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Freedom of thought critical in healing political ills!

Freedom of thought critical in healing political ills!

Expecting democracy to take root in Ethiopia without respect for freedom of thought is a pipe dream. It should be borne in mind that the responsibility of defending freedom of thought does not rest on the government alone; politicians, human rights activists, intellectuals and the general public also are duty-bound to stand up for this fundamental right.  The notion that democracy is a marketplace of ideas is a theory that has developed for over a century now and has gained widespread acceptance. Any act or decision violating this principle is wholly unacceptable. Recently freedom of thought in Ethiopia has been facing headwinds from “peaceful protests” that have been staged in different areas. Scenes of demonstrators openly carrying machetes and firearms are harbingers of the troubling direction we are headed as a nation. If this tendency is not nipped in the bud, the country is bound to slip into totalitarianism.

At a discussion form held last weekend at his office Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed (PhD) spoke of what he described as the eight major political ills blighting Ethiopia. The ills he identified consist of: giving priority to individual and group interest over national unity; the reluctance to give back as much as we demand; extremism; the inability to reconcile the past with the present and the future; obsessing with politics while neglecting one’s professional duties; disparaging the accomplishments of the current administration; the predilection of the media to disseminate inflammatory and distorted news in disregard of their obligation to record history; and unethical use of social media. The political ills run much deeper than these though.  Truth be told the failure to set in motion a civilized political process has robbed the nation of the chance to engage in a meaningful political discourse or debates. Had it embarked on such a process the ills of Ethiopian politics would have been healed long ago.

Ensuring the unfettered exercise of freedom of thought is one of the basic building blocks of a democratic order. Next comes institution building. It’s imperative to empower citizens to organize as they see fit so as to develop a culture of constructive deliberation. This requires an enabling environment wherein civil society organizations can operate independently. In the meantime the numerous political parties operating, most of which do not measure up to their names, need to consolidate and pool their resources with a view to emerge as forces that abide by the rules of the game and are capable of generating policy choices which win the hearts and minds of the public. If the use of force as a means to achieve a certain political objective ceases to be an option once and for all there is no reason why Ethiopia’s political ills cannot be healed. The government and other entities aspiring to take the reins of power must demonstrate in deeds that they believe in freedom of thought and expression. They must also be prepared to take any criticism leveled at them. Egoism, extremism, procrastination and scheming can all be eliminated from Ethiopian politics through respect for freedom of thought, not supplication or slogans.

The role of the media in promoting freedom of thought deserves special mention here. The media are platforms wherein diverse opinions can be expressed; they are not supposed to be the mouthpieces of their owners or journalists. The media must neither play the role of liberator nor pass judgment. As institutions which have to adhere to the highest ethical standards their primary obligation is to provide the public with accurate and balanced information. Moreover, they owe the duty to entertain the expression of diverse opinions in the interest of the free flow of ideas and views. Inasmuch as the must not support the change underway in Ethiopia for the past one year they have to refrain from undermining it as well. Their rightful task is to report dispassionately on the change and provide an opportunity for differing and even contradictory ideas to be voiced. The public is the final arbiter of whether the media do abide by the ethics of the profession in the course of doing their jobs. Hence, it’s incumbent on both the government and other stakeholders to do the utmost to ensure that Ethiopian media organizations do not become lapdogs. If the independence of the media, which forms part of freedom of thought and expression, is afforded the protection it’s given under the constitution the days when one of the political ills of Ethiopia is healed may well be nigh.

Failure to stand united at this critical juncture in Ethiopia’s history will constitute a continuation of the propensity to squander the golden opportunities that occasionally come its way. Turning a blind eye to the disruption of rallies while bearing arms, trying to justify the legitimacy of such act or rationalizing it as something that inevitably occurs during a transition period is a recipe for disaster. That is why it’s crucial to instill in the youth the importance of demonstrating rationality and critical thinking instead of succumbing to rashness and lawlessness. While the creation of a generation that demands its rights is a step in the right direction resorting to violence to realize them is liable to engender an intractable crisis. Parents, educational and religious institutions, civil society organizations and the government all bear the responsibility of steeping the youth in a culture of tolerance, dialogue and give-and-take so that they are able to make informed decisions. Then it would not be difficult in Ethiopia to debate, to converse on any topic under the sky. The shocking level of intolerance for the views of others mainly stems from the fact that freedom of thought is no cherished. Respecting freedom of thought is critical in healing the worst of the ailments besetting Ethiopian politics.