Public Opinion in Ethiopia

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by Ayenew Haileselassie

Public opinion, says Elizabeth Noelle-Neumann, once a Nazi propagandist, is a social skin that holds society together.
When she worked for the Nazi, her job was “fabricating” propaganda materials, including those that denounced the Jews. After the war she transformed into a public opinion professional. That was when she developed what she called the Spiral of Silence theory.
Europe and the United States have a very long tradition of the media. Newspapers there had a rapid rise starting from the 16 century. Long before Ethiopians started producing their first newspaper, handwritten, readers in Europe and America were choosing between hundreds of newspapers on wide ranging topics.
Journalism as trade was evolving, but the sheer scope of its coverage obviously indicates the impact it could have on public opinion.
But coming to Ethiopia the media interplay that is behind the formation of the social skin has always been deficient. The presence of the so-called independent media has historically been either non-existent for the most part or significantly limited. This limitation poses a very interesting question regarding the nature of this thing called Public Opinion and its impact in the country.
Public opinion could be considered as a collection of personal opinions expressed in public. Humans are always opining on a whole range of social issues. How far people go to express their thoughts, however, varies significantly. There is also the question of whether what people say in public is their true opinion. There is also a question of how truly public opinion reflects what is in the hearts and minds of the individuals making up the public.
There are personal opinions, public opinions and / or those opinions which are encouraged by the leadership. There may also be actual or perceived pressure for the opinions people express to be in line with the official thinking.
Such thinking “processes” could be found as options in the lives of ordinary people. A vivid example could be the experience of one journalist interviewing a rural woman in northern Ethiopia.
In the first part of the interview, when the woman was aware that only a journalist was talking to her, she spoke of how life was getting better, how the farmers were producing and eating more.
In the second part, the journalist explained to the woman that she was not from the government and she was there to find out the real condition of the lives of people in that area. That account that followed a lot of tears from the woman who decided to express her “true” feelings and opinions.
Noelle-Neumann’s spiral describes the scenarios in public opinion: people have a gut feeling of what the dominant public opinion is; people are afraid of being isolated and they have a sense of what behaviours could lead to isolation; and, if they feel, their opinion is a minority, they will keep it to themselves to avoid the consequences.
She has been criticised for this theory because it was considered by some as an attempt to counter criticisms on people like herself who worked for the Nazi. In the post-Nazi Germany, she was running a public opinion firm in the service of one of the political parties, a practise rare in Ethiopia.
Opinion polls are hardly common here, although some radio phone-in programs give an idea of what people say. The callers are too few to be considered a sample, but they have the power to influence those listening the broadcast. Mainly at play in a very important issues in the government controlled media working to turn the dominant government thinking into public opinion.
Those that don’t agree with that revert to social media to express their opinions or to hear what other like-minded people say.
In between is a very large hole containing all the people that either keep their thoughts with their friends, or those that proclaim confidently the dominant opinion promoted by the government.
In the Ethiopian context, it is hard to know what the true and dominant public opinion is, because the expression of it is frowned upon. That in turn possibly leads to a lot of poorly planned and managed situations.
This Addis Ababa and surrounding areas master plan could be an example of how and by whom public opinion is formed and influenced. While protests are all too common around the world, would an understanding of the dynamics of public opinion help to make interventions before eruption?
Ayenew Haileselassie holds an MA in Journalism & Communication. He could be reached at ayenewh@yahoo.com. The article appeared in the December 12-14 edition of the Daily Monitor newspaper.

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