Ethiopia: Lessons Learnt From the World Press Freedom Day - Political Will, Media Freedom, and Socio-Economic Developments

The World Press Freedom Day had been celebrated here in Ethiopia from May 1-3. The stage was vital for Ethiopia to show its commitment to press freedom and democratic leadership. The keynote speakers, the invited guests, and the Ethiopian government officials acknowledged that two years ago, it would have been hard to imagine Ethiopia would hold this event. The changes brought in a year might have made Ethiopia an example that people's resistance against political corruption and the fight for freedom can bring important societal and political changes.

Nevertheless, in addition to the compliments Ethiopia fetched from the participants to its tremendous achievements in media freedom and the major political reforms, the celebration of the press freedom day had also sent a message to the Ethiopian government about the decisiveness of political will for the improvement of social, political and economic aspects of the society. In my view, among other issues, the event was crucial to practically show the meaning of the integration between political will, media freedom, and socio-economic developments for less democratic nations such as Ethiopia.

As one of the keynote speakers (UNESCO delegate) stated, wisdom arises from the open and free discussion and arguments. Media are also platforms for public discussions and arguments. And, this is one of the important reasons why media freedom is decisive for social, political and even for economic developments. For instance, as the keynote speaker stated, economic growth demands innovation. Innovation also hinges on the openness of the public sphere for the free flow of ideas and views of any kind.

Furthermore, corruption is a bottle-neck for economic progress in less democratic and developing countries such as Ethiopia. Corruption is, however, minimal in many nations where the media are free, independent and vibrant. A free and independent media are guardians of the public interest. They will not condone wrongdoings whoever did them. Therefore, the sustainability of economic developments is significantly dependent on the opportunities and freedom of citizens to speak their critical views and innovative ideas via different media outlets. The media, thus, should have the freedom to accommodate any kind of views without fear and discrimination.

The other lesson the organizers of the world press freedom day tried to teach us was that if we want to create a free and just society, it is indispensable to ensure freedom in general and media freedom in particular. As the experiences of participant countries from the so-called 'developing world' clearly indicated, governments that stifle freedom of speech often fail to ensure public interests in other spheres of lives. On the other hand, the developed countries experiences symbolized that the effectiveness of their governments directly related to the freedom of citizens to speak and choose. Hence, when media are free, responsible and professional, they can challenge and expose the unscrupulous opponents of freedom.

One of the primary tasks of the media is to investigate wrongdoings done especially by public officials and other influential personalities. To this end, free and professional media can be useful partners to the justice system. The watchful practice of the media would produce situational cues for the justice system about the areas where public interests are repressed and in which the intervention of the justice system is necessary.

Freedom of expression and media freedom are also directly linked with civil rights and liberty. If the current political change in our country is about ensuring the rights of citizens, it should liberate them from fear of imprisonment and intimidation for they speak their mind. This would also be guaranteed when citizens have access to the media which welcome their views without discriminations. Governments cannot ensure other interests of the public while quashing citizens' freedom to express themselves. It is almost impossible to trust the evenhandedness of a government in other aspects of public interests (such as the fair distribution of resources) so long as it suppresses freedom of speech. Impoverishment may not only be about social and economic hardship. It is about a lack of freedom of choice to make one's own destiny. As Amartya Sen aptly states, "an impoverished life is one without the freedom to undertake important activities that a person has reason to choose." Hence, restraining the free media practice can be likened with repressing citizens' right to choose and to live the life they prefer.

The other issue the participants from developed countries tried to tell us was that effective government functions according to the rule of law. Free and fair media are, thus, vital to regularly check the activities of public officials. Citizens would also have the opportunity to challenge their leaders when it is necessary. This also brings transparency between the general public and the government.

Generally speaking, the celebration of the world press freedom day here in Ethiopia was not primarily aimed at cheering Ethiopia to its extraordinary achievements in media freedom and political changes. It was a stage to send a swift message to the Ethiopian government to maintain major political reforms and the establishment of democratic administration. Moreover, it was underlined that the Ethiopian government should support the media to be free and independent. The occasion dispatched a clear message that it is impossible to establish a strong democratic government without opening the spaces to the public to speak freely. Most importantly, the delegates from developed countries and international organizations clearly indicated that if the Ethiopian government needs support from the world's advanced nations, it should safeguard the inalienable human rights. Thus, the message is clear - the government should turn the promises (regarding political freedom and reforms) into practice.

Ed.'s Note: Kibrom Berhane is a lecturer of Journalism and Communication at Mekele University. The views expressed in this article do not necessarily reflect the views of The Reporter. He can be reached at kibromabselam@gmail.com.

Contributed by Kibrom Berhane

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