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Journalist, Edit Thyself

By Tesfai Hailu
July 16 2011

In its July 09, 2011 editorial with sensationalized title, “Ager Yiseten” (“Give Us a Country”), the Amharic weekly Awramba Time condemned the dismissal of its lawsuit against the government owned newspaper, Addis Zemen, as “unfair and backwardly partisan”. I don’t have all the facts to weigh in on the merits of the court decision, i.e. as to whether the weekly was denied justice as it claims or is being a sore loser. Nonetheless, its bitter complaint is indeed attention grabbing.

The editorial, among other things, lamented that Addis Zemen continues to make false allegations against it and that the country’s oldest newspaper uses vulgar language in an attempt to defame Awramba. Moralizing that vulgar language is a token of ignorance and backwardness, the editorial expressed its concern that civility and tolerance are currently in short supply, and thereby warned that this may ultimately harm the country and its future.

Whilst reading the editorial, I couldn’t help but think, “Look who is talking!” I mean, as a regular Awramba Time reader, I’ve come to know the weekly as one that is highly dismissive of views it doesn’t endorse, and plays a polarizing role. If there’s a single newspaper in the country that beats it in the race to the bottom – i.e. in intolerance and being a source of sensationalized news and unsubstantiated allegations against individuals, groups or institutions it doesn’t see eye to eye – it’d be the notoriously unjust Amharic weekly, Feteh, whose name literally yet ironically means justice.

I didn’t even have to look for past Awramba Time publications to cite incriminating words and statements of intolerance to make a case in point. In the same July 09 edition, in a column titled “Beser’at lye be’er mansat” (“Picking up the pen against the system”), for instance, the author vents his wrath on “so-called writers” (keep in mind the difficulty he has to recognize someone, who happens not to share his view, as a ‘writer’).

The author goes on with his ranting and name calling spree against people who, he alleges, “put their personal interests first; manipulate the public to enrich themselves; are more concerned about their overcooked shiro [a stew made out of powdered chickpeas] than the lack of justice in the country; chew on both sides of their mouth; are unaccountable to their conscience; crisis creators” and, my favourite, “anti-society zombies”. It makes me wonder how this type of language escaped the editors’ watchful eyes for “ignorance and backwardness”, or did it have an enlightening and progressive tone to it when used by one of their own? (Hence, the title “Journalist, Edit Thyself” is found fitting for this article.)

What’s more, this new columnist on the block has a beef with educated individuals whom he condemns as sellouts who have “traded their education to fill their pockets and stomachs”. This is not even inclusive of all the colorful language he used, but you get the picture. If the author had anything kind to say, it was reserved for fellow writers who share his view, and express themselves in the same manner, and perhaps with no manner, as he does.

Interestingly, he concludes with a quote from 18th. century philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau, “Man was born free yet we find him everywhere chained”. On that note, may I offer my unsolicited advice to the author to start looking inwards lest he himself is chained to the pole of smugness and intolerance,.

I wish this was an isolated incident from one writer who can’t curb his enthusiasm for lashing out, and seems to get a kick out of using the enemy-other as his punching bag. Unfortunately, such is pretty much the message Awramba Time et al. deliver week after week and page after page in their publications. This raises the question, why is it hard for them to see what they’re doing is exactly the same as what they accuse their real or constructed enemies of?

This is something they may have to explain, but there indeed are the usual suspects and repeat offenders to subpoena to the court of public opinion. And the first is the familiar political culture of intolerance that is the product of the zero sum political game, which continues to cause road rage on the unpaved, unfamiliar and congested political highway to democracy.

No one, of course, should be denied the right to criticize or promote his/her political view or public policy alternative as the best option for the country. However, that can and should be done without having to resort to demonizing political rivals, and alleging that the other has evil intentions. Let’s briefly look at one current and relevant example.

The ruling party is leading the country on a clearly defined political platform of developmental state principles as the shortest, safest and guaranteed route to salvaging the country from centuries of underdevelopment and poverty to a new era of growth and socioeconomic prosperity. To that end, the government is doing its utmost to rally the people behind its agenda, and is putting all its efforts to achieving the intended goals. As a result, reputable international institutions are recognizing the progress made in this area, and economically developed countries are now paying serious attention to Ethiopia which wasn’t the case a decade or so ago.

This doesn’t mean, however, that there are no issues of concern that need to be addressed. In that case, it’s the media’s responsibility and duty to identify, and bring them to the public’s attention for discussion and eventual action by policy and decision makers. But the way to do that is not by hitting below the belt; instigating a conspiracy theory; alleging politicians have a hidden agenda and ill will to harm the country and what not, which totally discredits the medium and undermines the message.

In contrast, legitimate concerns and criticisms will attract attention and win public support if they effectively pinpoint the unwanted byproducts of government economic policies, and thereby recommend viable solutions. Furthermore, when it comes to those with the view that the status quo is not working at all, the onus is on them to come up with a preferable and clearly defined economic alternative, and try to “sell” it to the people.

The second culprit is the tendency to be well aware of one’s rights and privileges, but thoughtlessly or opportunely ignore the duties and responsibilities. And, in my view, many journalists in Ethiopia are the worst victims of this syndrome. They are quick to speak loud and clear in defense of their freedom of speech, but ignore the fact that the freedom comes with societal and professional responsibility.

To sum up, unless the press in Ethiopia starts looking inward as much as it looks outward, and is ready to change its way, I’m afraid that it would continue to be a source for ranting, name calling and editorial self-pity and, in effect, nothing more than the guardian and promoter of a “culture of complaint” and dissent.