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Critical Mind for Critical Times

Critical Mind for Critical Times

Amen Teferi  05-09-17

The theme of this year’s world press freedom day astutely fits both Ethiopia’s and the world’s situations. “Critical Mind for Critical Times: Media’s role in advancing peaceful just and inclusive societies was the theme of the 2017 World Press Freedom Day. We know that every year, on 3 May the world celebrates the fundamental principles of press freedom with a view to evaluate press freedom around the world, to defend the media from attacks on their independence and to pay tribute to journalists who have lost their lives in the exercise of their profession.

UNESCO leads the worldwide celebration by identifying the global thematic and organizing the main event in different parts of world every year. National celebrations also take place each year to commemorate the Day. Ethiopia has commemorated the day by an event organized by the Government Communication Affairs Office where various stakeholders were invited and pressing issues were discussed.

In my view, the press really need to be critical not only in critical but also in common times.  In our case, falling to be critical means planning to fall. Our Media should think critically to advance peaceful, just and inclusive societies. Ours is a fledgling democracy that requires critical disposition of mind. If we take a single false step it would be very difficult to remake   our misplaced steps.

The political history of Ethiopia demonstrates that the country has undergone through a lot of dreadful political trajectories. Our political and economic journeys were turbulent and the paths were rocky. The present promising state of things we enjoy today have required us to pay dire price. And finally in the 1990s we managed to have a break with the old ways of doing things and set the stage for new political dynamics.

Thus, freedom of press got constitutional guarantee for the first time in the nation’s history. The constitutionaliszation of the freedom of the press is a bold step forward in the democratization process of our country. Article 29, number 2 and 3 of the constitution, assures the freedom of press in Ethiopia by stipulating that “Freedom of the press and mass media as well as freedom of artistic creation is guaranteed. The media shall be granted institutional independence and legal protection to enable it to accommodate different opinions and ensure the free flow of information, ideas and opinions.”

These are provisions of our constitution that would serve as a corner stone for unfettered democracy we wish to build in Ethiopia. These provisions in fact heralded the coming of the private press that had been nonexistent until the proclamation of the press law that precedes the birth of the 1995 EFDR constitution.

Ethiopian Constitution guarantees freedom of expression, but the full exercise of this freedom requires other provisions that would supplement the operation and regulation of the media. For instance, where there is no law that administers right of citizen’s to access public information one would have a limit on the extent to which he exercised his/her freedom of speech and expression. For freedom expression presupposes freedom to seek, impart and gather information. Therefore, the measure taken by the EPRDF’s government in this regard was quite remarkable.

There is no doubt that the post 1991 Ethiopia saw significant political transformation in building institution building and catering public ethos that promotes democracy. But Ethiopian media, private as well as public, lack the critical minds that strive to proactively play its natural role in promoting democratic values.

The media have been criticized for being fully biased by its parochial interests and grievously tended to be a liability to the consolidation of our fledgling democracy. Now, the press in Ethiopia must work towards serving the public interest and become a change agent rather than being reactionary. It must be impartial as well as critical in its news coverage and production.

As higher officials had recently declared the public Medias are not a propaganda machinery of the government but are vital democratic institutions that are entrusted with indispensable role in the effort to consolidate our democratic and good governance. In parallel, the private media used to assume an antigovernment position by simply adopting political agendas of forces with vested interests and opposition groups who wish to sponsor them. Consequently, the private Media had been engaged in wars of words that had plunged it in libelous adventure.

In fact, taking position seems to be common in both types of media. The media, therefore, must be free from providing sustenance for one set of interests while undermining an alternative. Medias with critical minds would free themselves from political bias and entertain diverse opinions as Ethiopian Constitution wanted them to be.

In the last few years we have seen massive electronic media outlets expansion. The government is also working towards having its own satellite channels as it envisage distributing “Set Top Box.”

To be honest, there is strong political will on the part of the government to promote good governance by fostering public participation and vibrant media. EPRDF does not want the media to be a waging tail of the government or other influential interests and political groups. EPRDF rather wanted to live up to the instructions the supreme law of the land (our constitution) that proclaimed freedom of the press under Article 29 ensuring the right of every person who wish to seek, obtain and impart information.

The event GCAO organized in connection with the World Press Freedom Day had in fact served as a platform where pressing issues of the Media owners, practitioners and the academia were raised and discussed.  On this occasion higher officials who attended the meeting have not only responded to queries put forward regarding the government’s commitment in supporting the Media, but also pledged to curb shortcomings that constrained the media. State Minister to the GCAO, Zadig Abrha, has cheered up the participants declaring that many of the concerns raised will be addressed before the next year’s World Press Freedom Day. The press should until then cultivate and preserve a critical Mind set-up.     

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