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Socio-political change in a poor media-sphere

The practices of ‘leading’ broadcasters in our country reflect that journalism in Ethiopia is a dependent entity to the interest of different leaders as well as some influential groups; and it is without its own norms as an independent profession, writes Kibrom Berhane.

Media are vital tools to connect citizens to the socio-political and economic changes (in their country). They can shape and re-shape patterns of political and policy changes. Like other social and political institutions, media can influence citizens' participation in political and economic activities of their country.

In addition to their influence on people’s participation, media have far-reaching socialization power. Some even argue that the traditional socialization agents, such as religious institutions and family, are losing ground for the fact that the ubiquity of the media message inundates everyday life of individuals. “Socialization via technological media is an inescapable condition of modernizing,” writes Klaus Bruhn Jensen. 

Particularly, in a process of change (like ours), media have both social integration and system integration roles. Social integration, according to Bruhn Jensen, can be performed by face-to-face and oral communications among individuals in a society. System integration, however, is substantially dependent on the effectiveness of the media to mediate social, political, cultural, and economic lifestyles of the people.

While a strong media industry is crucial to show people mechanisms of adaptation to the fast-changing world, poor media practice affects the dynamism of individuals and society. In terms of change, the main purpose of the media is to present trusted, inclusive, and independent programming that can help citizens make decisions about their roles. If that is the case, lack of a strong media-sphere in Ethiopia might, thus, be grouped among the factors that can negatively affect the socio-political changes in the country.

Obviously, the change that Ethiopia aspires for requires the shared efforts of leaders and their people. Our media are expected to be bridges between these two groups. Failing to link the people’s agendas with the leaders can impede change or even cause mayhem. To serve as important change agents, our media should interpret, adapt and integrate key concepts of change into social life. For it is believed that the perceived future in the mind of the people can substantially influence their present actions of change, our media are expected to inculcate aspirations among citizens about the future. Standing on the existing media-sphere, however, it appears to be difficult to believe that our media institutions do have the qualities mentioned. Thus, they might not serve as integral parts of the change in the country.

When media freedom is relatively good our media institutions usually fail to use the opportunity to effectively exercise the professional values. Currently, probably due to the changes taken by the new Prime Minister – Abiy Ahmed (PhD), it seems that there is a glimpse of freedom – people’s freedom to speak their mind and media freedom to report people’s views. Alas, only a few mainstream media seem to practice professional journalism in terms of interpreting and addressing important issues of the change in the country.

Of course there are some groups of people (example some journalists and media professionals) who argue that currently our media, particularly the broadcast media, are doing well compared with the past many years. According to these people, both the state-owned (Ethiopian Television – ETV) and the regional broadcast media are at a good shape in broadcasting what the people want to hear. But, I argue that our media institutions are not effectively utilizing the current relative media freedom. If we decipher the practices of some of the regional televisions and ETV, their practices seem to disregard the values of liberal journalism that underline the rights and responsibilities of individuals as autonomous actors.

It seems that they support the burgeoning of popular democracy through their predilection towards their respective political groups rather than empowering individual citizens as independent decision makers who can contribute to the process of change. ETV, for instance, focuses on the mantra of togetherness and/or Ethiopian-ness before interpreting the essence of togetherness in a manner conceivable to the general public. The crux of ‘togetherness as Ethiopians’ should first be explained how it can be synthesized with individual rights and other identities of individuals before preaching citizens to come together.

Moreover, some of the regional televisions waste their efforts and resources merely attacking each other in lieu of informing their audiences with relevant messages. In most of their activities, they wreck the values of journalism and transgress their responsibilities to serve audiences professionally. They usually throw words against each other rather than analyzing their respective societal contexts.

In doing so, the current practice of the aforementioned media institutions resemble to a populist media practices rather than guided by a liberal democratic media values/ethics for the fact that their programs focus on appealing the public as a suppressed group against a common enemy. In this case they highlight as if all the disappointments of the public are ensued from the misdeeds of the former administration; hence, they knowingly or unknowingly create popular interests vis-à-vis the political rupture.

According to Silvio Waisbord, populism “unifies a range of identities and demands a common discourse and the leader. Leaders successfully appeal to the people in order to use that moment to catapult the underdog, the subaltern classes, to the political center-stage, and, by doing so, become identified with popular identities.” Similarly, the practices of ‘leading’ broadcasters in our country reflect that journalism in Ethiopia is a dependent entity to the interest of different leaders as well as some influential groups; and it is without its own norms as an independent profession.

When we come to the private media, probably because they incline to lower production costs, the relatively growing broadcast media primarily focus on entertainment programs. Through their so-called infotainment (information and entertainment) programs, they try to tell us what they think we find it useful. Of course, it is possible to inform citizens about current situations via entertainment programs. Nevertheless, by focusing on sports programs and hobbies of musicians and filmmakers, media cannot influence citizens towards important issues of their country. People’s political participation depends on the extent of information available about their country’s political landscape.

Therefore, in this kind of spineless journalism, one cannot imagine our country’s media can inform citizens about basic workings of their government. Lack of relevant information about activities of the government might also bring political irrationality and dogmatism among citizens. In which case, one cannot be certain that our media institutions are important change agents. To be taken as worthwhile societal establishments, they should empower people and open up space for citizens to challenge their leaders rationally.

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