Is the Ethiopian News Media Partly to Blame for the Ongoing Unrest?

By Saff Reporter

Ethiopia-Net-Freedom-2018November 5, 2019 (Ezega.com) -- The media has a powerful role to play in disseminating truth and exposing misdeeds such as oppression and violence against humanity. It is even considered as the Fourth Estate for its explicit capacity for advocacy and implicit ability to frame political issues.

Even though the media is not formally recognized as a part of a political system, it has a very significant influence in shaping the national conversation and shifting policies in a given country.

In democratic systems, the role of media is considered as part of the voice of the masses and hence accorded considerable latitude. However, in not so democratic states, media freedom is almost always under attack. In such states, the media then becomes reflective of the powerful elites controlling the levers of power in their hands. Whether it is state-owned or private media, all influences are directed under the system’s supervision.

According to the influential Human Rights Watch report, media repression was the norm in Ethiopia in the past several decades, until Dr. Abiy Ahmed became Prime Minister. In the eyes of many, he is considered the “reformist.”

Often cited positives are the freeing of detained journalists and bloggers, the unblocking of more than 260 critical websites, and the welcoming of many Ethiopians who were forced to go into exile. As a result, Ethiopia’s ranking in the 2019 World Press Freedom Index jumped 40 places, from 150 out of 180 countries to 110, the largest leap by any country.

Ethiopia even hosted UNESCO’s annual World Press Freedom Day in May 2019 to show the country’s commitment to democratic and media reforms.

However, shortly after the implementations of the reforms, Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed was forced to face difficulties. Ethnic and religion-motivated violence started taking place in many parts of the country, causing instability elsewhere. Part of the media is now considered by some as exacerbating the violence.

Some are blaming the government for not taking the appropriate measures to prevent and halt the violence, while the government blames political activists and the Ethiopian news media for inciting conflicts.

On November 3, 2019, the Broadcast Authority of Ethiopia accused the media of posing danger to the stability of the country. The Broadcast Authority issued this statement during the presentation of its quarterly performance to the Standing Committee on Law, Justice, and Democracy in the house of people’s representatives.

According to the Broadcast Authority, the media in the country are contributing to the spreading of unfounded rumors and half-truths that have the power to mobilize a large number of people to commit acts of violence and escalate conflicts. “The role of the mass media in the country was not a stabilizing factor, but a catalyst for violence. The toxic rhetoric being reported has the potential to exacerbate divisions, largely along ethnic lines,” the statement said.

The Broadcast Authority blamed limited budget for the broadcast authority and the lack of well-trained professionals for its inability to take appropriate measures against provocative media.

The Broadcast Authority also asked what can be done to tip the balance in favor of de-escalation rather than escalating the violence. The authority articulated the need for pushing the media to follow the legal path instead of blocking it entirely. According to the Broadcast Authority, there is a need for Ethiopian media to grow into “professionalism” and to act more “ethically” and “responsibly” within the newly opened space.

However, many see this – the idea of tight government regulation – as a slippery slope which can lead to exactly where we were before the reforms came last year. As an example, they cite our recent history where the media was subjected to lawsuits and even imprisonment and torture, which ultimately forced the Ethiopian news media to become one of the most ineffective and highly compliant media in the world.

Some observers also would like to highlight the distinction between a few influential personalities versus the media as a whole. Taking the recent violence in Oromia, as an example, they ask: would this be possible if it was not for the call to action by some Oromo politicians? Why is the current Ethiopian law inadequate to bring such individuals to justice, rather than use the violence as a pretext to clamp down on media as a whole?

The Ethiopian people need to know whether their government is doing its job, including providing security to its citizens. If the media does not inform them, who else will?

Media and Communication Consultant and Editor in Chief of Afro FM, Kiram Tadese, in an interview with Ezega said significant changes have taken place in the last year or so. “Tremendous amount of publications and news are coming even on issues that are critical to the government; that for me is a change in some ways,” Kiram said.

“If we take some of the state-affiliated media houses, I don't see as much praiseworthy change in their reporting or objectivity. The perception they have for fake news and false news is also another issue that could potentially trap them,’ he added.

“I am also concerned about the growing news that solely serves the hardliners. This is not specific to any ethnic group or political thought. It is coming from across all lines and it tends to promote division among the public,” Kiram Tadesse says.

"As far as Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed is concerned, I think he has the best intention in mind for a free press. I can recall him encouraging his cabinet members to be open to the press. Yet, the problem comes as most government authorities are still stuck in the old party tradition that hardly allows them to be open on any issues."

Recalling Prime minster Dr. Abiy Ahmed’s speech to the House of People’s Representatives in February 2019, Karim said the current shortcomings are something normal for emerging democracy, like the flaws we see in opposition parties and the government. The government also gets things wrong in the name of maintaining the rule of law and democracy. The media has also its share of problems. Hence, all stakeholders should find ways to evolve together, rather than one severely stifling the other.

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