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The PM says Ethiopia does not need lap-dog media

The Prime Minister’s take on the need for the guide-dog and watchdog media, in some ways, indicates the positive perception of his government towards the role of media in Ethiopian society. This can also be taken as an important leap forward in the freedom of journalism since the constitutional acknowledgement of freedom of speech and the press; and the 2008 Freedom of the Mass Media and Access to Information Proclamation, writes Kibrom Berhane.

In his latest (October 22, 2018) speech to the House of People’s Representatives (HPR), the Prime Minister, Abiy Ahmed (PhD), addressed different issues based on the questions from members of the House. One of which was about the Ethiopian media and journalism practice. The PM tried to brief the House about the existing media situation and the kinds of journalism philosophy he believes are pertinent to the country. According to him, we have at least four forms of journalism in the global media-sphere. These are: guide-dog media (which guide governments and publics towards productive actions), watchdog media (which investigate gaps; and try to act as the fourth branch of government), lap-dog media (which do not have a stand of their own; i.e. media houses led by this form of journalism agree with anyone who has power), and attack-dog media (which zealously focus on mistakes; just attacking people in power). Of these forms of media/journalism, the PM underscored that Ethiopia needs the watchdog and guide-dog ones.  

The PM, furthermore, pronounced that the private media should be supported by the government and other stakeholders to enhance professional journalism practice in our country. According to him, the private media seek protections not to fall into manipulative hands of some groups and individuals. This also appears to indicate the PM's emphasis on the importance of the communication media.

Most importantly, his speech regarding the media can be taken as, arguably, among the few moments (if not the only time) when an Ethiopian Prime Minister speaks about the positive attributes of watchdog (or liberal/Western form of) journalism in the Ethiopian context. In my experience, many top government officials have irrational views towards the liberal media philosophy. Most of them, for instance, unceasingly attack the private media for supposedly led by the Western (particularly of the US and UK) journalism values.

The supposed watchdog role of the (private) media has been a dreadful act for most of our (former) leaders. Hence, they craved for the establishment of lap-dog media. They then used the public/state media outlets (such as the Ethiopian Broadcasting Corporation and other state-owned media) as platforms of the ‘yes man’ form of journalism. They effectively ripped off the constitutional and institutional rights and responsibilities of the state broadcaster. In consequence, I think, now, it does not have a stand of its own.

Currently, we have a new PM who readily negates lap-dog journalism (which appears to be the philosophical underpinning of the state-owned media). Instead, the PM claimed, Ethiopia needs the watchdog and guide-dog media. As social institutions, he noted that media are important parts of any democratic leadership. They are vital, among other roles, to diagnose the successes and failures of the government.

In my view, this is a truly liberal outlook towards the role of media in a given society. Any leader who intends to create a democratic system should embrace media establishments in her/his change plans. This is also what the PM clearly stated and argued for.

Hence, what can the PM’s take on the media suggest about the future of Ethiopian journalism?

Primarily, the PM’s take on the Ethiopian media landscape appears to create a breathing space to change the journalism philosophy of the state-owned media. As mentioned above, the PM would like to see media institutions which carefully watch the government actions and guide it towards goals that serve public interests. Hence, if the state-owned media are vigilant enough, it will be the right time to transform their actions from mouthing the government to serving the public.

Secondly, unlike many other government officials, the PM seems to be fond of neither the lap-dog media nor the eschewed form of development journalism. Preferably, he recognized that this country needs free but socially responsible media. His suggestion of the guide-dog and watchdog/liberal media philosophies as leading forms of media communications might support this argument.

Hence, by synthesizing principles of guide-dog and watchdog forms of journalism, we can have a new form of journalism – accountability journalism. This form of journalism demands journalists to be on the side of the truth and to make journalism answerable to the public interest.

Also, accountability journalism is a major form of journalism practice in some of world’s foremost journalism houses such as the Associated Press (AP). According to AP, accountability journalism is about listening closely to what public officials say and carefully watching what they do. It focuses on avoiding sensationalism and mouthing the political and economic elites. Hence, this form of journalism calls for combining the philosophical underpinnings of liberal journalism and principles of social responsibility theory.

Thirdly, the PM’s remark regarding the undue interventions of the Ethiopian Broadcasting Authority (EBA) appears to indicate his pledge for journalism freedom in Ethiopia. The PM, for instance, suggested that in lieu of intervening in the daily routines of media organizations and individual journalists, EBA should focus on the establishment of professional institutions and policy developments to professionalize journalism practice in our country. This, I think, is an important point for the fact that we barely hear top government personnel in Ethiopia suggesting solutions to promote journalism freedom. It is also a significant change to understand that an Ethiopian leader recognizes the positive impacts of private media and individual journalists in our country's social and political activities.

In sum, the PM’s take on the need for the guide-dog and watchdog media, in some ways, indicates the positive perception of his government towards the role of media in Ethiopian society. This can also be taken as an important leap forward in the freedom of journalism since the constitutional acknowledgement of freedom of speech and the press; and the 2008 Freedom of the Mass Media and Access to Information Proclamation. Most importantly, if the PM truly believes in the watchdog role of the media, the conventional media in our country will be used as platforms to freely discuss and identify societal problems. If so, we can envision that journalism in our country would serve as a fourth estate.

Ed.’s Note: Kibrom Berhane is a lecturer of Journalism and Communication at Mekele University. The views expressed in this article do not necessarily reflect the views of The Reporter. He can be reached at [email protected]

Contributed by Kibrom Berhane
Contributed by Kibrom Berhane