REPORTERS WITHOUT BORDERS’ 2013 WORLD PRESS FREEDOM INDEX
By Tesfu Telahoun Abebe, Published on Thursday, 13 February 2014
Cruising Addis Ababa’s music congested airwaves to find a half-decent show is worse of a nightmare than driving through the vast construction site the city has become. Eventually though, I found a current events panel show being aired by a private FM station. Oops, my bad. Did I just say ‘private’? Sorry. I actually meant semi-private…Umm, no, no, that won’t do. How about, semi-state? Quasi-private? Oh, just forget it already!
As I said, even half-decent programming from our local ‘media’ is a rare thing so I began to settle into what started off as a free wheeling, no holds barred kind of interchange amongst highly informed individuals.
Incredulous, I had to double check the radio controls to reassure myself that, yes, this outspoken talk show was indeed being broadcast by an Ethiopian radio station transmitting from Addis. When they broke for commercials, I poured myself some coffee and waited with rising anticipation.
This particular show claims to be a living example of applied freedom of expression and yet, the entire panel agrees on every issue, does not disagree over even a single aspect of an issue and panelists talk across and over one another in their eagerness to register agreement with a previously agreed and obviously scripted agenda.
Crushed, I was reaching out to resume the apparently fruitless search when the modulator lady changed the format (to biting political satire?) by introducing a forthcoming global summit on African media and press freedom to be hosted by Ethiopia.
Oh, the irony of it! George Orwell’s ‘Animal Farm’ pales in comparison to the realm of the absurd that characterizes political discourse in present day Ethiopia.
The panelists one by one lamented the fact that numerous groups in the organized opposition, at home and abroad, as well as other nonpartisan voices; are actively lobbying against the summit being held in Ethiopia.
Of course, they found it impossible to comprehend how any Ethiopian could behave in such an unpatriotic fashion. It was roundly agreed that such un- Ethiopian conduct could only be described as reactionary, extremist, mercenary and typical of those working with foreign enemies and terrorist groups.
Thanks to the consistent incompetence of the much detested electric power monopoly, I had to miss the rest of the almost comical talk show. However, what I did hear had already tweaked my writer’s instinct.
I asked myself: what are the pros and cons of holding a summit on media and press freedom in a country ruled by a media phobic regime? Hence this article which attempts to find reasonably logical arguments which are, hopefully, more nuanced than the stringent Grand Discordia emanating from both state and the so called ‘Diaspora’ media.
Let’s say a forum on such a ‘neo-liberal’ issue is held in a country like Finland. Wouldn’t it seem oddly out of place? I mean, it’s just like the proverbial ‘coals to Newcastle’ thing. What possible benefit would the Finnish society gain from a conference on a problem that does not affect Finland?
So it goes without saying that it is much more logical to discuss such an issue in a country where, leave alone independent media, individual freedom of thought itself, is under the ever present threat of extinction. Countries like Ethiopia, for instance.
The above is the most plausible argument I can present in my role as devil’s advocate. On a more pragmatic note, the only direct benefit to be had from a summit on media and freedom of expression (in a country which has neither) is the potential of earning a few hundred thousand US dollars.
Also, in the somewhat special case of Ethiopia, the country is Africa’s most preferred venue for hosting pan-African and international gatherings. This is due to accumulated experience gained by Addis Ababa’s role as the continent’s de facto political capital city and the relative safety and assurance provided by an extremely vigilant and frighteningly efficient security structure.
There are many reasons why such a conference could be ill-advised and even counter-productive when convened in the wrong place and/or at the wrong time. Ethiopia for instance, consistently ranks among the top five in the list of countries where private or free media is under mortal threat.
Ever since 2005 elections when its tight grip on power was seriously challenged, the ruling front has hardened its position on multi-party politics and freedom of expression.
In fact, the Ethiopian Peoples’ Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF) has proclaimed itself to be a ‘developmental’ regime guided by an ‘ideology’ dubbed with the oxymoron ‘Revolutionary Democracy’. Long term economic, social and political plans have been formulated by which the front shall lead Ethiopia for at least the next quarter century.
Accordingly, over the last nine years the regime authorities has steadily muzzled nearly all independent media. Those which remain survive precariously along with a token few, marginally free and generally compliant (self-censoring) publications and broadcasters.
The radio station I mentioned in opening is a case in point of regime friendly propaganda outlets which masquerade as independent media.
In its present state, private media in Ethiopia can only provide a thin veneer of democracy in order to make the regime less ogre-like for American and European politicians, human rights groups and the donor community.
In other words, the Ethiopian state has so effectively neutralized the Fourth Estate that its shattered remains only serve to create the illusion that press freedom exists in Ethiopia.
This convenient shroud was spun by employing a sublime craftiness honed to near perfection over the many years. Not for the regime to portray itself as anywhere close to being described as undemocratic.
Isayas Afework may jail Eritreans on a whim and leave them to rot away incommunicado, let alone afford them due process. That dictator has no compunctions and fears about falling out of favor with wealthy donors in the West and of losing the good will of international agencies.
Complimentary video: Straight Talk Africa on May 16, 2012 – VOA’s “Straight Talk Africa” host, Shaka Ssali discuss the Freedom House annual survey of freedom of the press around the world and found that African nations showed a marginal decline from year’s previous with improvements in the legal and economic reporting
No such recklessness with Ethiopia’s calculating regime which wants to have its cake and also eat it.
At its core a neo-Stalinist organization, it nevertheless craves acceptance and legitimacy by the West and always aims to stay in favor regardless of its fundamental-even irreconcilable-ideological disparity with most of the basic elements of democracy.
(Concludes next week)