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Viewing political communication in non-western democracies through the prism of western experience can lead to misunderstanding.
There is a reason laboratories invest in different kinds of microscopes. Lab technicians need to switch between different microscopes depending on the nature of the objects they have to examine (Niu, 2017). In the absence of such fit-for-purpose equipment, it is difficult for them to make conclusive diagnoses. Likewise, approaching the different political communication cultures of non-Western democracies through the one-size-fits-all prism of the West is problematic, first, because it flattens out the manifold peculiarities of the non-West (Willnat & Aw, 2009; Chakrabarty, 2000, Shome and Hegde, 2002), and, second, because “findings” of such simplistic approaches will inevitably generate and perpetuate misunderstanding of the “other” (Said, 1979). The limitations of the West-centric models of inquiry to understanding non-western communicative cultures have widely been discussed. Mainly starting from the advent of post-colonial scholarship, there is a growing call for such simplistic and blanket-like approaches of inquiry to be re-visited and enriched (Spivak, 1988; Chakrabarty, 2000; Willems, 2014; Said, 1979). Most of these calls are calls for revisiting the hegemonic dominance of western schools of thought, not dismissing them, because, as Chakrabarty (2000; p. 16) rightly argues, with all its flaws, the Western tradition of thought is still “indispensable” even though it is “inadequate”. Chu (1988, cited in Willnat & Aw, 2009) says, “Western perspective of communication research and theory, by and large, ignores the social structure… because [in it] culture is usually not regarded as a variable.” (p. 205-206). Willems (2014a, b) also presents a long list of scholars who have called for more considerate ways of approaching Africa’s media landscapes from African perspectives. Some of those scholars went as far as urging for Africa to develop its own ethical standards (Afri-Ethics) for its media which are informed by its collective social (for example Ubuntu) values instead of the West’s individual-value-based systems (Willems, 2014a). Skjerdal (2009) stressed the necessity to pay attention to the fine lines that lie between adhering to “journalism ‘universals’” and being mindful of the “cultural particulars” when examining the media in East Africa. But what are those cultural, historical and political contexts, often left implied, that demand a new way of looking at the transitional democracies?
This essay aims to present both moral and practical reasons as to why that trend should change. And, in so doing, it aims to contribute to the ongoing post-colonial academic effort towards the development and integration into the political communication research canon of more versatile “microscopes” that can be more sensitive to the diverse and constantly changing socio-cultural and political contexts of the non-West. From here on forward, I will mostly use the term transitional democracy, instead of non-western democracy for two reasons. First, the preferred typology categorizes countries in terms of where they are on the road towards consolidated democracy rather than their geographic location, which has much less bearing on what sort of political communication model they adopt. Second, the “non-West” is also relatively more diverse and too big to be lumped together.
The essay will have two parts. The first part will try to a) show why a Western prism applied to non-Western contexts is reflective of the long-established western epistemic hegemony imposed at the expense of misunderstanding the “other”, and b) argue why that is wrong in principle. The second part of the essay will discuss a list of cultural, political and historical contextual peculiarities that transitional democracies have that demand a re-thinking of the established western models of inquiry. It accomplishes these aims by using Ethiopia as a case country representing transitional democracies.
Part I: Why is the wrong “microscope” wrong in principle?
Willems (2014a, p. 1) observed that instead of understanding the communicative cultures of the non-west in its own right, “scholarship frequently appreciates the role of media and communication insofar as it emerges from, represents the negative imprints of or features the active intervention of the Global North.” Evaluating the validity of the communicative cultures of transitional democracies only in relation to its conformity to or deviance from the Western standards, which are used as the answersheet against which the rest of the world’s tests are corrected, is patronizing (Chakravartty & Roy, 2013). Radhakrishnan (2000, p.40) remarks that “it is the ability of the developed world to conceptualize and theorize its particular organic empirical reality into a cognitive-epistemic formula on behalf of the entire world that poses a dire threat to other knowledges.”
This epistemological ethnocentrism, which Mudimbe (1988) defines as “the
belief that scientifically there is nothing to be learned from “them” unless it is already
“ours” or comes from us” (p. 28) has meant the West keeps using the wrong “prism” which, in turn, keeps reinforcing misunderstanding rather than the opposite.
The other danger of using this western prism as the global tickbox of what to look for is that if we study the communicative cultures of a still transitioning democracy by asking questions that can only apply to an already consolidated democracy, the answers we get are likely to be negative. Such misguided inquiries followed naturally be negative answers will eventually paint a picture of the non-West “as a place of absences – the absence of press freedom, freedom of expression and democracy” (Willems, 2014a, p. 9) and will only teach us about what the non-West is lacking rather than what it actually has to offer (Mbembe, 2001).
Why the wrong microscope is wrong in practice
Different demographics. Different political cleavages. Different political system. Different political communication.
Different demographics. It is difficult to find a western majoritarian democracy that is also heterogeneous in its demographic makeup probably because such a system is “more adequate in homogenous societies” (Diskin, Eschet-Schwarz & Felsenthal, 2007). Lijphart (1984) found that “the twenty democracies that have been continuously democratic since the 1940s (or earlier) are a rather homogeneous group in several key respects, except their degree of pluralism” (p. 53). Similarly, Freedom House president Adrian Karatnycky (cited in Fish & Brooks (2004) reported after a review of the 2001 survey that “democracy has been significantly more successful in monoethnic societies than in ethnically divided and multiethnic societies.”
Ethiopia is a multi ethnolinguistic country with more than 85 local languages spoken and that has inevitably influenced the political conversations that have been had especially since the student movements of the late 1960s and early ‘70s (Gudina, 2007; Kefale, 2013; Abbay, 2013). In fact, as Fessha (2016, p.1) notes, “the decision to use ethnicity as a basis for the organization of the state [federation] represents a recognition of the political relevance of ethnicity in Ethiopia.”
Consequently, political communication in Ethiopia, from social media hate speech (Gagliardone, 2014) to the building of memorials that immortalize victimhood of one group by the other to election debates (Carter Center, 2009), is rife with ethnic and other identity references. As part of its Observation Report of the 2005 Election, the Carter Foundation noted the following. “Ruling and opposition parties contravened the spirit of the political party code of conduct with the use of inflammatory rhetoric. The CUD was touted as an “Amhara chauvinist” party and likened to Rwanda’s interhamwe, while the ruling party was often referred to as a tool of its Tigrayan leaders.” (p. 18)
Political communication is reflective of the political environments within which it operates. These two extremely different political cultures – the Western, majoritarian democracy, and the ethnic-based politics of Ethiopia, naturally develop different political communication cultures and, hence, require different sets of models of inquiry.
Different demographics. Different cleavages.
What then are the implications of demographic heterogeneity, or the lack thereof, on the political cleavages along which political discourses are constructed? Political cleavages in the democratic West are often formed along issues and value systems, whose currency to people is relatively less permanent, while cleavages based along fixed identity lines have the potential to translate into longer loyalty to parties. Norris’ (2000) comparative analysis of the US and British elections shows a weakening party and ideological loyalty among the electorates. Voter allegiances shift from time to time now more than before because key election debates are anchored along issue lines that change from one election to another (Bartle & Griffiths, (Eds.), 2001). A 2016 Pew Research Center survey showed that 84% of registered voters in the US reported that the issue of the economy will be very important to them in making their decision about who to vote for in the 2016 presidential election followed by the issue of terrorism (80 percent). In 2008, far more had said the economy would be very important to their vote (87%) than the issue of terrorism (68%). The political allegiances and cleavages in Ethiopia, on the other hand, are formed along relatively fixed identity lines (Young, 1996; Kefale, 2013). Such political culture directly impacts the political communication dynamics and shifts the campaign appeals from the “elect-me-because-I-can” to “elect-me-because-I-am”. In such settings, the modern, Western elements of political persuasion such as content, charisma and cue (Dewan, Humphreys & Rubenson, 2014) or campaign techniques of getting the ads, visits and voter contact right (Wood, 2014) lose their currency and so does their legitimacy as indicators of success or failure.
Entitlement and debt: the common legacies of transitional democracies
The other very distinct historical context that western democracies do not share with transitional democracies is the historical legacies incumbent parties, most of whom are former liberation movements, carry with them going into elections. Until very recently, a lot of African countries were still led by the same liberation movements that freed them from foreign colonial powers (Zimbabwe, Tanzania, Angola, Mozambique, Algeria), or indigenous oppressors (Ethiopia, Eritrea, Rwanda, South Africa) decades ago (Clapham, 2012, Adolfo, 2009). With such history comes both a legacy of entitlement, on the side of the leaders, and a sense of debt from the side of the people. Even if Ethiopia was never colonised by a foreign power, the legacy of the liberation movement still applies as the party that took power in 1991 had to fight a 17-year liberation struggle from the jungle (Berhe, 2004; Young, 1996). Nonetheless, Ethiopia still had to fight for freedom from a repressive military dictatorship, which ruled between 1974 and 1991 (Ohlbaum, 1994). Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF), the liberation front that toppled the military government, and took office in May 1991 is still in power. Every year (on the days before and after the victory day of May 28), graphic documentaries chronicling how miserable things were before liberation and how much price the ruling party leaders had paid to liberate the people are shown on national TV day and night lest people forget.
A Western prism, which glosses over the social psychological impact of such subtle nuances on the political communication culture, is unlikely to succeed in getting a rich enough representation of the reality.
Power relations between government and the media
Blumler (1997, p. 397) made the observation that the mass media have in the Western democracies emerged “as an autonomous power center in reciprocal interaction and competition with other power centers.” In consolidated democracies such as the US, where the right to freedom of expression have been enshrined in the foundational documents (first amendment), the professional independence of the press from the state is no longer an issue of contention. In fact, the growing influence of the media on politics has inspired a new line of scholarship called mediatization of politics (Strömbäck, 2008; Street, 2005), a phenomenon which Meyer & Hinchman (2002) went as far as referring to as the colonization of politics by the media. The reality is different in Ethiopia. The government uses state media to set the only agenda. Opposing views will be persecuted using the 2009 Anti-Terrorism Proclamation (“Ethiopia’s Anti-Terrorism Law: A Tool to Stifle Dissent”, 2015). Between 2009 and 2014, 42 journalists fled Ethiopia for fear of persecution making Ethiopia the fourth largest source of exiled journalist (CPJ, 2014) and in the year 2014, Ethiopia was also the fourth-worst jailer of journalists in the world after China, Iran and Eritrea (“2014 prison census: 221 journalists jailed worldwide”, 2014). In one case, an Ethiopian blogger residing in the US was dealt the death penalty in absentia (“Ethiopia: Life sentence for blogger, prison for journalists”, 2012). This repression of the media at home lead to the creation of a new diaspora media, which remotely orchestrated the three-year-long protracted protest that eventually forced the Prime Minister to resign. Using contextually unsympathetic journalistic standards to measure the success or failure of Ethiopia’s press as a facilitator of political deliberation can only lead to problematic conclusions.
Free, interpersonal communication networks vs expensive, professionalized mass media campaigns
In the Western democracies, election campaigns have undergone high levels of modernization (some called it Americanisation (vanHeerde-Hudson, 2011)) (Norris, 2000) so much so that experts have now developed tools that can measure the process of professionalization of campaigns (Gibson & Römmele, 2009). One of the ways modern campaigns manifest themselves is in their expert appropriation of (targeted) digital and mass media. The same cannot be said of Ethiopia’s elections. Most of the campaigning by the ruling party, which now has all 547 parliamentary seats, takes place using its grassroots interpersonal communication networks called the one-to-five network. Originally the one-to-five networks, the government claimed, were aimed to be used for development purposes such as disseminating health-related information. These claims have been questioned. These networks, which are now used by the ruling party for political purposes, have a chain that connects every household to the top of the government and vice versa within a short period of time (Mosley, 2015; Refworld, 2016).
Different political system. Different tactics. Persuasion vs Coercion
In the democratic “West”, electoral campaigning is the process of persuading voters to one’s side by promising better alternatives or discrediting the rival. The electorates are then expected to engage in a deliberative process, weigh up their options and cast their ballots to their favoured candidates (Gardner, 2009; Bartle & Griffiths, (Eds.), 2001). Persuastion is the keyword in that process. In transitional democracies, that is not something to be taken foregranted. For example, in Ethiopia, one of the election “campaigning” techniques the incumbent party used repeatedly that western observers often overlooked is the threat of withholding of foreign aid (Malone, 2009; Tran, 2019) and agricultural inputs such as fertilizer to intimidate voters (HRW, 2010). Such complexities can usually elude the unsuspecting eyes of the external observer and need localized methods that are just as discrete as the government’s techniques.
In this essay, I have tried to discuss the moral and practical reasons that make a re-thinking of the western models of inquiry an epistemic imperative if we are to better understand the political communication cultures of transitional democracies.
First, I showed why it is wrong to evaluate the validity of the political communication cultures of transitional democracies from the viewpoint of their “conformity to” or “deviance from” the established Western “cognitive-epistemic formula” of what is right. I then showed how a loop of negative questions (that use western yardsticks as a measurement of performance) followed naturally by negative answers has taught the world more about what the non-West “has not” rather than what they have to offer (Mbembe, 2001) and how that can easily lead to their representation as “a place of a number of absences” when, with a more sympathetic microscope, we could have had a better understanding of that which is already present and could be further developed. Then I showed how this dangerous undertaking, of setting totally unfitting reference points as the supposed benchmarks of modernization for everyone, has the risk of tempting transitional democracies into to changing their communicative cultures into ones that do not necessarily work for them but would bring them international acclaim. And finally I showed how such practice also deprives the non-West of their agency and the opportunity for them to develop their own practical models of political communication.
In the second part of the essay, I presented and discussed the different historical, cultural and political peculiarities of the transitional democracies, using Ethiopia as an example, that demand the reappraisal of the western prism as an indicator of success. In that section, I showed how different demographic features give rise to different political cleavages and different political systems, and I argued how such a different socio-political culture in turn demands a different political communication system which cannot be properly appraised using a western prism.
Further research is in order…
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 Adrian Karatnycky, “The 2001 Freedom House Survey: Muslim Countries and the Democracy Gap,” Journal of Democracy 13 (January 2002): 107.
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