Alemayehu G Mariam
At the “World Economic Forum Meeting” in Ethiopia last week, dictator Meles Zenawi lectured:
…. My view is that there is no direct relationship between economic growth and democracy historically or theoretically. But my view is that democracy is a good thing in and of itself irrespective of its impact on economic growth. And my view is that in Africa most of our countries are extremely diverse, that may be the only possibility, the only option of keeping relationships within nations sane. Democracy may be the only viable option for keeping these diverse nations together. Sowe need to democratize but not in order to grow. We need to democratize in order to survive as united sane nations. That’s my view. But I don’t believe in this nighttime, you know, bedtime stories and contrived arguments linking economic growth with democracy. There is no basis for it in history and in my view no basis for it it in economics. And there is no need to have this contrived argument because the case for democracy and can stand and shine on its own…
While visiting Ghana in 2009, President Obama told the following “contrived bedtime story linking economic growth with democracy” to Africans:
Development depends on good governance. History offers a clear verdict: Governments that respect the will of their own people, that govern by consent and not coercion, are more prosperous, they are more stable, and more successful than governments that do not. No country is going to create wealth if its leaders exploit the economy to enrich themselves. No person wants to live in a society where the rule of law gives way to the rule of brutality and bribery. That is not democracy, that is tyranny. And now is the time for that style of governance to end…. In the 21st century, capable, reliable, and transparent institutions are the key to success — strong parliaments; honest police forces; independent judges; an independent press; a vibrant private sector; a civil society. Those are the things that give life to democracy, because that is what matters in people’s everyday lives…. History is on the side of these brave Africans, not with those who use coups or change constitutions to stay in power. Africa doesn’t need strongmen, it needs strong institutions. With better governance, I have no doubt that Africa holds the promise of a broader base of prosperity….
My Favorite Bedtime Stories
I enjoy bedtime stories as much as the next guy. My favorite is “Pinocchio in Africa”. The wooden puppet wanted to become a human boy but could not stop telling lies and tall tales. Whenever Pinocchio lied, his nose grew longer.
I like the story of “Puff the Magic Dragon and the Land of Living Lies”. Puff took a little girl called Sandy, who lies a lot, to the Land of the Living Lies where honesty and truthfulness are prosecuted. She meets the famous fibbers Pinocchio and the boy who cried wolf; and saw the famous purple cow that no one has ever seen and a pink elephant.
I also enjoy the morality tales of Aesop, the ancient Ethiopian storyteller. Once upon a time there was a wolf who schemed to snatch sheep grazing in the pasture, but could not because the shepherd was vigilant. One day the wolf found the shorn skin of a sheep and dressed himself in it and joined the flock. Soon he began dining on the sheep one by one until he was discovered by the shepherd. That was the end of the wolf; he could no longer steal, kill and eat the sheep.
George Orwell’s allegorical stories of doubletalk and doublespeak told in “political language” are rather delightful because they “make lies sound truthful and murder respectable, and give an appearance of solidity to pure wind.” So, “War is peace. Freedom is slavery. Ignorance is strength.” George could have added, “dictatorship is democracy. Tyranny is liberty. Poverty is wealth. Famine is plenty. Censorship is press freedom. Brutality is civility. Mendacity is veracity. Opacity is clarity. Shadow is reality. Depravity is morality and greed is good.”
Oh, Yes! I like children’s rhymes too:
Humpty Dumpty sat on a wall Humpty Dumpty had a great fall….
Sane Nations, Insane Dictators and Democrazy
Zenawi said “democracy is the only option of keeping relationships within nations sane”. Here are some true stories of democrazy from the Land of Living Lies:
Freedom House/U.S. State Department (2010)
In April 2008 local elections were held throughout Ethiopia. Freedom House and USDoS report that opposition candidates were subjected to intimidation and arrest by the government prior to the elections making it difficult for them to compete, leading to the opposition boycotting the elections and resulting in a massive victory for government supporters. The ruling party won 99% of the more than three million seats contested.
World Bank (2012)
The May 2010 parliamentary elections resulted in a 99.6 percent victory for the ruling EPRDF and its allies,reducing the opposition from 174 to only two seats in the 547 member lower house… Ethiopia is the second-most populous country in Sub-Saharan… At US$390, Ethiopia’s per capita income is much lower than the Sub-Saharan African average of US$1,165 in FY 2010, ranking it as the sixth poorest country in the world.
Amnesty International (2009)
The Ethiopian parliament has adopted a potentially repressive new law which could criminalise the human rights activities of both foreign and domestic non-governmental organizations (NGOs). The Charities and Societies Proclamation law (2009) is designed to strictly control and monitor civil society in an atmosphere of intolerance of the work of human rights defenders and civil society organisations. The law’s repressive provisions are believed to be an attempt by the Ethiopian government to conceal human rights violations, stifle critics and prevent public protest of its actions ahead of expected elections in 2010.
Human Rights Watch (2010)
Ethiopia’s citizens are unable to speak freely, organize political activities, and challenge their government’s policies—through peaceful protest, voting, or publishing their views—without fear of reprisal. Democracy’s technical framework will remain a deceptive and hollow façade so long as Ethiopia’s institutions lack independence from the ruling party and there is no accountability for abuses by state officials.
Global Financial Integrity/Wall Street Journal (2011)
Ethiopia lost $11.7 billion to outflows of ill-gotten gains between 2000 and 2009. That’s a lot of money to lose to corruption for a country that has a per-capita GDP of just $365. In 2009, illicit money leaving the country totaled $3.26 billion, double the amount in each of the two previous years. The capital flight is also disturbing because the country received $829 million in development aid in 2008. Ethiopia is one of the poorest countries on earth as 38.9% of Ethiopians live in poverty, and life expectancy in 2009 was just 58 years. The people of Ethiopia are being bled dry. No matter how hard they try to fight their way out of absolute destitution and poverty, they will be swimming upstream against the current of illicit capital leakage.
Committee to Protect Journalist (2011)
Ethiopia trails only Eritrea as the foremost jailer of journalists in Africa. Ethiopia’s repression of the independent press has also driven into exile the largest number of journalists in the world. Yet Zenawi told Aftenposten [Norwegian paper] that ‘We have reached a very advanced stage of rule of law and respect for human rights. Fundamentally, this is a country where democratic rights of people are respected.’
Human Rights Watch (2011)
The Ethiopian government is exploiting its vaguely worded anti-terror law to crush peaceful dissent. The anti-terror law itself is a huge problem. The international community, especially the European Union, United States, and United Kingdom, should ask the Ethiopian government hard questions about why it is using this law to crack down on peaceful independent voices.
Committee Statement of Congressman Donald Payne (2007)
H.R. 2003 (Ethiopia Democracy and Accountability Act of 2007, sponsored by Cong. Payne passed the U.S. House of Representatives on October 2, 2007) requires the secretary of state to support human rights by establishing a mechanism to provide funds to local human rights organizations. The bill supports democratization by directing assistance to strengthen democratic processes, prohibits non-humanitarian assistance to Ethiopia if the ruling party obstructs United States efforts to provide human rights, fosters accountability for the actions the Ethiopian Government has taken that undermine rule of law and fundamental political freedoms…. and holds security forces accountable for human rights abuses related to the demonstrations of 2005…
Statement of U.S. Senators Russ Feingold and Patrick Leahy on Senate Bill 3457 (2008)
Mr. FEINGOLD. Mr. President, today I am pleased to introduce the Support for Democracy and Human Rights in Ethiopia Act of 2008. Senator LEAHY joins me as an original cosponsor. The purpose of this bill is to reaffirm policy objectives towards Ethiopia and encourage greater commitment to the underpinnings of a true democracy–an independent judiciary and the rule of law, respect for human and political rights, and an end to restrictions on the media and non-governmental organizations…. As we turn a blind eye to the escalating political tensions, people are being thrown in jail without justification and non-government organizations are being restricted, while civilians are dying unnecessarily in the Ogaden region–just like so many before them in Oromiya, Amhara, and Gambella….
2010 European Union Election Observer Commission Report on May 2010 Election
The separation between the ruling party and the public administration was blurred at the local level in many parts of the country. The EU EOM directly observed cases of misuse of state resources in the ruling party’s campaign activities. The ruling party and its partner parties won 544 of the 547 seats to the House of Peoples Representatives and all but four of the 1,904 seats in the State Councils…. As a result, the electoral process fell short of international commitments for elections, notably regarding the transparency of the process and the lack of a level playing field for all contesting parties.
Zenawi’s response to the 2010 European Union Election Observer Commission Report:
The EU report is trash that deserves to be thrown in the garbage. The report is not about our election. It is just the view of some Western neo-liberals who are unhappy about the strength of the ruling party. Anybody who has paper and ink can scribble whatever they want.
Such are the nightmarish bedtime stories of Meles Zenawi’s Democrazy in Ethiopia!
Amharic translations of recent commentaries by the author may be found at: http://www.ecadforum.com/Amharic/archives/category/al-mariam-amharic
Previous commentaries by the author are available at: http://open.salon.com/blog/almariam/ and www.huffingtonpost.com/alemayehu-g-mariam/
Alemayehu G. Mariam
“Four hostile newspapers are more to be feared than a thousand bayonets,” fretted Napoleon Bonaparte, Emperor of France, as he summed up the informative powers of an independent press. All dictators and tyrants in history have feared the enlightening powers of the independent press because, as Napoleon explained, “A journalist is a grumbler, a censurer, a giver of advice, a regent of sovereigns and a tutor of nations.” It was the fact of “tutoring nations” — teaching, informing, enlightening and empowering the people with knowledge– that was Napoleon’s greatest fears of a free press. He understood the power of the press to effectively countercheck his tyrannical rule, and he used censorship relentlessly to muzzle it. He harassed, jailed and persecuted journalists for criticizing his use of a vast network of spies that penetrated every nook and cranny of French society, exposing his military failures, condemning his indiscriminate massacres of unarmed citizen protesters in the streets and for killing, jailing and persecuting large numbers of his political opponents. Total control of the media remains the wicked obsession of modern day dictators who believe that by controlling the flow of information, they can control the hearts and minds of their citizens.
The importance of an independent free press (media) in any society, including Ethiopia, can hardly be overstated. Thomas Jefferson, one of the chief architects of the American Republic was unrestrained in extolling the virtues of a free press: “The basis of our governments being the opinion of the people, the very first object should be to keep that right; and were it left to me to decide whether we should have a government without newspapers or newspapers without a government, I should not hesitate a moment to prefer the latter. Jefferson became singularly instrumental in the inclusion of a Bill of Rights in the U.S. Constitution which provided for sweeping and uncompromising protections of expressive freedoms: “Congress shall make no law… abridging the freedom of the press.” The free press is so vital to American democracy that the government is absolutely prohibited (“no law”) from passing laws that censor, regulate, restrict or suppress its functions and operations.
Press freedom, along with other expressive freedoms, is now a core value of all humanity. The U.N. General Assembly in its very first session in 1946 adopted resolution 59 (I) which declared: “Freedom of information is a fundamental human right and … the touchstone of all the freedoms to which the United Nations is consecrated.” In 1948, freedom of the press became a core human right principle when the U.N. enshrined it in 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 impart information and ideas through any media regardless of frontiers.” This universal right is today acknowledged robustly and expansively in Article 29 of the Ethiopian Constitution:
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, either orally, in writing or in print, in the form of art, or through other media of his choice. Freedom of the press and mass media as well as freedom of artistic creation is guaranteed… [and] censorship in any form is prohibited.
In the past few years, Ethiopia has been ranked at the bottom of the list of nations with the worst records on press freedom. In the 2009 Freedom House’s “Press Freedom Rankings”, Ethiopia came in at a dismal 165/195 countries. Reporters Without Borders ranked Ethiopia at 140/175 countries in 2009. The Committee to Protect Journalists on May 2, 2007 ranked Ethiopia as number 1 among the “top 10 backslider” countries “worldwide where press freedom has deteriorated the most over the last five years.” When Zenawi ordered the jamming of Voice of America (VOA) broadcasts recently, the International Federation of Journalists (world’s largest organization of journalists) on April 1, 2010 vehemently denounced his actions: “We condemn jamming of broadcasts. It is unprofessional, intolerant and flies in the face of promises that the Ethiopian Government is committed to press freedom.”
The recent history of the independent press in Ethiopia is a chronicle of brutal crackdowns, arbitrary imprisonments and harassments of local and international journalists, shuttering of newspapers and jamming of external radio transmissions. Meles Zenawi’s regime declared an open war on the independent press in Ethiopia in November 2005, following parliamentary elections in May of that year. He concocted a bizarre set of excuses and justifications to decimate the country’s small but growing independent press. He publicly alleged that the editors and reporters of the independent newspapers were engaged in a conspiracy with the opposition parties to overthrow the “constitutional order.” He claimed they had incited violence and spread information that led to violence and genocidal acts. Zenawi told the Committee to Protect Journalists that “They [independent press] went beyond their normal bias and went for the jugular. They became part and parcel of the day-to-day preparation for the insurrection after the elections.” But he has failed to produce a shred — a single speck — of evidence to link the occurrence of a single piece of any published material in the independent press to the occurrence of any violence or illegal acts in 2005 or at any other time.
Today Zenawi uses the same unhinged logic and the same old stale, discredited and patently absurd argument to justify jamming the VOA:
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.
As usual, he has been unable to give a single example of a VOA broadcast that even faintly resembles the “worst practices” of the genocide-promoting radio station in Rwanda. The best he has been able to do is point to a dubious catalogue of complaints his regime has lodged with the VOA alleging overly critical reporting on his regime by the VOA’s Amharic service. Criticism of policies and leaders is a standard practice of an independent press in a democracy, but it must seem totally unnatural in dictatorships. Regardless of the irrefutable fact that there is not a single instance of independent press-caused violence or act of illegality, Zenawi’s regime for the past 5 years has used bogus and absurd justifications to jail, harass and intimidate Ethiopian and foreign journalists and close the vast majority of the independent newspapers in the country.
Why is freedom of the press so important that it has become one of the universal benchmarks of a free society?
Few have given a more definitive answer to this question than James Madison, the father of the American Constitution: “A popular government without popular information or the means of acquiring it, is but a prologue to a farce or a tragedy or perhaps both. Knowledge will forever govern ignorance, and a people who mean to be their own governors, must arm themselves with the power knowledge gives.” A free and independent press serves as the eyes, ears and mouths of citizens in any society. It plays many important roles. As a watchdog, the independent press keeps those in power honest. Where there is a fully functioning free press, leaders no longer become untouchable gods sitting high on a pedestal to be worshipped, but ordinary men and women who are accountable to their citizens for their actions and omissions; and government institutions operate with transparency and openness. A well-functioning independent press will toil vigorously to expose the corruption, abuse of power, misuse and theft of taxpayer money and scandal among those exercising power and their supporting cast of invisible power brokers, influence peddlers and fixers.
When it informs, a free press educates citizens on public policies, choices and decisions. Citizens are informed on societal issues and problems, and are exposed to the range of competing potential solutions. An informed citizenry is better positioned to more effectively participate in public life and help shape its structure of governance and economic development. By informing, the free media becomes the lynchpin that connects citizens for collective action, and effective interaction with their leaders and institutions. Without free access to information and ideas, citizens are unable to participate meaningfully in the political life of their nation by exercising their right to vote or by taking part in shaping the process of public decision-making.
The free press is also plays a vital role in equitable and sustainable economic development as articulated by the former World Bank president James D. Wolfensohn:
A free press is at the absolute core of equitable development. If you cannot enfranchise poor people, if they do not have a right to expression, if there is no searchlight on corruption and inequitable practices, you cannot build the public consensus needed to bring about change. A free press is not a luxury.
A society without a robust free press is a society condemned to live in darkness. Hate, like mushrooms, thrives in the hearts of those who live in the dark; fear grips the minds of those trapped in the darkness of ignorance; anger becomes the light at the end of the tunnel of darkness; corruption, like cancer, spreads in the dark corners of state and abuse of power roils the people in the dark vortex of despair and hopelessness. Without a vigorous free press in Ethiopia today, it is darkness at noon!
The functions of the independent press must be viewed in a broader context, and not only as a source of negative criticism. Leaders benefit from heeding the independent press and correcting their mistakes when it is pointed out to them. They can use the press to communicate with the people they govern and become more accountable, transparent and responsive to their citizens. Governance is not a private affair. When kings ruled by divine right, they claimed to be accountable only to divine authority. Thankfully, those days are long gone. At the dawn of the 21st Century, those who lead and govern must accountable to the people; but a citizenry intentionally kept ignorant does not have the means to demand accountability. That is why an independent media is a vital civic organ in society. President John Kennedy captured the essential role of a vigorous press when he said that the media’s role is not just to entertain but more importantly “to inform, to arouse, to reflect, to state our dangers and our opportunities, to indicate our crises and our choices, to lead, mold educate and sometimes even anger public opinion.”
An independent free press is not the enemy of good government. It is its strongest ally. It is through the press that leaders keep their fingers on the pulse of the people – learn about what ails them, angers them, pleases them, confuses and concerns them. When rumors and falsehoods spread and unfair criticisms are leveled, leaders have the opportunity to answer their critics and challenge them using the independent media itself. A government that persecutes the independent press and remains willfully ignorant of what its citizens think and feel, and refuses to acknowledge and redress their grievances is like the proverbial ostrich that buries its head in the sand while a rumbling volcano cascades behind it. An independent press is ultimately a mirror for leaders and governments; sometimes the face in the mirror is the face of a monster. Breaking the mirror does not make the monster an angel.
The right of the Ethiopian people to receive and give information regardless of frontiers is their inalienable right to have the information they need to make informed decisions about their form of government, leaders and lives. Journalists can not be made criminals because they speak truth to power, reveal the truth about those who wield power or because those in power abhor the truth. Civil and criminal defamation laws can not be excuses to censor criticism and debate concerning public issues.
For any one who truly believes in the rule of law, it is impossible to understand how any leader or government could possibly fear public scrutiny and criticism in the press. A real leader is willing, able and ready to stand up and defend his/her policies, action and omissions in full public view. A real leader understands that criticism is a natural part of political and public life. The chief of state like the chef must get out of the “state kitchen” if he can not stand the heat.
Freedom of the press and media in general in Ethiopia is not about protecting the rights of newspapers, editors, journalists, reporters or foreign correspondents and radio broadcasters. It is fundamentally about the constitutional and internationally-guaranteed legal rights of every Ethiopian citizen “to seek, receive and impart information and ideas of all kinds, regardless of frontiers and without interference, either orally, in writing or in print, in the form of art, or through other media of his choice and without censorship in any form.” It is emphatically the duty of every Ethiopian who believes in the rule of law and freedom of expression to help deliver “information and ideas of all kinds” to Ethiopians “regardless of frontiers.” Let us all as Ethiopians join hands and resolve in our hearts and minds to become a thousand points of light shining brightly like the stars on the curtain of darkness that has enveloped Ethiopia today.
 http://www.pambazuka.org/en/category/features/61056 http://www.huffingtonpost.com/alemayehu-g-mariam/ethiopia-in-defense-of-th_b_507773.html
Alemayehu G. Mariam, is a professor of political science at California State University, San Bernardino, and an attorney based in Los Angeles. He writes a regular blog on The Huffington Post, and his commentaries appear regularly on pambazuka.org, allafrica.com, newamericamedia.org and other sites.