Alemayehu G Mariam
Free to Speak
To paraphrase an old expression, “There are two things that are quintessentially important in any society. The first is free speech and I can’t remember the second one.”
Free speech is the bedrock of all human freedoms. In my view, the value a society gives to freedom of expression determines whether that society is free or unfree. A society is unfree if individuals are afraid to speak their minds, to think unpopular thoughts, to criticize government, or to dispute ideas and opinions. Expressive freedoms were so paramount to the founders of the American Republic that they provided constitutional protections unrivalled in the history of mankind. In breathtakingly uncompromising, unambiguous, and sweeping words that could be found in the English language, they declared: “Congress shall make no law…abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press…”
There are many reasons that justify sweeping protections for free speech in any society. Without freedom of speech, the person is like a corked bottle, keeping under pressure his/her ideas, views or feelings about politics, government or society. Leaders and institutions could not be criticized or held accountable where free speech and the press are criminalized. There is little room for any meaningful artistic, literary or intellectual pursuits where free expression is censored or sanctioned. In short, without free speech, “self-development is crippled, social progress grinds to a halt, and official lies become the only ‘truth.’”
I am not writing here to discuss the abstract virtues of or government infringement on free speech. Many of my readers know that I take an uncompromising view on the practice of free speech. When dictator Meles Zenawi came to speak at Columbia University’s World Leaders Forum in September 2010, I defended his right to speak despite strong disapproval and scathing criticism from friends, colleagues and others. Yes, even Zenawi, who has the dubious honor of being called the “second-leading jailer of journalists in Africa” by the Committee to Protect Journalists, has the right to engage in free speech. When the 500+ page memoir of former Ethiopian junta leader and dictator Mengistu Hailemariam was electronically scanned this past January in violation of copyright laws and posted online because Mengistu was a “mass murderer” who should not “benefit from the sale of his book”, I defended his right to write and express himself. In defending the free speech rights of these two brothers-in-dictatorship, I was practicing Noam Chomsky’s axiom that “If we don’t believe in freedom of expression for people we despise, we don’t believe in it at all.” I venture to add that by not defending the rights of those we despise, we risk becoming their clones.
Free speech encompasses not only the right to speak (and not to speak) to others but also the right to hear (or not to hear) from others. It is a decision for each individual to make. I like to keep an open and critical mind; and therefore listen very attentively to those with whom I disagree strongly. It is logically impossible for me to agree or disagree (or even to disagree disagreeably) without listening to those with whom I agree or disagree. If I suspect a claim to be false, I contest the facts. If I find the truth shrouded, I undress the lies. If I disagree with an idea, I challenge it. If I agree with a point of view, I bolster it. But to do all these, I have to tolerate the right of free expression of those with whom I agree or disagree. But free speech is not only about my right to expression, but also the right of others to do the same.
The Fierce Urgency of Now for the Unfree to Speak, to Write, to Advocate… Freely
All of the foregoing discussion is intended to provide a springboard for a more specific discussion of the plight of those I characterize as “unfree” to speak or write publicly. There are legions of Ethiopian and non-Ethiopian scholars involved in the study of Ethiopian society, commentators and intellectuals who feel unfree to speak or write on matters of great public importance to Ethiopians. Many scholars in Ethiopia are silenced by official threats of employment termination, summary dismissals and even arrest and prosecution. The fear of “censorship by mudslinging and public vilification” keeps many Diaspora Ethiopian scholars silent. Many of these scholars often point to the barrage of personal attacks they face whenever they write or speak on matters that do not conform to the prevailing orthodoxy. If they say something politically incorrect, they are jumped on. If they express views that oppose one group or another at a conference, their names are dragged in the mud. If they write a historical analysis, they are vilified as apologists of a bygone era. They are intimidated and unnerved into silence by the self-appointed and self-righteous censors of democracy. As a result, many learned and experienced Ethiopian and non-Ethiopian scholars who have spent years studying Ethiopia have completely withdrawn from participation in the vital public debates of the day.
But all scholars involved in the study of Ethiopia face the fierce urgency of now. They must renounce the vows of silence they have imposed upon themselves or has been imposed upon them by the self-appointed and self-righteous censors of democracy and come forward to help the people of Ethiopia transition from dictatorship to democracy. Ethiopia today stands at the crossroads. The signs of change are plain to see. The dawn of freedom and democracy that enveloped North Africa and the Middle East is ever slowly swallowing the darkness of dictatorship and tyranny. The best days of Ethiopia’s dictators are long gone. These are the desperate days of desperate dictators who are playing out their end game by resorting to desperate measures. We see them stoking the flames of sectarianism. They are clamping down on all avenues of free expression. They are unleashing unspeakable violence to cling to power. They are finally facing the music; they are now beginning to understand the true meaning of Gandhi’s message: “There have been tyrants and murderers and for a time they seem invincible but in the end, they always fall – think of it, always.” So in the end game, the tyrants and murderers will pull out their trump card, their long-planned final solution: “Après moi le deluge (after me the flood)!” (or in the words of the proverbial donkey, “after me, no more grass”). But they seem to forget that floods, fires and earthquakes do not discriminate; they consume and destroy everything in their path.
But these are also hopeful days for the people. They can finally see a flickering light at the end of the long dark tunnel of tyranny. They can see a beacon of light pointing in the direction of freedom, democracy and the rule of law. The tables are turning in plain view. The people are losing their fear of the tyrants; and the tyrants are showing their fear of the people. They are worried sick of what the people might do. The people are also angry and hungry. Anger leads to bitterness, hatred and violence. Hunger destroys not only the body but also the soul. A hungry man is an angry man. That is what the tyrants fear as the last chapter of the end game is being written.
The times they are a-changing. Ethiopian scholars can no longer stand on sidelines as spectators in these trying times. They cannot afford to be “summer soldiers, sunshine patriots” and fair-weathered fans of freedom, democracy and human rights, as Thomas Paine might have put it. They must be actively engaged in the struggle against tyranny now; and not prepare to struggle for power later. They must stand with the people now, and not stand by them later.
Ethiopian scholars and intellectuals must share their expertise and knowledge to overcome not only the tyranny of man but also the tyranny of hunger, disease, ignorance and poverty. Tyranny must be confronted on all fronts. It is up to the agricultural experts to make battle plans to defeat the tyranny of hunger and famine. According to the Legatum Index, “Ethiopia’s education system is poor at all levels and its population is deeply dissatisfied.” Ethiopia’s educational scholars must rise to challenge the tyranny of a hopelessly decayed educational system. “On most health outcomes, Ethiopia performs very poorly.” According to Foreign Policy, “There are more Ethiopian physicians practicing in Chicago today than in all of Ethiopia, a country of 80 million and Africa’s second-most populous country.” Shouldn’t Diaspora Ethiopian physicians gather their forces to confront the tyranny of disease that afflicts our people? Shouldn’t Ethiopian economists, engineers, scientists, lawyers, historians, artists, researchers, etc., come forward and forge alliances to confront tyranny in all its manifestations?
Writing and speaking in their fields of expertise is only the beginning. I plead with members of the Ethiopian academic and scholarly community to also become public intellectuals. The internet has become the great equalizer not only between citizens and all powerful governments but also between the intelligentsia and “ignorigentsia” (the willfully ignorant or woefully uninformed). In many ways, the internet has given free speech its ultimate expression. The learned scholars and academics and those spewing words of provocation, hatred and intolerance potentially have equal access to the hearts and minds of millions. But for all of the information and resources available on the internet, there is precious little that is relevant, enlightening and actionable. Ethiopian intellectuals need to organize themselves to bridge the information and knowledge gap and come up with fresh and creative ideas to help transition Ethiopia from dictatorship to democracy.
Nearly two decades ago, the late Prof. Edward Said of Columbia University in a series of lectures argued that the role of the intellectual in society is not merely to advance knowledge and learning but also human freedom. He made his arguments even more compellingly for exiled intellectuals. Prof. Said urged scholars to aspire to become public intellectuals connecting their scholarship to issues and policies that impact the lives of ordinary people. He argued that intellectuals must advocate and work for progressive change while remaining vigilant over those who abuse and misuse their power. Above all, the intellectual has an obligation to always speak truth to power and the duty to stand for and with the voiceless, the powerless and the defenseless:
… The intellectual in my sense of the word, is neither a pacifier nor a consensus builder, but someone whose whole being is staked on a critical sense, a sense of being unwilling to accept easy formulas, or ready-made clichés, or the smooth, ever-so-accommodating confirmations of what the powerful or conventional have to say, and what they do. Not just passively unwilling, but actively willing to say so in public. This is not always a matter of being a critic of government policy, but rather of thinking of the intellectual vocation as maintaining a state of constant alertness, of a perpetual willingness not to let half-truths or received ideas steer one along…”
And this role [the intellectual’s] has an edge to it, and cannot be played without a sense of being someone whose place it is publicly to raise embarrassing questions, to confront orthodoxy and dogma (rather than to produce them) to be someone who cannot easily be co-opted by governments or corporations, and whose raison d’etre is to represent all those people and issues that are routinely forgotten or swept under the rug.
In the same vein, the late Czech president, human rights advocate and playwright Vaclav Havel wrote,
The intellectual should constantly disturb, should bear witness to the misery of the world, should be provocative by being independent, should rebel against all hidden and open pressure and manipulations, should be the chief doubter of systems, of power and its incantations, should be a witness to their mendacity.”
I believe Ethiopia’s intelligentsia could play the roles described by Said and Havel, and even go beyond their prescriptions and serve as consensus-builders, bridge-builders, facilitators, promoters and pacifiers. I would like to urge them to become Ethiopia’s eyes, ears and mouths and teach and preach to the younger generation and the broader masses. They do not have to be concerned about dumbing down their messages to the people, for when speaking truth to power the people get the message loud and clear.
These are different times. A new age is dawning without the old virtues that infused public dialogue and discourse. Civility, decency and respect in the public sphere were once considered necessary. The virtue of civility made it possible to disagree without being disagreeable; decency demanded that we agree to disagree without becoming mortal enemies. But the internet offers a convenient refuge of anonymity and unaccountability to the cacophonous and intolerant hordes whose mission is to drown out these virtues. But there is one surefire solution. Follow George Bernard Shaw’s wise admonition: “Never wrestle with a pig. You both get dirty, but the pig likes it!”
As one does not avoid going to sleep for fear of having nightmares, one must not disengage from public debate on the vital issues that affect Ethiopia today for fear of mudslinging and censorship by public vilification. Regardless, Ethiopian scholars and intellectuals must answer the urgent question of the day: Are they prepared to “bear witness to the misery” of the Ethiopian people by speaking truth to power?
Now is the time to stand up and be counted!
(to be continued in a future commentary…)
Amharic translations of recent commentaries by the author may be found at: http://www.ecadforum.com/Amharic/archives/category/al-mariam-amharic and http://ethioforum.org/?cat=24
Previous commentaries by the author are available at:
http://open.salon.com/blog/almariam/ and www.huffingtonpost.com/alemayehu-g-mariam/
First, Why is Africa Poor?
George Ayittey, the renowned Ghanaian economist and president of the Free Africa Foundation swears that “Africa is poor because she is not free”. Like Ayittey, Robert Guest, business editor for The Economist, in his book The Shackled Continent (2004), declares that “Africans are poor because they are poorly governed.” He argues that “Africa is the only continent to have grown poorer over the last three decades” while other developing countries and regions have grown richer. Much of Africa, it seems, was better off at the end of colonialism than it is today.
For Ayittey and Guest, the tens of billions of dollars in Western aid to Africa have done very little to improve the lives of Africans; at best, aid has served to “bankroll tyrants” and facilitate experimentation by “idealists with hopeless economic policies.” Statism (the state as the principal change agent) and dictatorship have denied the African masses basic political and economic freedoms while the few privileged kleptocrats (or thieves that have pirated the ship of state, emptied out the national treasury and plundered the economy) live the sweet life of luxury (la dolce vita), not entirely unlike the “good old” colonial times. As Ayittey explains, much of Africa today suffers under the control of “vampire states” with “governments that have been hijacked by a phalanx of bandits and crooks who would use the instruments of the state machinery to enrich themselves and their cronies and their tribesmen and exclude everybody else.” (“Hyena States” would be a fitting metaphor considering the African landscape and the rapacious and predatory nature of the crooks.) Simply stated, much of Africa languishes under the rule of thugtators (thugtatorship is the highest stage of African dictatorship) who cling to power for the single purpose of using the apparatuses of the state to loot and ransack their nations. Such is the unvarnished truth about Africa’s entrapment in perpetual post-independence poverty and destitution.
Could it be said equally that Ethiopia is at the tail end of the poorest countries on the planet because she is not free and gasps in the jaws of a “vampiric” dictatorship? In other words….
Is Ethiopia Poor, Hungry, Ill and Illiterate Because She is Not Free and Poorly Governed?
A couple of weeks ago, the Legatum Institute (LI), an independent non-partisan public policy group based in London, released its 2011 Legatum Prosperity Index (LPI) which ranked Ethiopia a pretty dismal 108th/110 countries. LPI’s findings are sobering as they are heartbreaking. Ethiopia has an “unemployment rate [that] is almost 21%, which is the sixth highest rate, globally.” The “capital per worker in Ethiopia is the fourth lowest worldwide.” The country has “virtually no investment in R&D.” The ability of Ethiopians “to start and run a business is highly limited… [with a] communication infrastructure [that] is weak with only five mobile phones for every 100 citizens”; and the availability of internet bandwidth and secure servers is negligible. Inequality is systemic and widespread and the country is among the bottom ten countries on the Index. The Ethiopian “education system is poor at all levels and its population is deeply dissatisfied.” There is “only one teacher for every 58 pupils at primary level, there is a massive shortage of educators, and Ethiopian workers are typically poorly educated.” Less than a “quarter of the population believe Ethiopian children have the opportunity to learn and grow every day, which is the lowest such rate in the Index.”
On “health outcomes, Ethiopia performs very poorly. Its infant mortality rate, 67 deaths per 1,000 live births, and its health-adjusted life expectancy of 50 years, placing Ethiopia among the bottom 20 nations.” The population has high mortality rates from “Tuberculosis infections and respiratory diseases. Access to hospital beds and sanitation facilities is very limited, placing the country 109th and 110th (very last) on these measures of health infrastructure.” The core problem of poor governance is reflected in the fact that “there appears to be little respect for the rule of law, and the country is notable for its poor regulatory environment for business, placing 101st in the Index on this variable.”
But it is not only the LPI that has ranked Ethiopia at the rump of the most impoverished and poorly governed nations in the world. Last year, the Oxford Poverty and Human Development Initiative (OPHDI) Multidimensional Poverty Index 2010 (formerly annual U.N.D.P. Human Poverty Index) ranked Ethiopia as the second poorest (ahead of famine-ravaged Mali) country on the planet. According to OPHDI, the percentage of the Ethiopian population in “severe poverty” (living on less than USD$1 a day) in 2005 was 72.3%. Six million Ethiopians needed emergency food aid in 2010 and many more millions needed food aid in 2011 in what the U.N. described as the “worst drought in over half a century to hit parts of East Africa”. The World Bank this past June concluded that “Ethiopia’s dependence on foreign capital to finance budget deficits and a five-year investment plan is unsustainable.” The Bank criticized dictator Meles Zenawi’s “dependen[ce] on foreign capital or other means of financing investment in an unhealthy, unsustainable way.” Ethiopia is the world’s second-biggest recipient of foreign aid, after Afghanistan, according to the Organization for Cooperation and Economic Development rankings of developing nations because its “leaders” have perfected the art of international mendicancy (panhandling).
That is not all. Every international index over the past several years has ranked Ethiopia at the very bottom of the scale including Transparency International’s Corruption Index (among most corrupt countries), the Failed States Index (among the most failed), the Index of Economic Freedom (among the most economically repressive), the International Bank for Reconstruction and Development Investment Climate Assessment (among the most unfriendly to business), the Ibrahim Index of African Governance (among the most poorly governed African countries), the Bertelsmann Political and Economic Transformation Index (among countries most in need of reform) and the Environmental Performance Index (among countries with poorest environmental and public health indicators).
Of course, none of that comes as a surprise to those who are familiar with the fakeonomics of Meles Zenawi. Zenawi says all of the Indexes, the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund (IMF) are wrong. He boldly claims the Ethiopian “economy recorded an average economic growth rate of 11 percent over the past seven years.” But that incredibly rosy growth rate figure, often repeated and republished mindlessly and unquestioningly by the international media, is based exclusively on statistics manufactured by Zenawi’s statistics department. This past June, the IMF debunked Zenawi’s imaginary economic growth estimate of 11.4 percent for 2009 “saying 7.5 percent is more realistic.” The IMF “forecast is even lower growth of about 6 percent for the coming year” because of a “more restrictive business climate”.
Economic principles, facts and realities are irrelevant to Zenawi. According to “Zenawinomics” (a/k/a “Growth and Transformation Plan”), there are bottomless pots of gold awaiting Ethiopians at the end of the rainbow in 2015: The Ethiopian economy will grow by 14.9 percent (oddly enough not 15 percent). There will be “food security at household and national level.” There will be “more than 2000 km of railway networks would be constructed” and power generation will be in the range of “ 8,000 to 10,000 MW from water and wind resources during the next five years.” The “whole community has mobilized to buy bonds. This huge savings and mobilization is used for infrastructure development… We are getting loans from China, India, Turkey and South Korea, so all these foreign savings are also mobilized… So I think we can perform on the ambitious plans that are in place.”
Zenawinomics is the economics of a magical wonderland, very much like Alice’s Wonderland: “If I had a world of my own,” said Alice “everything would be nonsense. Nothing would be what it is because everything would be what it isn’t. And contrary-wise; what it is it wouldn’t be, and what it wouldn’t be, it would. You see?”
Maybe you don’t see. That is the whole point. In what Zenawi describes as “one of fastest growing non-oil economies in Africa,” inflation is soaring, and by mid-2011, Zenawi’s Central Statistical Agency reported that the annual inflation rate had increased by 38 percent and food prices had surged by 45.3 percent. There are more than 12 million people who are chronically or periodically food insecure. Yet, Zenawi is handing out “large chunks” of the most fertile land in the country for free, to be sure for pennies, to foreign agribusiness multinational corporations to farm commercially and export the harvest. This past July, the U.S. Census Bureau had a frightening population forecast: By 2050, Ethiopia’s current population of 90 million population will more than triple to 278 million, placing that country in the top 10 most populous countries in the world. It just does not make any sense.
In May 2010, the Economist Magazine rhetorically asked: “Ethiopia’s prime minister, and his ruling Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF) expect a landslide victory in the general election due on May 23rd, and are likely to get one (they actually “won” it by 99.6 percent!). The bigger question is whether another five years of EPRDF rule will help ordinary Ethiopians, who are among the poorest and hungriest people in the world.”
Ethiopia Can Prosper Only If She Has Good Governance
The United Nations Development Programme and other international lending institutions define ‘governance’ as the “exercise of power or authority – political, economic, administrative or otherwise – to manage a country’s resources and affairs.” Good governance has to do with the “competent management of a country’s resources and affairs in a manner that is open, transparent, accountable, equitable and responsive to people’s needs.” There is substantial empirical research showing that political freedom, strong social and political institutions and proper regulatory mechanisms significantly contribute to economic growth. Stated simply, good governance and “good” (sustainable) growth are based on mutually reinforcing principles.
Where there is good governance, there is substantial political and legal accountability and much greater respect for civil, political and property rights. Leaders are held politically accountable to the people through fair, free and regular elections; and an independent electoral commission ensures there is no voter fraud, voting irregularities, vote buying, voter intimidation and voter harassment. Institutional mechanisms are in place to ensure the rule of law is followed and those exercising political power and engaged in official decision-making perform their duties with transparency and legal accountability. Where there is good governance, citizens have freedom of association and the right to freely exchange and debate ideas while independent press, and even state-owned media, operate freely along with robust civil society institutions to inform and mobilize the population.
Good governance is an essential precondition for sustainable development. Stable and democratic governing institutions protect political and economic liberty and create an environment of civic participation, which in turn “determines whether a country has the capacity to use resources effectively to promote economic growth and reduce poverty.” On the other hand, bad or poor governance stifles and impedes development and undermines competition in the marketplace. Where human rights and the rule of law are disrespected, corruption flourishes and development inevitably suffers aspolitical leaders and public officials siphon off resources from critical school, hospital, road and other public works and community projects to line their pockets. But where there is good governance, not only is economic development and growth accelerated, even chronic and structural problems of food insecurity (famine) that have plagued Ethiopia for decades can be controlled and overcome. As Amartya Sen has argued no substantial famine has ever occurred in any independent country with a democratic form of government and a relatively free press.
Because there is little or no political accountability, Ethiopia suffers from poor governance and remains at the bottom of the indexes of the most impoverished nations in the world. Programs intended for “poverty reduction” have been misused for political mobilization and rewards for voting for the ruling party. The country has been unable to promote broad-based economic growth because business attached to the ruling party have a near-total monopoly and chokehold on the economy making fair competition for non-ruling party affiliated entities in the market an exercise in futility. Because there is little respect for property and contract rights, those non-aligned with the ruling party feel insecure and disinclined to invest. The ruling regime has made little investment in human resources through effective policies and institutions that improve access to quality education and health services as the LPI data shows. As a result, the rate of flight of professionals, intellectuals, journalists and political dissidents, is among the 10 highest in the world. The International Organization for Migration has said it all: “There are more Ethiopian doctors practicing in the US city of Chicago than in Ethiopia.”
Ethiopia is universally regarded as one of the least free countries in the world and ranks at the very bottom of the 10 most repressive countries in the world for citizens’ freedoms in expression, belief, association, and personal autonomy. The respected Committee to Protect Journalists says, “Ethiopia is the second-leading jailer of journalists in Africa.” There is little regard for the rule of law as the LPI data confirms. In other words, those who occupy official positions have little respect for the country’s Constitution or laws, or show any concern for the fair administration of justice. The judiciary is merely the legal sledgehammer of the dictator and ruling party. The judges are party hacks enrobed in judicial garb with the principal mission of giving legal imprimatur to manifest official criminality. In sum, the rule of law in Ethiopia has been transmuted into the rule of one man, one party.
Few should be surprised by LPI’s conclusions that the “levels of confidence in the military and judiciary are both very low” and “Ethiopia is the country where expression of political views is perceived by the population to be most restricted.” None of the facts above matter to the dictators in Ethiopia because they are ready, willing and able to do whatever it takes to cling to power.
LPI’s dismal ranking of Ethiopia merely augments what has been solidly established over the years in the other Indexes. The question is why Ethiopia remains at the tail end of the most impoverished countries year after year. Zenawi’s “Federal Ethics and Anti-corruption Commission” (FEAC) conflates corruption and poverty in seeking to pinpoint the answer to this question. FEAC says the major sources of corruption in Ethiopia are “poor governance, lack of accountability and transparency, low level of democratic culture and tradition, lack of citizen participation, lack of clear regulations and authorization, low level of institutional control, extreme poverty and inequity, harmful cultural practices and centralization of authority.” Not quite! Poor governance, lack of accountability and transparency (a/k/a corruption), lack of citizen participation and the absence of the rule of law are the root causes of extreme and widespread poverty, underdevelopment, aid-dependency, conflict, instability, starvation and injustice in Ethiopia. Have free and fair elections, allow the independent press to flourish, institutionalize the rule of law and maintain an independent judiciary, professionalize and depoliticize the civil service, the military and police forces and Ethiopians will be well on their way to permanently defeating poverty and making starvation a footnote in the history of the Ethiopian nation.
Ethiopia is poor, hungry, ill and illiterate because she is poorly governed and not free!
 The Legatum Index is based on 89 different variables covering the economy, entrepreneurship and opportunity, governance, education, health, safety and security, personal freedom, social capital and so on. The Institute uses data collected by the Gallup World Poll, World Trade Organization, World Development Indicators, GDP, World Intellectual Property Organization, UN Human Development Report, World Bank, OECD and World Values Survey.
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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.