Alemayehu G. Mariam
Voice of America is the Voice of the Voiceless
The Voice of America’s (VOA) Journalist Standards & Practices (document 11-023 and 11-024), under the section captioned “WHAT DO VOA’S AUDIENCES HAVE A RIGHT TO EXPECT? Audiences ‘ Bill of Journalism Rights” provides that VOA’s audiences have the:
right to expect that journalists will monitor power and give voice to the voiceless. The press should use its watchdog power to uncover things that are important and new and that change community thinking… The press should monitor all the key centers of power in the community-including but not limited to government.
Last week, a visiting delegation of the VOA Broadcasting Board of Governors (BBG) in Ethiopia was served an ultimatum by dictator Meles Zenawi: If the VOA wants the electronic jamming of its broadcasts to Ethiopia stopped, it must silence and banish from its microphones the voices of specific individuals in the Ethiopian Diaspora and some within Ethiopia. The delegation told Zenawi that the VOA is voice of the voiceless, not the silencer of the already voiceless.
It was an amazing display of nerve, hubris and insolence. In what amounts to a black list of enemies, Zenawi handed the VOA delegation a roster of well-known Ethiopian opposition leaders, activists and advocates who have long championed the causes of democracy, freedom and human rights in Ethiopia. Among the individuals Zenawi wanted blackballed by the VOA include Paulos Milkias, Beyene Petros, Getachew Metaferia, Seeye Abraha, Merra Gudina and Berhanu Nega. But the black “list goes on” with the names of numerous other individuals. This author is reportedly among the individuals the VOA was asked to ban.
My hat’s off to the VOA’s BBG for upholding its “Audiences ‘ Bill of Journalism Rights” and legal mandates against such a brazen assault on its journalistic integrity and professionalism.
The Irony of Defending a Dictator
It is ironic that Zenawi is now trying to take away my right to speak freely in America sitting in his palace in Ethiopia. Last September, I stood up to defend his right to speak freely in America, at Columbia University’s World Leaders Forum. I was perhaps the only individual in the in the Ethiopian pro-democracy opposition who stepped forward and publicly and vigorously defended Zenawi’s right to speak at that Forum. I faced withering criticism and censure in public and private for defending Zenawi’s right. So many were disappointed in me for taking such a public stand. Some openly questioned my sanity suggesting that I was living in my “academic fantasyland” to defend such a “ruthless dictator”. Others pitied me for being “hopelessly naïve”. Some even doubted my integrity by suggesting that I had “sold out” to Zenawi by defending his right to speak in America.
I am glad to have defended Zenawi’s right to speak, and would do so again without hesitation. The ultimate proof of one’s unwavering belief in freedom of expression is one’s unwavering acceptance of the right of free expression of those whose views one considers abominable. That was why I stood up and unreservedly defended Zenawi’s right to speak at Columbia:
But as a university professor and constitutional lawyer steadfastly dedicated to free speech, I have adopted one yardstick for all issues concerning free speech, Article 19 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights: ‘Everyone has the right to freedom of opinion and expression; this right includes freedom to hold opinions without interference and to seek, receive and impart information and ideas through any media and regardless of frontiers.’ I underscore the words ‘everyone’ and ‘regardless of frontiers…’
Though I condemn Zenawi for his abuse, mistreatment and cruelty against Serkalem and Eskinder and other journalists, disagree with him on his repeated theft of elections, trashing of the human rights of Ethiopian citizens, boldfaced lies about economic growth… unjust incarceration of Birtukan Midekssa… crackdown on the press and civil society organizations, subversion of the legislative process to mill out repressive laws… I shall vigorously defend his right to speak not just at Columbia but at any other public venue in the United States of America.
Now, Zenawi tries to strong-arm the VOA into taking my right of free speech in America by having me and others blackballed. Zenawi has sealed the mouths, plugged the ears and poked out the eyes of 80 million Ethiopians. Now he has the temerity, the sheer audacity to demand the VOA to do his dirty job in America!?!
I am not sure whether to laugh out loud, take offense or express outrage at such a brazenly impudent attempt to interfere with the right of free speech and of the press in America. But this is not the first time Zenawi has tried to jerk the VOA or other international broadcasters. In 2005, he charged five Ethiopian-born VOA journalists in his kangaroo court on trumped up “genocide” and other charges. Last year, he likened the VOA to Rwanda’s genocide-Radio Mille Collines. Zenawi has managed to intimidate Deutche Welle (DV) (German Radio Ethiopia Broadcast) editors into keeping his critics off the air by orchestrating a campaign or fear and smear. The fact of the matter is that Zenawi can intimidate and threaten Deutsche Welle and the independent press in Ethiopia. But he will never be able to do the same to the VOA!
One is left wondering if Zenawi has a clue about speech and press freedoms in America. Does he really believe the VOA or any other individual or institution in America has the power to muzzle, censor, blackball or otherwise prevent any person in America from exercising their freedom of expression? Does he really believe he can intimidate the VOA into abandoning its legal duties and mandates and journalistic standards to accommodate his paranoid need for a complete and total news and information blackout in Ethiopia? How does one respond to the ignorantly arrogant and arrogantly ignorant?
Educating a Dictator: Freedom of Speech in America 101
The German literary figure Johann Wolfgang von Goethe observed, “There is nothing more frightful than ignorance in action.” There is nothing more frightful to the system of American liberties than the insidious demand by Zenawi to gag, muzzle and blackball his critics in America and forever ban them from appearing on VOA programs and broadcasts. By making such an insolent and criminal demand, Zenawi showed not only his abysmal ignorance of the American Constitution and law but also struck a blow at the very heart of the most precious of all American liberties: freedom of speech and of the press. Zenawi’s blacklist for the suppression of the free speech rights of American citizens and others is no less threatening than an attack by Al-Qaeda on the American homeland. The only difference is that Al-Qaeda schemes to take American lives, Zenawi American liberties.
Free speech and the free press are the bedrock and cornerstones of American society. Free speech and the free press are what make America, America, and not prison nation Ethiopia. Without free speech and the free press, there is no America! What makes America different from any other nation in the world is her Bill of Rights of which the First Amendment – the right to expressive freedoms — is foremost, her fiercely independent judiciary and the American people’s unyielding commitment to individual freedom. Zenawi has the gall to demand an agency of the U.S. Government blacklist American citizens and others!
It is obvious that Zenawi needs a basic lesson in the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution.
The First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution is unquestionably the paramount element of the U.S. Constitution. It guarantees freedoms of religion, speech, writing and publishing, peaceful assembly, and the freedom to raise grievances with the Government. The constitutional language used in securing these rights is crystal-clear, sweeping, uncompromising and unambiguous: “Congress shall make no law… abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press…” “No law” means no government official or institution has the power to restrict, censor, suppress, restrain, muzzle or blackball any American citizen or inhabitant of the U.S. from exercising their right to free speech or restrain the independent press from performing its institutional functions.
Political speech in America is sacred and given the highest level of constitutional protection. Any person in America has the right to publicly criticize, denounce, condemn and berate any government institution or leader with impunity. The right of Americans to criticize their government evolved over centuries of struggle for individual rights. Like Zenawi today, in 1735, long before the American Republic was established, the greedy and arrogant British Governor of New York, William Cosby, tried to prosecute newspaper publisher John Peter Zenger for badmouthing him (seditious libel). Cosby lost as Zenger was acquitted by a jury. Zenger’s case laid the foundation for press freedom in America.
In 1798, the Federalist Congress passed the Alien and Sedition Acts with the aim of punishing influential Republican newspaper editors and opposition leaders for badmouthing the president, Congress, or the government. Under the Act, a Congressman was convicted and imprisoned for calling President Adams a man who had “a continual grasp for power.” The Act expired in 1801 and President Jefferson pardoned the two dozen people convicted under that Act.
At the onset of the American Civil War in 1861, President Lincoln tried to silence his critics by suspending the right of citizens to challenge their detention (writ of habeas corpus) by military authorities. The Supreme Court struck down Lincoln’s order, and in a passionate defense of American liberties wrote:
By the protection of the law human rights are secured; withdraw that protection, and they are at the mercy of wicked rulers, or the clamor of an excited people… The nation…has no right to expect that it will always have wise and humane rulers, sincerely attached to the principles of the Constitution. Wicked men, ambitious of power, with hatred of liberty and contempt of law, may fill the place once occupied by Washington and Lincoln; and if this [broad power of martial law] be conceded, the dangers to human liberty are frightful to contemplate.
Towards the end of WW I, Congress enacted the Sedition Act of 1918 with the aim of punishing communists, socialists, anarchists and anti-war protesters who criticized the United States government. The U.S. Supreme Court established the so-called “clear and present danger” test as an evidentiary standard in criminal prosecutions to determine if the speech in question presented a real and immediate danger to the public. That test proved useless and was abandoned.
For the last 50 years, the powers of the U.S. federal and state governments to regulate and interfere in freedom of speech and of press have been severely curtailed. Just in the past couple of months, the U.S. Supreme Court struck down laws that interfered with the free speech rights of those on the outer fringes on American society. In one case, it ruled in favor of the right of a church group that protests at the funerals of soldiers and Marines killed in the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. The First Amendment protects even the rights of members of such a lunatic fringe determined to dishonor the memories of American heroes who gave up their lives to defend the free speech and protest rights of such a group.
In another case, the Court struck down a California law that sought to prohibit distastefully violent video games: “The First Amendment itself reflects a judgment by the American people that the benefits of its restrictions on the Government outweigh the costs. Our Constitution forecloses any attempt to revise that judgment simply on the basis that some speech is not worth it.” Last year the Court ruled that corporations have the same free speech rights as natural persons holding: “If the First Amendment has any force, it prohibits Congress from fining or jailing citizens, or associations of citizens, for simply engaging in political speech.”
The jurisprudence of free speech and press and protection for dissenters and government critics has a long and honored tradition in America. In 1971, in the “Pentagon Papers” case, the U.S. government attempted and failed to prevent the New York Times and the Washington Post from publishing classified documents packed with damaging revelations about America’s conduct of the Vietnam War. In 1967, the State of New York attempted and failed to require state employees to declare their loyalty to the state or face dismissal from their jobs. In 1973, the Court upheld the right of individuals who have an interest in obscene material.
In 1989, the state of Texas attempted and failed in its efforts to criminalize the burning of the American flag in political protest. In 1992, the Supreme Court affirmed the free speech rights of hate-mongering Neo-Nazis and racist Klansmen. The government does not even have the power to discriminate against the viewpoints of this lunatic fringe. In 1997, the Supreme Court struck down indecency laws applying to the Internet keeping Congress out of regulation of the great equalizer: The Internet.
Zenawi may have been inspired by the short and sordid history of blacklisting in America. In the early 1950s, Senator Eugene McCarthy began a communist witch hunt by creating a blacklist of Americans suspected of communist ties and disloyalty. After falsely and recklessly accusing numerous individuals, McCarthy was censured by the Senate in 1954. He died no better than a skid row drunk in 1957.
President Nixon drew up a list of his critics in his “Political Enemies Project” in 1971. Nixon and his crew discussed “how we can use the available federal machinery to screw our political enemies.” Two years later, Nixon screwed himself and his crew out of a job when he resigned in total disgrace, and forty members of his administration were either indicted or jailed.
American presidents have been criticized, vilified and insulted not just by ordinary individuals but also the members of the press, opposition political leaders and the press. When Jimmy Carter talked about “ethnic purity”, Jesse Jackson slammed him for resorting to “Hitlerian racism.” The unions depicted and lashed out against President Ronald Reagan as the “enemy of working people”. The Libertarians reviled Reagan for being a “war monger.” Newsweek tagged President George Bush, Sr. a “wimp”. Bush felt so hurt by that label he commented on June 16, 1991: “You’re talking to the guy that had a cover of a national magazine, that I’ll never forgive, put that label on me.”
President George W. Bush, Jr. has been criticized, humiliated, vilified, ridiculed and everything else for his policies, personality, performance, mispronunciation of English words and for inventing his own “language” of “Bushism”. Members of the “Tea Party” have compared President Obama to Adolf Hitler and caricatured him in the image of all sorts of wild animals. A popular radio show host accused Obama of “planning a terrorist attack against the U.S.” Sara Palin accused Obama of “palling around with terrorists who would target their own country.”
The point is that there is not a damn thing American presidents can do to stop citizens from criticizing them, denouncing their policies, ridiculing their lifestyles or discrediting their ideas. That is the American way. If Zenawi thinks he can have the VOA blacklist and gag his critics in America, I would like to know on what planet he spends most of his time.
Blacklisting Ethiopians and Ethiopian Americans in America: Potential Violations of American Law?
If the demand for blacklisting had been done by any branch of the U.S. government, state governments or any subdivision or agency of any government in the U.S. or any private individual, legal action could lie under 18 U.S.C. sections 241(conspiracy against rights) and 242 (deprivation of rights under color of law) and other federal criminal statutes prohibiting solicitation to commit a crime. There are also avenues for a private right of action in Federal Court for violation or attempted violation of a constitutional/civil right. Solicitation and attempt by a foreign government to deprive American citizens or inhabitants of the U.S. of constitutional/civil rights in the United States presents legal issues of the utmost seriousness.
Truth: The Dictators’ Nightmare
One of the great justices of the U.S. Supreme Court wrote: “Censorship reflects society’s lack of confidence in itself. It is a hallmark of an authoritarian regime.” I say censorship reflects the lack of confidence of a leader who cannot defend his ideas or vision, if he ever had one. If Zenawi should take one lesson from everything that is written here, it is simply this: In America, everyone has the absolute right to express his/her political views on whatever issue they desire. Neither Congress, the President of the United States nor a dictator from Africa has the power to take that right away.
We live in the United States of America, not the Benighted States of America. Zenawi has silenced the voices of 80 million people in the Dystopia of Ethiopia he has created over the past 20 years. He will never be able to do what he has done in Ethiopia in the United States of America. Let all “wicked men, ambitious of power, with hatred of liberty and contempt of law” take a lesson from history: “No dictator, no invader, can hold an imprisoned population by force of arms forever. There is no greater power in the universe than the need for freedom. Against that power, governments and tyrants and armies cannot stand.”
July 4, 2011
Today is July 4, 2011. Exactly 235 years ago, America declared its independence from colonial tyranny that flagrantly dispossessed Americans of their basic liberties: Freedom of speech, freedom of the press, freedom of assembly, the right to a fair and speedy trial and more. It is the irony of ironies that 235 years later, another generation must rise up to defend these scared liberties against an African tyrant.
Long live freedom of speech and of the press in America and in Ethiopia!
The author’s prior commentaries on the VOA are available here: In Defense of the Voice of America and Let Ethiopians Hear America’s Voice.
By Alemayehu G. Mariam
Ethiopian Citizens Have the Absolute Constitutional Right to Listen to the VOA
So many lessons to learn from Columbia University! When dictator-in-chief Meles Zenawi spoke unceremoniously at Columbia on September 22, he was talking trash about the Voice of America (VOA). He said he decided to jam VOA broadcasts in Ethiopia “by taking a page from U.S. policy”. He wildly alleged that an evil cabal of supporters of the defunct Ethiopian military regime disguised as journalists had taken control of VOA’s Amharic service.
Now, I don’t know if you know this but VOA [Voice of America] is not allowed to broadcast to the U.S. by law. It is not allowed to broadcast to the U.S. by law. It is allowed to broadcast to other countries, but not to the U.S. because it is supposed to reflect the policy of the government in power of the day. Now, VOA Amharic service happens to be dominated by people associated with the previous regime who tend to have a particularly jaundiced view of events in Ethiopia for understandable reasons. We took a page from the policy of the United States and said VOA is not welcome to Ethiopia either.
This past March, Zenawi made the downright wacky allegation that the VOA’s Amharic service staff had been engaged in plotting genocide in Ethiopia for “many years”:
We have been convinced for many years that in many respects, the VOA Amharic Service has copied the worst practices of radio stations such as Radio Mille Collines of Rwanda in its wanton disregard of minimum ethics of journalism and engaging in destabilizing propaganda.
When the Voice of America’s Amharic Service interviewed me on October 1, 2010 to comment on Zenawi’s legal and policy justifications for jamming the VOA by taking a “page from the policy of the United States,” I told them it was a no brainer: “U.S. policy and laws are completely irrelevant to the exercise of expressive freedoms in Ethiopia. Ethiopian citizens have the absolute constitutional right to receive broadcasts of the VOA or “any other media of their choice.” Zenawi has no legal power or authority of any kind to prevent Ethiopian citizens from listening to VOA broadcasts.
The indisputable fact of the matter is that the right of Ethiopian citizens to listen to the VOA or “any other media of their choice” or to seek information from any source does not depend on U.S. policy or the permission of Zenawi. Their right is founded solely and exclusively on the sweeping constitutional guarantees they enjoy under Articles 29 and 13 of the Ethiopian Constitution. The language of these two articles is simple, plain, straightforward, unambiguous and requires no interpretation. Article 29 (reproduced also in the official Amharic text below) states:
2. Everyone shall have the right to freedom of expression without interference. This right shall include freedom to seek, receive and impart information and ideas of all kinds, regardless of frontiers [the official Amharic version reproduced below literally translates the word “frontier” to “without limits to information originating within the country or outside of the country”], either orally, in writing or in print, in the form of art, or through other media of his choice.
3. … Press freedom shall, in particular, include the rights enumerated hereunder: a) that censorship in any form is prohibited. b) the opportunity to have access to information of interest to the public.
In fact, the text of Article 29 (2) is taken almost verbatim from Article 19 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights which provides:
Everyone has the right to freedom of opinion and expression; this right includes freedom to hold opinions without interference and to seek, receive and impart information and ideas through any media and regardless of frontiers.
Article 13 bolsters Article 29 by tying the interpretation of all “democratic constitutional rights” enjoyed by Ethiopian citizens to international human rights treaties and conventions to which Ethiopia is a signatory, and explicitly mentions the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR), which Ethiopia adopted as one of the original 48 members who voted for it in the U.N. General Assembly in September 1948. Article 13 (Scope and Interpretation) provides:
1. The provisions of this Chapter shall, at all levels, apply to the federal and state legislative, executive and judicial branches of government.
2. The fundamental rights and freedoms enumerated in this Chapter shall be interpreted in a manner consistent with the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, international human rights covenants and conventions ratified by Ethiopia.
All of the foregoing legal language can be reduced to four simple but irrefutable propositions:1) Ethiopian citizens have the absolute constitutional right to hear any radio broadcast “or media of their choice”. 2) Ethiopian citizens have the absolute right to hear any radio broadcast “or “media of their choice” under international human rights laws and conventions to which Ethiopia is a signatory. 3) No official or institution in Ethiopia has the legal power to prohibit, exclude or interfere with the delivery of radio broadcasts or information from any other media (including internet sources) because “censorship in any form is prohibited.” 4) Zenawi is in flagrant, brazen and egregious violation of the Ethiopian Constitution and international human rights laws and conventions by jamming of VOA broadcasts in Ethiopia.
Living on Planet Denial-stan?
When Mahmood Ahmadinejad came to Columbia University in 2007 to speak, its president Lee Bollinger, rhetorically wondered why Ahmadinejad would deny the occurrence of the Holocaust, and concluded by telling him: “You are either brazenly provocative or astonishingly uneducated.” One is tempted to offer the same conclusion to Zenawi for saying the United States Government “for many years” has operated a radio broadcast service that had promoted genocide in Ethiopia and seeking to justify his jamming of VOA broadcasts on the basis of a U.S. Government “policy” that does not exist.
It would be easy to dismiss Zenawi’s outrageous allegations against the VOA as mere polemical political theatre but for a consistent pattern of other equally outlandish allegations and assertions he has made over the years. When I wrote my piece “The Grammar of Dictators” in August, 2008, I was fascinated by dictators’ use of language to humanize their cruelties and civilize their barbarism; or as George Orwell put it, to use “political language to make lies sound truthful and murder respectable, and give an appearance of solidity to pure wind.”
The cumulative evidence of Zenawi’s double talk and preposterous allegations and assertions unmistakably point to the fact that his manifest perception of the facts is completely detached from reality. Back in April 2008, in a Newsweek interview, Zenawi triumphantly declared that his new press law “will be on par with the best in the world.” That same year he told Time Magazine that there is no famine in Ethiopia, only “pockets of severe malnutrition in some districts in the south and an emergency situation in the Somali region.” In September 2007, Zenawi said there is not a “shred of evidence” that significant human rights violations have occurred in the Ogaden region: “We are supposed to have burned villages [in the Ogaden]. I can tell you, not a single village, and as far as I know not a single hut has been burned. We have been accused of dislocating thousands of people from their villages and keeping them in camps. Nobody has come up with a shred of evidence.” In October 2006, Zenawi denied the existence of political prisoners in his prisons: “There are no political prisoners in Ethiopia at the moment. Those in prison are insurgents. So it is difficult to explain a situation of political prisoners, because there are none.” To make such statements, one must spend a great deal of time on Planet Denial-stan, where the operating principle is, “I think, therefore things exist or do not exist.”
Does Zenawi Really Believe the VOA is the VOI?
It boggles the mind to think that Zenawi actually believes the Voice of America is the Voice of Interhamwe, Rwanda. It is equally incredible why he would make such a statement without backing it up with solid evidence or even giving a single example of a genocidal broadcast of any kind made by the VOA anywhere, anytime. What is stunningly astonishing is the fact that these words rolled off the tongue of an individual lionized for his prodigious intellect and political astuteness. In 2005 at an award ceremony for Zenawi, the internationally renowned Prof. Jeffrey Sachs of Columbia University, the man sworn to ending global poverty by 2015, could barely contain his fawning eulogy of Zenawi’s sagacity and intellectual prowess: “You have distinguished yourself as a one of our World’s most brilliant leaders. I have often said that our many hours of discussion together are among the most scintillating that I have spent on the topics of economic development. I invariably leave our meetings enriched, informed, and encouraged about Ethiopia’s prospects.”
Is it possible that “one of our World’s most brilliant leaders” actually believes the VOA is America’s version of genocide Radio Mille Collines, Rwanda!?!?
I cannot be sure, but I would like to believe Zenawi is being “brazenly provocative” by making such an allegation. I should like to think that he is using a “shock and offend” strategy calculated to trigger the ire of the United States Government and ensnare it in an all-out war of words on a propaganda battlefield over which Zenawi has control of the commanding heights. In other words, if the U.S. could be provoked to respond angrily or defensively to the allegation, it could then be dragged into a mud fight worthy of the proverbial wrestling match with the pig. At the end of the match both combatants will be filthy and exhausted, but one gets the distinct feeling that the pig enjoyed the experience very much. But the U.S. did not take the bait and steered clear off the mud issuing a terse statement: “Comparing a respected and professional news service to a group that called for genocide in Rwanda is a baseless and inflammatory accusation that seeks only to deflect attention away from the core issue. The Ethiopian government may disagree with VOA news, but interfering with its broadcasts undermines the nation’s constitutional commitment to censorship and freedom of expression.”
Why the VOA is Not Allowed to Broadcast Within the U.S.
Zenawi said he jammed VOA broadcasts “by taking a page from U.S. policy.” He must be “astonishingly uneducated” or willfully ignorant of some simple facts about the American system of laws and government. Anyone who has marginal familiarity with the American legislative and judicial process would refrain from making such an inane and thoughtless statement. The VOA (with over 1,500 affiliates throughout the world), is part of a larger system of global information, educational and cultural service created by the U.S. Congress to conduct “public diplomacy or government-to-people dialogue.” In 1948, Congress passed the United States Information and Educational Exchange Act with the purpose of “promoting better understanding of the United States among the peoples of the world and to strengthen cooperative international relations.” By authorizing the creation of a global broadcast service, the U.S. sought to create good will and shape the thinking and attitudes of elites in countries receiving the broadcasts.
Over the years, the VOA has played a central part in the U.S. media strategy to win hearts and minds in the Cold War. One of its central missions today is to uphold U.S. foreign policy objectives by promoting democracy, peace, prosperity, human rights and other programs to new generations in countries receiving VOA broadcasts. As absurd as it sounds, the VOA does not and has never fostered genocide of any kind in any country. In fact, Congress prohibited domestic U.S. broadcasts by the VOA to make sure that it is not abused politically by any individual or groups, and to make sure that the kind of state media abuse seen historically in totalitarian and other communist countries did not happen in the U.S. Because of this concern, Congress authorized the creation of a bi-partisan board consisting of eight members nominated by the President of the United States and confirmed by the U.S. Senate, with the Secretary of State as an ex officio member, to oversee its operations. To believe that the President of the U.S. would nominate individuals who would allow or condone genocidal broadcasts to Ethiopia using VOA broadcasts is downright crazy!
The fact of the matter is that whether VOA broadcasts are available domestically is of no consequence. Americans have more than 10,000 radio stations, tens of thousands of newspapers and magazines and millions of websites to get and choose the information they want or need. If they so choose, they can get VOA broadcasts instantaneously online, over satellite dishes, cellular phones and various other modern communications technologies.
But Zenawi’s campaign of fear and smear against the VOA Amharic service professionals is downright unfair and contemptible. If Zenawi has evidence, a molecule of evidence, to prove that these professionals are “people associated with” the defunct military Derg or part of a silent conspiracy with anyone else to promote genocide or anarchy in Ethiopia, he should produce it; and they will surely be held to account before the VOA administration and the law. If Zenawi has proof that their reporting is inaccurate, unfair, unethical or malicious, he should produce that evidence as well. Of course, he cannot produce a speck of evidence to back up any of his claims.
The reality is different. We could all criticize VOA’s Amharic service for whatever we choose, but we would be hard pressed to back up our criticism with substantial evidence of lack of accuracy, objectivity or fairness. Suffice it to say, how many hundreds of times over the years have we heard Amharic service VOA reporters announcing to their listeners: “We tried numerous times to get official comment from the Ethiopian Government but we were unable to do so because… the government official backed out at last minute… declined to comment… was not available for an interview at the appointed time… or…We will keep trying to get official comment from the Ethiopian Government.” That is what usually happens. The fact of the matter is that for whatever reason Zenawi has chosen not to make his people available to engage the VOA and challenge the Amharic service reporters on the air for all Ethiopians to hear.
Zenawi says the VOA operates in “wanton disregard of minimum ethics of journalism and engaging in destabilizing propaganda.” That is simply not true, and reflects his lack of knowledge of VOA’s strict legislative mandate. The VOA is a highly professional organization with journalistic integrity, and functions under close supervision of its presidentially-appointed board always guided by its clear legislative mandate set forth in its 1976 Charter which requires the VOA to 1) “serve as a consistently reliable and authoritative source of news [by making sure] news will be accurate, objective, and comprehensive; 2) “present a balanced and comprehensive projection of significant American thought and institutions ,and 3) ” present the policies of the United States clearly and effectively, and … responsible discussions and opinion on these policies.” If anyone at VOA promotes or attempts to promote genocide or “wantonly engages in destabilizing propaganda,” not only will such persons surely find themselves walking the streets without a job, they are guaranteed to do some serious jail time.
There are many things over which people could disagree. But there could be no disagreement over the fact that the sun always rises in the east, the law of gravity or the absolute constitutional right of Ethiopian citizens to listen to broadcasts of the VOA or any other “media of their choice.” Zenawi could learn a sound lesson from VOA’s founding motto: “The news may be good. The news may be bad. We shall tell you the truth.” If the VOA promotes genocide or broadcasts ‘destabilizing propaganda’, the Ethiopian people will be the first ones to vote with their fingers by turning their radio dials in a counterclockwise motion: Click!”
Mr. Zenawi: “Tear down the electronic wall you have built to keep VOA radio broadcasts and ESAT (Ethiopian Satellite Television) service out of Ethiopia! Let Ethiopians hear America’s voice, the Voice of America. Let the VOA tell the truth to the Ethiopian people who have a constitutional and international legal right to hear it and decide for themselves.”
RELEASE ALL POLITICAL PRISONERS IN ETHIOPIA.
Alemayehu G. Mariam
Zenawi’s Charm Offensive in America?
Fresh on the heels of shutting down all private distance education, including distance higher education, and “winning” the parliamentary election in May by 99.6 percent, dictator-in-chief Meles Zenawi is scheduled to speak at Columbia University on September 22 and trumpet his accomplishments as the guardian of democracy and prosperity in Ethiopia and provider of enlightened leadership to the African continent. The puffed up announcement for his appearance at Columbia’s World Leaders Forum, which was subsequently withdrawn by an embarrassed University administration, stated:
… Meles Zenawi of the Federal Democratic Republic of Ethiopia will present the keynote address on the topic of Ethiopia and African Leadership. His address will launch CGT’s the World and Africa series…. Zenawi has served as chairman of the Organisation of the African Union (1995-1996), as co-chairman of the Global Coalition for Africa, and was appointed as Chair of the African Heads of State and Government in Climate Change (CAHOSCC)… Zenawi was the co-chairperson of the Beijing Summit of the Forum on China-Africa Cooperation in 2006, which led to the adoption of the Beijing Action Plan for partnership in economic progress. Under the seasoned governmental leadership of… Zenawi…Ethiopia has made and continues to make progresses (sic) in many areas including in education, transportation, health and energy.
The event is designed to facilitate “conversations to examine Africa’s place in the world”. The “key subjects” of the conversation reportedly “include the future of African agriculture, the explosion of Asian investment on the continent, the evolving contours of global aid to Africa, and the impact of the financial crisis on the region.”
Allowing Zenawi to Speak at Columbia is “An Affront to His Victims” of Human Rights Abuses
Nowhere is the case for disallowing Zenawi the right to speak at Columbia University made more convincingly and compellingly than in the letter of two extraordinarily courageous Ethiopian husband and wife team of journalists, Eskinder Nega and Serkalem Fasil, to university president Lee Bollinger. They wrote:
We are banned Ethiopian journalists who were charged with treason by the government of PM Meles Zenawi subsequent to disputed election results in 2005, incarcerated under deplorable circumstances, only to be acquitted sixteen months later; after Serkalem Fasil prematurely gave birth in prison.
Severely underweight at birth because Serkalem’s physical and psychological privation in one of Africa’s worst prisons, an incubator was deemed life-saving to the new-born child by prison doctors; which was, in an act of incomprehensible vindictiveness, denied by the authorities. (The child nevertheless survived miraculously. Thanks to God.)
…While we acknowledge [Zenawi’s] right to express his views, it is an affront to his government’s numerous victims of repression to grant him the privilege to do so on the notable premises of Columbia…
Serkalem and Eskinder are absolutely right in their expressions of outraged disapproval of Zenawi’s speech at Columbia. These are two Ethiopian journalists for whom I have the highest respect and admiration. They are selfless patriots who could be described best in Churchillian terms: “Never in the field of journalism was so much owed by so many to so few.”
I have been approached by various groups and individuals to urge the leadership of Columbia to dis-invite Zenawi or have the university withdraw the offer of delivering the “keynote address”. The reasons are many. Some say mere invitation to speak at the world-class institution gives Zenawi a certain patina of legitimacy, which he could use to hoodwink Americans and camouflage his criminal history. Others say he will try to use the event as a soapbox to disseminate lies about his “accomplishments”, complete with wholly fabricated statistics about “double digit growth” and fairy tales of a 99.6 percent election victory, and use the Forum as a bully pulpit to rag against his critics. There are those who suggest that Stiglitz staged the “keynote address” to give his “buddy Zenawi” an opportunity to clean up his image and build up some intellectual “creds”, which Zenawi could take back to Ethiopia for bragging rights. I respect the views of those who urge Columbia to disinvite Zenawi.
But as a university professor and constitutional lawyer steadfastly dedicated to free speech, I have adopted one yardstick for all issues concerning free speech, Article 19 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights: “Everyone has the right to freedom of opinion and expression; this right includes freedom to hold opinions without interference and to seek, receive and impart information and ideas through any media and regardless of frontiers.” I underscore the words “everyone” and “regardless of frontiers.”
Alternatively stated, though I condemn Zenawi for his abuse, mistreatment and cruelty against Serkalem and Eskinder and other journalists, disagree with him on his repeated theft of elections, trashing of the human rights of Ethiopian citizens, boldfaced lies about economic growth, manipulation of the judiciary for political purposes, unjust incarceration of Birtukan Midekssa, the first woman political party leader in Ethiopian history and tens of thousands of other political prisoners, crackdown on the press and civil society organizations, subversion of the legislative process to mill out repressive laws and his completely bogus theory of “ethnic federalism” (an artifice of his divide-and-rule strategy) and so on, I shall vigorously defend his right to speak not just at Columbia but at any other public venue in the United States of America.
Right to Protest
Let me make it clear that I am not arguing here that those who wish to protest Zenawi’s speech at Columbia should not do so. They should; and I defend vigorously their constitutional right to protest and fully express their views about his actions and policies. My only plea to them is that we should strive to make this opportunity a teachable moment for Zenawi. In my view, it would be a crying shame for Zenawi to hop on his plane and go back to Ethiopia mumbling to himself something about the “extreme Diaspora” and so on because he is heckled, disrupted or somehow impeded from speaking. I say if we can tolerate racist and hate speech on university campuses, we can also tolerate the rant of a petty tyrant for an hour or two.
A Teachable Moment for a Tyrant
My reasons for defending Zenawi’s right to speak are principled, straightforward and myriad:
At the most elementary level, the American university is a traditional forum for the free exchange of ideas, whether silly or sublime. Every year, tens of thousands of speeches are given on American university campuses. Even the representatives of the Neo-Nazis, the Ku Klux Klan and motley crews of racists and fascists are allowed to speak on American university campuses. By the same token, Zenawi should be able to speak at Columbia.
I realize that this may not be a popular view to hold, but I am reminded of the painful truth in Prof. Noam Chomsky’s admonition: “If we don’t believe in freedom of expression for people we despise, we don’t believe in it at all.” On a personal level, it would be hypocritical of me to argue for free speech and press freedoms in Ethiopia and justify censorship or muzzling of Zenawi stateside. If censorship is bad for the good citizens of Ethiopia, it is also bad for the dictators of Ethiopia.
But there is another set of reasons why I want Zenawi to speak at Columbia. I want the event to be a teachable moment for him. Perhaps this opportunity will afford him a glimpse of the clash of ideas that routinely take place in American universities. He may begin to appreciate the simple truth that ideas are accepted and rejected and arguments won and lost in the cauldron of critical analysis oxygenated by the bellows of free speech, not in prison dungeons where journalists and dissidents are bludgeoned and left to rot. By denying Zenawi the right to speak at Columbia, we also risk becoming prisoners of ignorance. That is why free speech is at the core of Nelson Mandela’s teaching: “A man who takes away another man’s freedom is a prisoner of hatred, he is locked behind the bars of prejudice and narrow-mindedness.” Free speech is the key by which one escapes from the steel bars and stonewalls of “prejudice and narrow-mindedness.” I sincerely hope Zenawi will find that key at Columbia and finally escape from his bleak and desolate planet of “prejudice and narrow-mindedness.”
On another level, to disallow Zenawi from speaking is an implicit admission that we fear ideas. Zenawi has muzzled and intimidated nearly all of his critics and shuttered newspapers in Ethiopia, jammed the Voice of America and the independent Ethiopian Satellite Television Service and enacted repressive press and civil society laws because he is afraid of ideas – ideas about freedom, democracy, human rights, accountability, transparency, the rule of law and so on. But the old adage still holds true: “There is nothing more powerful than an idea whose time has come.” In America, we cherish and embrace good ideas (not fear them) and put them into practice; we discard the bad ones in the trash.
But I have a reason that overrides all others. I believe in the power of truth. We can neither defend the truth nor championed it by muzzling the liar. Let Zenawi speak! Let him have his “conversation”!
A Few Topics for “Conversation”
Since Prof. Stiglitz is interested in having a “conversation”, here are a few topics he should ask Zenawi to talk about. How is it that Ethiopia, under his “seasoned” leadership, managed to rank:
138/159 (most corrupt) countries on the Corruption Index for 2010.
17 among the most failed states (Somalia is No. 1) on the Failed States Index for 2010.
136/179 countries (most repressive) on the 2010 Index of Economic Freedom.
107/183 economies for ease of doing business (investment climate) by The International Bank for Reconstruction and Development in 2010.
37/53 (poorest governance quality) African countries in the 2010 Ibrahim Index of African Governance.
101/128 countries in 2010 on the Bertelsmann Political and Economic Transformation Index, and
141/153 (poorest environmental public health and ecosystem vitality) countries in the 2010 Environmental Performance Index.
Fables, Fairy Tales and Q&As
I can imagine Zenawi’s angst at the podium preparing to tell his fables and fairy tales about Ethiopia’s double-digit growth, democracy and leadership in Africa, globalization and its impact on Africa or whatever topic he chooses at the last minute to confuse his audience. It’s all good; fairy tales are entertaining. However, I suspect that the story-telling session will not be the usual cakewalk. At Columbia, unlike his rubberstamp parliament, Zenawi will not be able to scowl at, browbeat, belittle or mock anyone; and unless Stigliz and company rig the Q&A session to give Zenawi only softball questions, he is going to get some heavy duty drubbing from students and faculty. I would wager to say that his speech will not be the usual soporific monologue; it will be a real “conversation”where he will be asked questions that will make him cringe and wince.
I can imagine the audience asking these questions:
Mr. Zenawi, what is the special magical spell you used to win the May 2010 election by 99.6 percent?
Answer: “Say ‘abracadabra’ ten times while holding a rabbit’s foot in the left hand at the crack of dawn.”
When will you stop trashing the human rights of Ethiopian citizens?
Answer: “As soon as you tell me when they started having human rights.”
Why do you lie about double-digit economic growth by using cooked up numbers from your Central Statistics office?
Answer: “There are ‘lies and plausible lies’. Our statistics are of the latter variety.”
Why did you shut down all distance education programs in the country?
Answer: “Because education is overrated.”
Why did you wipe out the private independent media in the country?
Answer: “Because they don’t like me.”
Do you really believe the Voice of America is the same as Rwanda’s genocide Radio Mille Collines?
Answer: “VOA, VOI (Voice of Interhamwe). It all sounds the same to me.”
What do you think of your critics in the U.S.?
Answer: “They are all friggin extremists in the Diaspora. I can’t stand them. Why? Oh! Why don’t they like me?!?”
Do you believe in the rule of law?
Answer: “Yep! I am it.”
When will you release Birtukan Midekssa, the only woman political party leader in Ethiopian history, from prison?
Answer: “‘There will never be an agreement with anybody to release Birtukan. Ever. Full stop. That’s a dead issue.'”
“If there are no more questions, I am outta here!”
Just at that moment, I can imagine President Bollinger leaping to his feet with index finger wagging in righteous indignation and proclaiming: “Mr. Prime Minister, you exhibit all the signs of a petty and cruel dictator.”
We are All Ears!
Let Zenawi speak! Let’s hear what he has to say. Will it be the usual cascade of lies, half-truths, buzzwords, platitudes, clichés and boiler plate economics hokum bunkum? I have no idea. Over the past several days, Stiglitz and crew have been playing the old switcheroo on the topics Zenawi will be talking about. First, they said Zenawi will speak on “Ethiopia and Africa leadership.” They changed that and said he will talk about “the current global economy and its impact”. Now they say he will be talking about “the current global economy and its impact on Africa”. It is not clear what expertise Zenawi has on globalization or what morsels of wisdom he may be able to impart, but Stiglitz should have no problems writing a nice scholarly-sounding speech for Zenawi to read. After all, the “impact of the global economy on Africa” is the snake oil Joe “The Globalizer” Stiglitz has been peddling for the past decade.
Regardless, Zenawi may have something worthwhile to say. I don’t know. We won’t know unless we hear him speak. The bottom line is that Zenawi would rather go blind than face the naked truth about his atrocious record over the past two decades, but we are not afraid to confront his best dressed lies at the World Leaders Forum. At the end of the day on September 22, when the fog clears over Columbia, Zenawi would have walked off the stage at the Low Library as he walked on it: An emperor with new clothes! So I say: Rap on, Emperor. Rap on!
Welcome to the land of the free and home of the brave!
FREE BIRTUKAN MIDEKSSA AND ALL POLITICAL PRISONERS IN ETHIOPIA.
 “The Voodoo Economics of Meles Zenawi”, http://www.huffingtonpost.com/alemayehu-g-mariam/ethiopia-the-voodoo-econo_b_542298.html