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Suicide by Police Journalism Watch

By Tesfai Hailu
May 22 2011

Suicide by police a.k.a. suicide by cop is a “form of victim precipitated homicide in which a suicidal individual engages in calculated, life-threatening and criminal behaviour in order to compel the police to use deadly force”. And, as a regular newspaper reader, I’ve been noticing that – after a long hiatus – many of the newspapers in Ethiopia, certainly not all, are back into what could be dubbed as suicide by police journalism, metaphorically speaking that is. It should, in fact, be emphasized at the outset that the suicide this article refers to is to that of journalism as a profession, and certainly not to the life of the journalist as a person.

On that note, readers who have been paying close attention to the private newspapers can sense desperation bordering on suicidal.

There is one journalist in particular who could serve as a poster boy for suicide by police journalism. This person, among other things, made a serious allegation that he had been taken downtown by “heavy armed” police who apparently warned him to stop writing articles aimed at inciting copycat violence and political unrest in the country. Fair enough. But he went a step further to claim that a high-ranking officer at the federal police headquarter had made himself clear that the police are tired of having to arrest and release him, thus may feel obligated to take other action – hinting that “other action” to be a deadly force.

At this juncture, there’s no way of knowing what exactly might have been said as the police, to my knowledge, haven’t issued any public statement in response, which is unfortunate. The need to confirm, and thereby offer an explanation or refute an allegation without delay – rather than allowing one side of a story to prevail – is a culture that has yet to develop in the public relations arena.

Nonetheless, in this case, there are circumstantial evidences to prove that the allegation may very well be frivolous and without merit. The journalist’s claim, in fact, brings an old Amharic saying to mind whereby someone threatened his foe, “Egedlehalehu” (I’ll kill you), and the threat victim responded, “Amesegnalehu selastenekekegn” (thank you for warning me). It’s hard to imagine, however, that the police would be that naïve to give such a self-defeating warning, especially knowing full well the person they’re dealing with happens to be a veteran political provocateur who craves national and international spotlight.

More important, in today’s Ethiopia, even individuals suspected of the most heinous crimes such as treason and crime against humanity are brought to justice, and tried before a court of law. And the old “Netsa Ermja” (an open season for killing) approach to punishing suspects or perceived public enemies is gone for good leaving its legacy of a “never again” public consensus.

Thus, my nonclinical diagnosis is that this particular journalist’s allegation, like many others, is simply a case of suicide by police journalism. And, as we will see next, there are political and socioeconomic factors behind this phenomenon.

Professor Andrew Samuels, one of the “leading commentators on social, cultural and political issues”, identifies “political depression” as “a sense of helplessness to make a difference on social and political issues, [which] causes deep disquiet, and clients increasingly bring … into the therapy hour”.

This is something many of the journalists and private newspapers in Ethiopia can identify with. The fact that they tend to view themselves as political activist first and journalist second exposes them to “political depression” and a “sense of helplessness”, which is triggered by failure to make a significant difference in the country’s political and socioeconomic discourse. It’s often said that the media sets the agenda. Sadly, the private press in Ethiopia seems to be stuck in same old or newly borrowed agenda.

Indeed, 2010 arrived as the private press desperately wanted to cling unto 2005. As hard as journalists and columnists in the private press tried to make doom and gloom a front and center public agenda, the growth and transformation plan (GTP) kicked in. When they prop up political unrest in North Africa and the Middle East as a godsend gift to replicate, Ethiopians endorsed building the economy and a grand hydroelectric dam as pressing issues to embark on, instead.

Financial trouble is the other main issue the private press often complains about and blames external factors for, particularly high printing cost, which is said to make the price of newspapers unaffordable. Likely so, but the problem is that the private press conveniently avoids looking inwards. Yet, a compelling argument could be made that price is not the sole culprit.

After all, way before the newspaper price came to its current 7 Birr rate, vendors were already selling one particular newspaper for that same amount even after its bulky classifieds were taken out and sold separately for 1 to 2 Birr. Still, the popular newspaper remained in high demand. In contrast, readers, including myself, have difficulty paying 5 Birr, never mind 7, to newspapers that lack quality in print and content because, to paraphrase L’Oreal’s famous slogan, they’re not worth it.

A price of a cup of macchiato in the upscale cafes of Addis is now 7 to 8 Birr. In fact, just recently, one of them – which seems to imitate not only U.S. coffee giant Starbucks’ image but also its hefty price – has unconscionably hiked the price of its awfully small cup of macchiato from 7 to 9 Birr. Still, the famous hot beverage continues to be an affordable luxury for many, thus cafes are as packed as ever.

However, while macchiato can also be purchased for as low as 3 Birr depending on the status of the café; the area it operates in and the quality of the product it serves, nearly all newspapers act like they’re created equal, and charge same or almost same price as the ones in a league of their own. The intention here is not to defend a price increase on newspapers with a “let them eat cake” attitude, but rather to make the point that lack of good content is also to blame.

The other unconvincing argument the private press makes is that, for fear of reprisals from the powers that be, retailers and service providers refrain from advertising in newspapers that are deemed “anti-government”. But this doesn’t hold water. One particular newspaper that could be labelled as “pro-government”, for instance, equally suffers from advertisement drought. In contrast, when it comes to the English language newspapers, the one that leads the race in advertisement revenue doesn’t happen to be known for its support of the government or the “EPRDFites”, as the paper scornfully likes to call ruling party leaders and members.

The issues that have been addressed so far had to do with negative factors that force newspapers to succumb to suicide by police journalism. But there also are positive inducements that may lead to the same fate. Prestigious awards; an all expenses paid trip to receive one’s award in N.Y., Washington DC, London or other European cities; the warm welcome by hosts; the chitchat and a pat on the back from admirers; the tour to visit landmarks and tourist attractions; the honorary luncheon; the word of praise for ‘heroic’ journalism and the applause from ‘peers’ could serve as a strong aphrodisiac compelling enough to sacrifice one’s profession at the altar of ‘martyrdom’. This, by the way, is not based on an overly imaginative assumption, but rather something homecoming award winning journalists and the newspapers they write for have proudly and extensively written on.

Last but certainly not least is the hope in life ever after. Indeed, the scholarships opportunities in top schools of journalism and political asylum privileges in the West are incentives that could make suicide by police very appealing for some. After all, since the downfall of the Dergue regime, it has been extremely difficult for Ethiopian refugee claimants to obtain political asylum, while the perception that equates the West, particularly the United States, with a land of opportunity has not ceased to exist. So, one can understand, although not necessarily condone, the self-serving race to ‘martyrdom’ by design.

Now that we’ve identified the causes and symptoms that lead to suicide by police journalism in general, let’s see the specifics as to where the press is going wrong, which would hopefully contribute towards preventing or at least minimizing the harm in the future. First and foremost, journalists in Ethiopia have to be mindful of the duties and responsibilities their profession entails to the same degree that they care about their rights and privileges under “freedom of the press”.

The Indianapolis based Society of Professional Journalists (SPJ) defines the duty of a journalist as one that strives to “… seek [the] truth and report it; … test the accuracy of information from all sources and exercise care to avoid inadvertent error; support the open exchange of views, even views [one] find[s] repugnant; … distinguish between advocacy and news reporting”.

SPJ goes further to offer a word of advice to its members and, by extension, to all journalists: “Act independently and be free of obligation to any interest other than the public's right to know; be accountable to readers, listeners, viewers and each other” and “Abide by the same high standards to which they hold others”.

As I came across the aforementioned statements, I couldn’t help but dwell on the sorry state of the Ethiopian press, which has a clear record of undermining the spirit and letter of every journalism code of ethics mentioned above.

Seeking the truth appears to be non-mandatory in most of the Ethiopian press, and one can imagine why. Truth, as the saying goes, is the first casualty of war. To that end, as the private press acts as though it’s in a protracted war of words with the Ethiopian government, truth continues to be the casualty regarded as collateral damage. At best, the press comes across as too sloppy to seek the truth or too biased to “provide a fair and comprehensive account of events and issues”.

Week after week, nearly all private newspapers come up with negativity filled, sensationalized news and analysis that appeal to readers’ emotions as supposed to their intellect. So much so that one can’t help but wonder if the Ethiopian private press’ overall objective is to become a source of tabloid like news rather than develop high-quality, mainstream journalism.

As well, testing the accuracy of information from all sources, which is part and parcel of seeking the truth, remains uncharted waters for the Ethiopian press. It’s common to hear or read from international prominent electronic and print news agencies about the effort they put into contacting the subject of the news, at times to no avail. In contrast, not only does the Ethiopian press appear to see nothing wrong with reporting unsubstantiated news, but it often goes out of its way to engage in deliberate distortion of truth.

An open exchange of views or the lack thereof is another problem in the Ethiopian press. As someone who endeavours to write on the country’s political and socioeconomic issues every so often, I have seen firsthand how some views are utterly unwelcome in the Ethiopian private press. And what we’re talking here is not a partisan political analysis or a hard-line support to a political party of one’s choice. Rather, a casual mention of an economic achievement, for instance, appears to lead to one’s article ending up in a recycle bin, dashing the writer’s hope of seeing his/her piece published in the opinion section of a newspaper.

Distinguishing between advocacy and news reporting also eludes the Ethiopian press. Some of the articles read like political party platforms as supposed to an independent news or political/socioeconomic analysis.

Finally, being free of obligation to any interest other than the public's right to know is one of the biggest challenges for the Ethiopian private press, which seems to see nothing wrong with serving as a political mouthpiece of opposition parties or the disgruntled diaspora.

So, to reverse the type of unprofessional journalism detailed above; win readers’ respect, and thereby increase newspaper sales and advertisement revenues, the Ethiopian private press first and foremost has to be willing to examine itself; change its way, and adhere to the rules of good journalism.

The Ethiopian government also has the duty and responsibility to help prevent or minimize suicide by police journalism. And, as alluded to above, one way of doing that is to refute unsubstantiated news and false allegations by issuing public statements in a timely manner.

Taking corrective measures on case by case basis is also vitally important instead of waiting until things get out of hand to the point of calling for maximum action, i.e. an arrest of a journalist; closure of a press agency or an introduction of a tougher press legislation etc., which only open the door for copycat suicide by police journalism; crying foul and condemnation by misguided or biased international court of opinion filled by jurors from “advocates of press freedom” and special political interests in the “rights business”.

To make a step in the right direction – besides a strong and capable public relations entity – a press watchdog in the form of the office of a press ombudsman “independent of government and media” is very much needed. An ombudsman “receives and investigates complaints from newspaper readers or listeners or viewers of radio and television stations about accuracy, fairness, balance and good taste in news coverage. He or she recommends appropriate remedies or responses to correct or clarify news reports”.

After all, the police and the courts – in addition to the latter’s notorious backlog – may not be the best equipped institutions to get to the bottom of the nitty-gritty of press related disputes.

Furthermore, the public or legal representatives of interest groups can have easier access to file their complaints with the office of an ombudsman. For instance, if a newspaper carries gender biased message; pursues a contemptuous approach that insinuates ethnic hatred or tries to plant a seed of animosity between religious groups, representatives of the ill-treated group can take their case to the ombudsman. The ombudsman can then take a corrective measure which could be as simple as requesting a retraction and a formal apology; imposing a fine or – when a deliberately ignored rule of law causes irreparable damage – send the case to the courts with full details of the offence and the subsequent investigation.

Disclaimer: First, if my memory serves me right, there was an old song by Wegayehu Degnetu, I think, with lyrics critical of the modern-day young woman, but wished to emphasize in the end that mothers from good old days were exempted from the criticism, “Yedro enatoch bezih agatami selalachuh, yekerta aruglegn kezih wekessa wich nachuh”. In the case in point, there indeed are exceptions to the rule or to whom the sweeping criticism of the private press addressed in this article does not apply to.

Second, while this article’s objective is to tackle problems in the private press, it shouldn’t give the impression that, by omission, the public or government media is blameless. In fact, an effort will be made in the future to explicitly address problems in the public media as well.