume the negative role played by the Nigerian press in undermining the fledgling democratic and constitutional order. They recount the bad performance of the Nigerian press that has led to the disruption of the fledgling democratic order that was finally replaced by a military dictatorship. We may not see such fatal crisis in Ethiopian; and God forbid. But is the Ethiopian press showing gradual improvement in this regard or is slipping from bad to worse? However, the study that was recently conducted has revealed a dismaying trend.
Apart from the distorted orientation of the local media, we have another dauntingly forceful influence that has been terribly dominating and perforating the Ethiopian media is the “communication imperialism.” This is a factor that is gnawing the Ethiopian press.
CULTURAL IMPERIALISM
The press in the third world is badly suffering from the acutely negative influence of the “communication imperialism” of the west; so does the Ethiopian press. I would like to cite the critical comment made by Professor Merrill in this regards. He told us that he has heard many times editors and journalists in the developing world indict the west for not sending enough serious “developmental” stories to the third world; for being concerned mainly with the more sensational and “negative” aspects of the news, and generally participating in “communication imperialism.”
Professor Merrill continues “When the formality of our conference was ended. I have accompanied them to their newspaper offices.” Then, he asked himself and said, “What did I find there? They themselves were choosing and playing up non-serious, sensational news items and throwing the serious stories in to the wastebasket (and there were plenty of important stories). They themselves showed no real dedication to using “developmental” news- even that coming from their own reporters about their own countries or from neighboring third world countries. And they themselves were often choosing AP and UPI stories for use and ignoring many other stories -many local and ‘positive’ ones -which were available for use.”
In fact, this is the harshest manifestation of cultural imperialism the third world journalists are suffering from. The imperialistic domination of the west did not only happen in the field of communication, but also in many fields of economic production and distribution. This is a fact of our life in the world today. Technologically more advanced nations dominate us both technologically and politically. Media is one of the agencies of the western imperialism. We are choice-less, but view our own reality through the eyes of the giant media corporate. This will continue to the coming years. It would be a height of naiveté to expect anything other than this harsh fact as long as the current media configuration continues.
The West has found the third world as an easy prey and target. To depict Africa they have tirelessly coined terms with considerable negative overtones and third world journalists had mindlessly usurp these negative terms to use against their own governments. Hence, the bad boys of the Ethiopian media landscape are not only Ethiopian journalists working in some private presses. The western media are apt to exploit the folly of the third worlds to promote their hideous and heinous agendas.
The west is involved in cultural and communication imperialism they hide this true nature and beat on painting the third world government as evil. Buried under the barrage of misleading words and labels which some scholars has called “semantic infiltration”, countless journalists in the third world would swallowed the semantic weapon. They are unable to look at their own reality that lay behind the words and labels published by the western media.
They simply accuse third world governments for muffling press freedom. The third world journalists and communication specialists or scholars seldom take issue with west which they saw as the vanguard of freedom. If we continue to permit the west to choose the words and labels by which the international and local communication dialogue is carried on, then we will continue to loss the battle. We cannot neutralize the effect of their verbal barrage and cannot expect the west to cease this semantic offensive which they have found to be so successful.
Look at the word “the top journalist jailer.” This word has potent meaning to make any body’s blood boil. It has a stench of the words like genocide, crime against humanity, ethnic cleansing. So ideologues of the western world will come up with these offensive words. They would co-opt another effective term that suits the spirit of the time. At different times they would bring new words and tucked them on to the old and thereby lob a powerful bomb into the midst of the national dialogue. By such semantic barrage and defamation which they have constantly pour on the African governments through the barrels of the big guns at the hands of various agencies and corporate media, they will effectively neutralize and disrupt the national dialogue and explode the shells that undermine the fledgling democratic governance.
However, with their semantic dishonesty, they appear like the “good guys” who work for the promotion of press freedom. They have played fast and loose with every word possible to mount character assassination. We should go beyond this semantic sophistication of the west that would damper and disrupt our understanding. Lords of globalization are well armed and are coached with imperialistic notions. They have been printing foreign, alien and poorly baked notions and messages on staunchly resisting African nations.
They sometime argue that this is a false assertion and declare the political elites in most of the third world are apt to condemn the west for situations they refuse to face and try to solve themselves. They accuse us: “Most of them have settled into their comfortable little niches closing their eyes to political corruption, secrecy, and the passivity of their own nations, and from this complacent little niche they continue to wring their hands in journals, speeches and other forums about what the west is doing to them.”
Media plays an indispensable role in ensuring and building democracy. It has an essential contribution in forging a national consensus which plays a key role in fostering and promoting democratic governance. This historic mission of the media is all the more important in developing countries like ours. Media immensely helps the effort made to initiate the general public to work towards development and building democracy and can ensure the broad participation of the people.
In as much as democracy is an important tool which safes our country from falling into abyss, media has indispensable role in realizing the development goals which would in turn guarantee democracy. In short, we should give special importance to the role media plays in ensuring development and democracy. To this end, media should cater authentic and up-to-date information which are instrumental to ensure the full and broader participation of the people.
To serve the above most essential missions of the media, it ought to serve as a plat from for vibrant exchanges of views, from for discussion, and also serve as a reliable source of correct information.