Impartiality: An Unattainable Goal for the Extremely Biased Ethiopian Press?


(Published in Sub-Saharan Informer, Aug. 07 edition)


By Tesfaye Hailu


Thomas Jefferson is quoted as saying, "Were it left to me to decide whether we should have a government without newspapers or newspapers without a government, I should not hesitate a moment to prefer the latter."


It is unlikely that Jefferson intended to underrate the government as its importance could not have skipped the mind of the rational and enlightened American politician. Rather, what he most likely endeavoured to highlight is the crucial role the press plays as ‘‘a government watchdog, a gatekeeper and instrument to disseminate necessary information’’. 


Unfortunately, in our emerging democracy, there are no encouraging signs that the press is well aware of the pivotal role it is privileged to play.


The … press has abdicated its responsibility to espouse, attack or even examine the variety of political opinions that are the stuff of democracy. It is in the grip of impartiality gone haywire. Only two of the nation's papers … advance any creed. The rest of the … press has only one policy: to attack the government. The rationalization is that the government is the press's traditional enemy, must be fought even though the papers are remarkably free from official restraint.


It was over a half a century ago that Time magazine made the above lamentation for the Japanese press of the day (‘The Press: Impartiality Gone Haywire, October 20, 1958’’), but the same can be said, almost word for word, about the state of the private press in today’s Ethiopia. Indeed, most of the Amharic newspapers – interestingly and coincidentally except for two I can think of – have assumed an adversarial role vis-à-vis the government.


This is not at all to insinuate that the press should not be critical of the government. It is, in fact, the duty of the press to bring not just government but also other entities on whom public responsibility is bestowed upon – such as community organizations and businesses – to account. Alas, with the excessively critical stance towards the presumably ‘‘traditional enemy’’, i.e. the government, it appears that impartiality has gone haywire in the current partisan private press.


Front-page news, editorials, columns, opinion articles, even letters to the editor go out of their way to vilify anything that has to do with the ruling party. Conversely, preparing a fair report card and giving credit where credit is due – a passing grade or thumbs up for a job well done – appear to be in short supply, if not virtually unthinkable.


Instead, blaming the government for everything that goes wrong – even seemingly for late rain – has become the private press’ unhealthy obsession with its perceived archenemy. In fact, some of the ‘‘news’’ in the private newspapers come across as below the belt innuendo in an opposition bulletin, while the ‘‘analysis’’ could be mistaken for party platforms of political contenders.   


In contrast, news/criticism worthy events that take place in the opposition camp tend to be overlooked, if not outright ignored. Needless to say, this is unfortunate and a great disservice to the opposition parties themselves and the public at large. After all, the scrutiny and critical assessment by the press could contribute towards shaping up the opposition parties, and help them rescued from the pitiful position they find themselves in nine months prior to an election. As importantly, the public has the right to know so as to make an informed decision whether any of the opposition parties are up to the job, and deserving of one’s vote.


To sum up, the Ethiopian media may indeed have something to learn from author BK Khem Jokhoo who counsels,


The role as well as the responsibility of the media is to provide authentic information that would be beneficial to all without deliberate misrepresentation to cause sensation that may infringe on the rights of others. … It is important that media personnel understand the consequences of biased opinions and daggered editorials in relations to facts with respect to the boundaries of their duties and responsibilities.


Similarly, speaking in a 1983 World Media Conference, Dr. Bo Hi Pak of the Unification Church has articulated the role of the media:


We seek to know the truth and to communicate it. Our God-given mission is to uncover it and shout it to the world-not a double-standard truth, not a distorted truth, not a self-serving, perverted truth. Just the truth.


Amen to that!