By Bereket Gebru
In today’s globalizing world, interaction between people, organizations and states have reached a new high. The interaction and influence between cultures and states has also shot up along with these marked exchanges. The chapter of history that came after the end of the cold war has seen the spread of liberal concepts all over the world. With the victory of the capitalist bloc and the subsequent collapse of socialist regimes across the globe, liberal ideas have become the order of the day.
That trend also worked with regard to the Media as liberalization was preached by the capitalist victors of the cold war. The concepts of Media freedom and pluralism have become the standards of conduct in the post cold war world with censorship of content by governments drawing international condemnation and even action. Press freedom has to do with the right to circulate opinions in print and electronic Media without governmental censorship.
According to ‘Mediamonitor’ website, pluralism refers to diversity in the most general sense. Then it goes on to classify it as internal and external pluralism. Internal pluralism, the website explains, has to do with how social and political diversity are reflected in Media content. It has to do with the representation of cultural groups in the Media as well as divergent political or ideological viewpoints.
External pluralism, on the other hand, covers the number of owners, Media companies, independent editorial boards, channels, titles or programs. “This type of pluralism is also known as the ‘plurality’ of suppliers. From the perspective of the ‘free marketplace of ideas’, competition between these Media content suppliers is considered to be essential in order to ensure a free choice of Media content and the availability of a wide variety of opinions and ideas.”
With the overthrow of the socialist Derg regime in Ethiopia in 1991, the then socialist leaning government of the EPRDF assumed state power. Censorship was the order of the day during the days of the Derg as the state sensed there was a need to control the ideas disseminated to the people. The ascendance of the EPRDF to power in 1991, on the other hand, coincided with the disintegration of the Soviet Union and the subsequent spread of liberal ideas about the press. The new multi-polar world order characterized by U.S. hegemony promoted the liberal ideas that depicted censorship as evil whilst calling for press freedom and pluralism. These ideas have also been intertwined with the bigger ideals of democracy and human rights.
The 1970s were generally known in the international system as the era of coup d’états. Latin America and Africa were marred with coups in those days. It may not be just a coincidence that the Ethiopian revolution happened in 1974. It might be just that Ethiopian politics was influenced by the developments in international system. Similarly, the adoption of a policy of press freedom by the EPRDF could be a reflection of the continued tie the political setting in Ethiopia has with the international system. The adoption of liberal ideas about the press at an international scale coincided with Ethiopia’s new regime adopting press freedom as its policy. It is fair to think that the two may not be mutually exclusive developments.
The adoption of the policy kicked of a period of unchecked Media proliferation in the print Media. There were numerous opposition magazines and newspapers, the most notable of which were launched by expelled Media practitioners of the Derg era. With the policy of press freedom already in place, the entrance into the print Media achieved external pluralism while internal pluralism was not achieved adequately. The Media setting became polarized as the views in the middle were not entertained. The private Media became a “mad dog” while the public Media assumed the role of a “lap dog.”
After the chaotic period of the foray into the print media, the Media setting trimmed itself and attained a manageable size through the influence of the market and the government. Although there is still a long way to go, there have been notable attempts to represent the viewpoints of various cultural, demographic and political groups.
There has been media plurality in terms of ownership in the print media; however, the electronic media is still predominantly owned by the government. Recent developments seem to be encouraging as private companies have been given the license to launch radio and TV stations. There are stations run from abroad via satellite as well.
After a long reluctance to provide private ownership of electronic media, the government seems to be at ease about it nowadays. The increased intensity of media pluralism in the world has spread far out to engulf all pockets of the globe. This rising trend in the international system has also had a positive impact on electronic media pluralism in Ethiopia.
Another major point of interaction between the international and Ethiopian Media is agenda setting. Considering Ethiopian Media receive international news and other reports from international news agencies or international media, they end up echoing the agenda those news agencies want to set. Therefore, when it comes to international issues, foreign media set the agenda while the Ethiopian media disseminate the agenda to the local population.
That trend, however, needs to be changed as Ethiopian Media need to craft their own agenda. The agenda Ethiopian media set on international issues needs to promote Ethiopian interests and cooperation with other international actors. International news agencies might, for instance, come up with positive reports about the multinational ‘Nestle’ to offset some negative recent developments that have to do with the company. Providing such reports coverage might, however, harm the interests of Ethiopian coffee farmers. The agenda they set should also be relevant to the local people.
Another point of interaction is the adoption of the trend of financially viable Media programs in place of socially beneficial ones. As Noam Chomsky stated in his book entitled “Manufacturing Consent,” the handful of Media behemoths in the U.S. are mainly interested in entertainment, which produces large audiences and, therefore, tremendous income from advertisement. That trend in the U.S. Media has directly been copied by the Ethiopian electronic Media as some of the most famous shows (idol, lip sync battle, etc.) have been launched over Ethiopian Media. Advertisements are viewed during the news bulletin on national TV. Radio and TV programs that stimulate thought and incite a thirst for knowledge are increasingly being considered boring and financially unworthy.
Generally, the global Media has exerted tremendous influence on Media dynamics in Ethiopia since the ascendance of the EPRDF to power. Some of these influences have been positive such as the ideals of press freedom and Media pluralism. Others have been negative such as the dissemination of foreign agenda and the emphasis on financial viability instead of social benefits. Therefore, we need to study the issue, build on the positives and amend the negatives.
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