Triumph of Evil?
“The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is that good men do nothing”, said Edmund Burke. But what happens when evil triumphs over a good young woman journalist named Reeyot Alemu in Ethiopia? Do good men and women turn a blind eye, plug their ears, turn their backs and stand in silence with pursed lips?
In an extraordinary letter dated April 10, 2013, the Committee to Protect Journalists pled with Berhan Hailu, “Minister of Justice” in Ethiopia, on behalf of the imprisoned 32-year old journalist urging that she be provided urgent medical care and spared punishment in solitary confinement at the filthy Meles Zenawi Prison in Kality just outside the capital Addis Ababa.
Prison authorities have threatened Reeyot with solitary confinement for two months as punishment for alleged bad behavior toward them and threatening to publicize human rights violations by prison guards, according to sources close to the journalist who spoke to the International Women’s Media Foundation on condition of anonymity.CPJ has independently verified the information. Reeyot has also been denied access to adequate medical treatment after she was diagnosed with a tumor in her breast…
Last week Reeyot was declared winner of the “UNESCO / Guillermo Cano World Press Freedom Prize 2013.” That award recognizes “a person, organization or institution that has made an outstanding contribution to the defence and/or promotion of press freedom anywhere in the world, especially when this has been achieved in the face of danger.” The $25,000 prize will be awarded on the occasion of World Press Freedom Day on May 3, 2013.
In May 2012, Reeyot received the prestigious International Women’s Media Foundation “2012 Courage in Journalism Award for “her commitment to work for independent media when the prospect of doing so became increasingly dangerous, her refusal to self-censor in a place where that practice is standard, and her unwillingness to apologize for truth-telling, even though contrition could win her freedom.”
In December 2012, Reeyot, along with three other courageous independent journalists, received Human Rights Watch’s prestigious Hellman/Hammett Award for 2012 “in recognition of their efforts to promote free expression in Ethiopia, one of the world’s most restricted media environments.”
Reeyout Alemu is Ethiopia’s press freedom heroine
In May 2012, when Reeyot received the IWMF’s award, I wrote a commentary entitled, “Reeyot Alemu: Young Heroine of Ethiopian Press Freedom” recounting some of Reeyot’s courageous acts of journalism and denouncing the abuse she received at the hands of those in power in Ethiopia. In June 2011, Reeyot and her co-defendant journalist Woubshet Taye were arrested on trumped up charges of “terrorism” and held incommunicado in the infamous Meles Zenawi Prison. Reeyot’s arrest occurred just after she had written a column in a weekly paper criticizing the late Meles Zenawi’s harebrained fundraising campaign for the so-called Grand Renaissance Dam over the Blue Nile. That column seemed to have angered the cantankerous and irascible Meles. Reeyot also skewered Meles’ sacred cow, the half-baked “five-year growth and transformation plan” (which I critiqued in “The Fakeonomics of Meles Zenawi in June 2011) . In September 2012, Reeyot and Woubshet were charged with “conspiracy to commit terrorist acts and participation in a terrorist organization” under Meles Zenawi’s cut-and-paste anti-terrorism law.
Reeyot’s trial in Meles’ kangaroo court was a template for miscarriage of justice. She was held in detention for three months with no access to legal counsel. She was denied counsel during interrogation. The kangaroo court refused to investigate her allegations of torture, mistreatment and denial of medical care in pre-trial detention. The evidence of “conspiracy” consisted of intercepted emails and wiretapped telephone conversations she had about peaceful protests and change with other journalists abroad. Her articles posted on various opposition websites were “introduced” as “evidence” of conspiracy.
Human Rights Watch was confounded by the idiocy of the terrorism charges: “According to the charge sheet, the evidence consisted primarily of online articles critical of the government and telephone discussions notably regarding peaceful protest actions that do not amount to acts of terrorism. Furthermore, the descriptions of the charges in the initial charge sheet did not contain even the basic elements of the crimes of which the defendants are accused….”
Amnesty International denounced the judgment of the kangaroo court: “There is no evidence that [Reeyot and the other independent journalists] are guilty of any criminal wrongdoing. We believe that they are prisoners of conscience, prosecuted because of their legitimate criticism of the government. They must be released immediately and unconditionally.”
PEN American Center “protested the harsh punishment handed down to” Reeyot and Woubshet and demanded their “immediate and unconditional release.” PEN asserted the two journalists “have been sentenced solely in relation to their peaceful exercise of their right to freedom of expression, in violation of Article 19 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights and Article 9 of the African Charter on Human and People’s Rights, to which Ethiopia is a signatory.”
The International Women’s Media Foundation saw the kangaroo court trial as an intimidation tactic against all independent women journalists: “The fact that the Ethiopian Government pursues and persecutes courageous, brave and professional women journalists does not bode well particularly for young women who may be interested in journalism. As a result, women’s voices (as reporters, editors, journalists, decision-making chambers) are rarely heard and women’s issues are often relegated to secondary position.”
Following Reeyot’s kangaroo court conviction, her father told an interviewer his daughter will not apologize, seek a pardon or apply for clemency. “As a father, would you rather not advise your daughter to apologize?”
This is perhaps one of the most difficult questions a parent can face. As any one of us who are parents would readily admit, there is an innate biological chord that attaches us to our kids. We wish nothing but the best for them. We try as much as humanly possible to keep them from harm…. Whether or not to beg for clemency is her right and her decision. I would honor and respect whatever decision she makes… To answer your specific question regarding my position on the issue by the fact of being her father, I would rather have her not plead for clemency, for she has not committed any crime.
Meles offered Reeyot her freedom if she agreed to snitch on her colleagues and help railroad them to prison. She turned him down flat and got herself railroaded into solitary confinement. Even in prison, Reeyot remained defiant as she informed IWMF: “I believe that I must contribute something to bring a better future. Since there are a lot of injustices and oppressions in Ethiopia, I must reveal and oppose them in my articles.”
The problem of evil in Ethiopia
Over the hundreds of uninterrupted weekly commentaries I have written over the years, I have rarely strayed much from my professional fields of law and politics. I make an exception in this commentary by indulging in philosophical musings on evil, a subject that has puzzled me for the longest time (and one I expect to ruminate over from time to time in the future) but one I never considered opining about in my public commentaries. I am mindful that there is the risk of sounding pedantic when one reflects on “Big Questions”, but pedantry is not intended here.
My simple definition of evil is any human act or omission that harms human beings. For instance, convicting an innocent young journalist on trumped up “terrorism” charges, sentencing her to a long prison term and throwing her into solitary confinement is evil because such acts cause great physical and psychological pain and suffering. Ordering the cold-blooded massacre of hundreds of unarmed demonstrators is evil because that act arbitrarily deprives innocent people of their God-given right to life. Forcibly displacing indigenous populations from their ancestral homes and selling their land to outsiders is evil because that act destroys not only the livelihood of those people but also their history and social fabric. Trashing the rights of individuals secured in the law of nations is evil because it is a crime against humanity and an affront to human decency and all norms of civilization. Discriminating against a person based on ethnicity, language and religion is evil because it deprives the victims of a fundamental right of citizenship. Albert Camus argued evil is anything that prevents solidarity between people and disables them from recognizing the rights or values of other human beings. Stealing elections in broad daylight and trying to deceive the world that one won an election by 99.6 percent is evil because such an act is an unconscionable lie and theft of the voice of the people. Stealing billions from a poor country’s treasury is evil because such theft deprives poor citizens vital resources necessary for their survival.
The evil I struggle to “understand” is that evil viciously committed by ordinary or sub-ordinarypeople in positions of political power. Such persons believe they can cheat, rob, steal and kill with absolute impunity because they believe there is no force on earth that can hold them accountable.
I am also concerned about the evil of passive complicity by ordinary and extraordinary people who stand silent in the face of evil. What is it that paralyzes those “good men and women” who can stand up, resist and defend against evil to cower and hide? Why do they pretend and rationalize to themselves that there really is no evil but in the eye of the beholder? What evil binds the blind, silent and deaf majority? Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. taught, “He who passively accepts evil is as much involved in it as he who helps to perpetrate it. He who accepts evil without protesting against it is really cooperating with it.”
I should clarify my use of the word “understand” in the context of evil. One can never understand evil. The Holocaust and the Rwanda Genocide are evils beyond human understanding and reason. To “understand” the deaths of millions or hundreds of thousands of innocent human beings is to implicitly justify it and somehow diminish its enormity. To “understand” the deliberate and premeditated murder of 193 unarmed protesters is beyond understanding because there could never be adequate reason, explanation or argumentation to justify it. “Understanding” such evil is tantamount to suggesting that there are or could be justifications for its occurrence.
When I use the word “understand”, I mean to suggest only that I am trying to get some insight, a glimpse of the moral makeup of people who live in a completely different moral universe than myself. It is impossible for me to see the world through the eyes of those in power who perpetrate evil in Ethiopia. When I speak of the triumph of evil in Ethiopia, I realize that there is nothing I can say by way of reasoned argument or presentation of evidence to persuade those in power to forsake their evil ways and deeds. I have concluded that those in power in Ethiopia live on a planet shielded by the equivalent of a moral Van Allen radiation belt that keeps out all cosmic rays of virtue, decency and goodness.
Let me also clarify what I mean when I speak of the audacity of evil in Ethiopia. The evil I am talking about is not the evil that Aquinas’ wrestled with in Questions 48 and 49 of Summa Theologica. Nor I am concerned about the evil Spinoza determined originates in the mind that lacks understanding because it is overwrought by fickle emotions. Neither am I concerned with evil that, for most of us, is associated with the Devil and his lesser intermediaries. I am not concerned about inanimate non-moral evil which manifests itself in the form of famine, pestilence and plague. I am also not referring to that evil lurking deep in the nihilistic being of those soulless, heartless and mindless psychopaths who are so disconnected from the rest of humanity that they feel justified in slaughtering innocent people at a sports event.
I am concerned about the evils of ordinary human wickedness and bestial human behavior that Aristotle alluded to in Nicomachean Ethics. I am concerned about gratuitous evil (pointless evil from which no greater good can be derived) committed by ordinary and sub-ordinary wicked people whose intellect is corrupted, and their bestial counterparts who are lacking in intellectual discernment. Such evil is cultivated in the soil of arrogance, ignorance, narcissism, desire for domination, self-aggrandizement and hubris. Those who commit gratuitous evil do so audaciously, willfully, recklessly and impulsively because they feel omnipotent; because they fear no retribution; because they anticipate no consequences for their evil deeds. They know they are committing evil and inflicting unspeakable and horrific pain and suffering on their victims but nonetheless go about doing evil with calculation and premeditation because they believe they are beyond morality, legality, responsibility and accountability. Hubristically relying on their power, they have exempted themselves from all rules of civilized society. They believe that their stranglehold on power gives them a license to commit evil at their pleasure and therefore make a habit of doing evil for evil’s sake. They are incapable of remorse or regrets because they have made evil their guiding “moral” principle.
My musings on the audacity of evil in Ethiopia are not intended to be abstract philosophical reflections but observations with practical value for victims of evil. I have an unshakeable belief that there will come a time in Ethiopia when the demands of punishment, blame and justice would have to be weighed against the greater good of peace, harmony and reconciliation. There will come a time when the open wounds of ethnic division, hatred and sectarianism must be healed and safeguards put into place to prevent their future recurrence. I believe insight into the nature of gratuitous evil is an important step in the healing process. By “understanding” (gaining insight) why individuals and groups in power commit gratuitous evil, it may be possible for Ethiopians to develop the courage, perseverance, fortitude and spiritual strength to move towards a reconciled and peaceful society. That is exactly what the South Africans did by instituting their Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) after Apartheid ended. Perpetrators of gratuitous evil were given the option to come to a public hearing and confess the evils they have committed and seek not only amnesty and immunity from civil and criminal prosecution but also forgiveness from their victims and the survivors of their victims. The Commission largely succeeded in that mission. The Rwandan “Gacaca courts” (traditional grassroots village courts composed of well-respected elders) which were established to administer justice to those alleged to have committed genocidal acts similarly sought to achieve “reconciliation of all Rwandans and building their unity” by putting justice partially into the hands of the surviving victims or victims’ families who are given the opportunity to confront and challenge the perpetrators in the open. The Rwandans also achieved a measure of success.
What has been learned from the TRC of South Africa and Rwanda’s Gacaca courts is that the act of forgiving can be an activity that victims of evil can find enormously helpful and beneficial. By publicly confronting the perpetrators, victims gain a sense of psychological satisfaction, moral vindication and physical well-being. The victims are no longer tormented by the desire for revenge and retribution. Coming to terms with the enormity of gratuitous evil makes it easier for a society to reconcile and prevent the recurrence of such evil.
Touched by evil
The Socratic thesis is that no one does evil intentionally. In other words, men and women commit evil out of ignorance which blinds them from doing right and good and deprives them of the practical wisdom to know the difference between right and wrong and good and evil. Evil doers are morally blind and unable to value other human beings while overestimating their own value and worth.
Why do those in power in Ethiopia commit the gratuitous evil of throwing into solitary confinement an innocent young woman who has been internationally honored and celebrated for her journalistic courage? Could it be the evil of misogyny that makes powerful men derive sadistic pleasure from the humiliation, degradation, dehumanization, depersonalization, demoralization, brutalization and incapacitation of strong-willed, intelligent, defiant, principled and irrepressible women who oppose them?
The gratuitous evil that is inflicted on Reeyot by those in power in Ethiopia is only the latest example. The exact same evil was inflicted on Birtukan Midekssa, the first woman political party leader in Ethiopian history, who was thrown into solitary confinement for months at Meles Zenawi Prison because she stood up and opposed him. The same evil in different form was inflicted on Serkalem Fasil, another world-renowned female Ethiopian journalist who was imprisoned and forced to give birth in prison. The common denominator between these three women is that they are strong, self-confident, determined and principled and risked their lives to stand up to a brutal dictatorship. Because they refused to back down, they suffered the most inhumane treatment at the hands of powerful men.
Solitary confinement in Meles Zenawi Prison is used as a psychological weapon to drive the victims mad. By depriving victims of all human contact and by denying them access to any information about the outside world, the aim is to make them feel lost and forgotten. Solitary confinement for women is a particularly insidious from psychological torture intended to humiliate and breakdown their physical, psychological, spiritual and moral integrity. Those in solitary confinement in Meles Zenawi Prison are not allowed to visit with friends. They are denied access to books. They are not allowed to meet their legal counsel. Family visits are interrupted even before smiles are exchanged; and even hugs and kisses with family members are forbidden. Solitary confinement is a dirty psychological game played by those in power to plunge the victims into the depths of despair, sorrow and confusion and make them feel completely helpless and hopeless.
When Meles threw Birtukan into solitary confinement, he just did not want her to suffer. That would be too easy. He wanted to humiliate and dehumanize her. When she was in solitary confinement, he used a cruel metaphor describing her as a “silly chicken who did herself in”. While in solitary confinement, he mocked and took cheap shots at her telling the press that that she is “in perfect condition” but “may have gained a few kilos”. He wanted her to suffer so much that he told reporters, “there will never be an agreement with anybody to release Birtukan. Ever. Full stop. That’s a dead issue.” He wanted Birtukan to be the living dead in solitary confinement. Providence had a different plan.
The gratuitous evil perpetrated against Serkalem Fasil is beyond human comprehension. In their letter to President Lee C. Bollinger of Columbia University opposing Meles Zenawi’s appearance to speak at that institution, Serkalem and her husband the world-renowned journalist Eskinder Nega 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.)
Do those who slammed Reeyot and Birtukan in solitary confinement and forced Serkalem to give birth in one of the filthiest prisons in the world realize what they are doing is evil? Do they care about the suffering of these young women?
Birtukan has survived and continues to thrive. Serkalem struggles to survive every day as she agonizes over the unjust imprisonment of her husband Eskinder. Reeyot, I believe, will survive in solitary confinement because she is a strong woman of faith and conviction. Solitary confinement to persons of faith and conviction is like fire to steel. It brings out the best in them. Nelson Mandela was imprisoned for 27 years; but is there a man alive who is more compassionate, humane, kindhearted and forgiving than Mandela?
Sigmund Freud wrote about the kind of sadistic gratuitous evil driven by deep-seated hatred and aggression against women. Other psychologists see the root of gratuitous evil in personality “fragmentation” caused by feelings of rejection and inferiority. They say those who commit gratuitous evil seek to “defragment and hold themselves together” by degrading and feeling superior to their victims. Others have argued that beneath the gratuitous evil that perpetrators commit lies a profound emptiness filled by sadistic rage, anger, and hatred.
I believe those in power in Ethiopia commit gratuitous evil to obtain absolute obedience and respect. As Stanley Milgram’s obedience experiments (and in other aspects the Zimbardo (Stanford) experiments) have shown, those in authority seek to secure obedience by establishing social models of compliance. In other words, those in power aim to teach by harsh example. If you are an independent journalist and do your job, you will be jacked up on bogus terrorism charges, held in detention, thrown in solitary confinement and tortured. If you challenge a stolen election and protest in the street, you will be shot in the streets like a rabid dog. By using extreme violence, those in power in Ethiopia seek to create not only an atmosphere of fear but also a culture of terror. The experiments have also shown that resistance can also be taught by example. Reeyot, Serkalem, Birtukan, Eskinder, Woubshet, Andualem are social models of resistance.
Hanna Arendt observed Adolf Eichmann, one of the major organizers of the Holocaust, at his trial in Jerusalem and found him to be “medium-sized, slender, middle-aged, with receding hair, ill-fitting teeth, and nearsighted eyes, who throughout the trial keeps craning his scraggy neck toward the bench.” He appeared to be a common man incapable of monstrous crimes. The banality of evil is the capacity of ordinary people to commit monstrous crimes. The audacity of evil is the capacity of ordinary and sub-ordinary people to commit evil not out of necessity, obedience to authority or even adherence to ideology; it is evil committed by those who are absolutely convinced that they will never be held accountable for their crimes.
Doing evil, doing good
I have many unanswered questions. Are the individuals in positions of power in Ethiopia evil by nature? Was evil thrust upon them by a demonic power? Were they victims of evil themselves and now seek to avenge the actual or perceived evil done to them and ended up being evil themselves? Did they become the very monster they slew? Are there persons who are innately incapable of doing good because they are bad seed and are born with a natural disposition to do only wrong and evil? Is gratuitous evil a psychological illness, an incurable sickness of the soul?
My questions do not end there. No one is immune from evil. Those of us who rise up in self-righteous indignation and denounce evil should look at ourselves and ask: If we were shown “all the kingdoms of the world and their splendor”, would we succumb to that offer and choose the path of evil? Nietzsche said, “When you look long into an abyss, the abyss looks into you.” When we raise our lances at the windmills, do we really see monsters? Let us not forget that “He who fights monsters should see to it that he himself does not become a monster.” Are we also brutes, like those we criticize, costumed in a veneer of civilization and morality untested and unseduced by the corrupting power of power? Are human beings innately good, and evil people merely mutations of good ones?
The evil that men do lives after them
The late Meles Zenawi has left a dark and bleak legacy of gratuitous evil in Ethiopia. The evil he has done shall continue to live in the prisons he built, the justice system he corrupted and the lives of young good Ethiopians he destroyed like Reeyot, Eskinder, Serkalem, Birtukan, Woubshet, Andualem and countless others. In Shakespeare’s Julius Ceasar, Antony speaks: “The evil that men do lives after them; The good is oft interred with their bones. So let it be with Ceasar.”
When I speak of Meles, I speak not of the man but of the wretched legacy he left and of the pious devotion of his disciples to that legacy. His disciples today speak of his great achievements and his great vision with Scriptural certitude and apostolic zeal. Their mantra is, “We will follow Meles’ vision without doubt or question.” One must speak out against pre-programmed robots; but raging against the machine should not be mistaken for raging against the man.
I remain optimistic that in the end good shall triumph over evil because the ultimate battle between good and evil in Ethiopia will not be waged on a battlefield with “crashing guns and rattling musketry”; nor will it be fought and won in the voting booths, the parliaments, the courts or bureaucracies. The battle for good and evil will be fought, won or lost, in the hearts and minds of ordinary Ethiopian men and women who have the courage to rise up and do extraordinary good.
Elie Wiesel, a prisoner in the Auschwitz, Buna, and Buchenwald concentration camps, and Nobel peace laureate said “indifference is the epitome of evil” and
“swore never to be silent whenever and wherever human beings endure suffering and humiliation. We must always take sides. Neutrality helps the oppressor, never the victim. Silence encourages the tormentor, never the tormented. Sometimes we must interfere. When human lives are endangered, when human dignity is in jeopardy, national borders and sensitivities become irrelevant. Wherever men or women are persecuted because of their race, religion, or political views, that place must – at that moment – become the center of the universe.
I have taken the side of Reeyot Alemu, Eskinder Nega, Serkalem Fasil, Birtukan Midekssa, Woubshet Taye, Andualem Aragie…. and made them the “center of my universe”.
(to be continued….)
Professor Alemayehu G. Mariam teaches political science at California State University, San Bernardino and is a practicing defense lawyer.
Previous commentaries by the author are available at:
Amharic translations of recent commentaries by the author may be found at:
Last April, I wrote a “Special Tribute to My Personal Hero Eskinder Nega”. In that tribute, I groped for words as I tried to describe this common Ethiopian man of uncommon valor, an ordinary journalist of extraordinary integrity and audacity. Frankly, what could be said of a simple man of humility possessed of indomitable dignity? Eskinder Nega is a man who stood up to brutality with his gentle humanity. What could I really say of a gentleman of the utmost civility, nobility and authenticity who was jailed 8 times for loving liberty? What could I say of a man and his wife who defiantly defended press freedom in Ethiopia, even when they were both locked up in Meles Zenawi Prison just outside of the capital in Kality for 17 months! What could anybody say of a man, a woman and their child who sacrificed their liberties, their peace of mind, their futures and earthly possessions so that their countrymen, women and children could be free!?
Ethiopian journalist Eskinder Nega is a special kind of hero who fights with nothing more than ideas and the truth. He slays falsehoods with the sword of truth. He chases bad ideas with good ones. Armed only with a pen, Eskinder fights despair with hope; fear with courage; anger with reason; arrogance with humility; ignorance with knowledge; intolerance with forbearance; oppression with perseverance; doubt with trust and cruelty with compassion. Above all, Eskinder speaks truth to power and to those who abuse, misuse, overuse and are corrupted by power.
Now almost a year since I wrote my tribute, I remember my great friend and brother Eskinder Nega as he languishes in Meles Zenawi Prison. But I do not remember him in sadness or with heartache. No! No! I remember Eskinder in the hopeful, faith-filled and resolute words of American poet James Russell Lowell (“The Present Crisis”): “When a deed is done for Freedom, through the broad earth’s aching breast…/ Once to every man and nation comes the moment to decide…/ In the strife of Truth with Falsehood, for the good or evil side… For Humanity sweeps onward: where to-day the martyr stands…/ Truth forever on the scaffold, wrong forever on the throne…/
Eskinder and his wife Serkalem did the right deed to defend the right of press freedom in Ethiopia. They spoke truth to falsehood in their newspapers and never backed down. They spoke right to wrong in kangaroo court. The man who tried for 20 years to right the wrongs of tyranny, today, like Lowell’s Truth, hangs on the scaffold in the belly of Meles Zenawi Prison, a place of “wrath and tears where the horror of the shade looms”, with his head bloodied but UNBOWED!
Last week, Birtukan Mideksa wrote an opinion piece for Al Jazeera urging the release of Eskinder Nega and other journalists including Reeyot Alemu (winner of the International Women’s Media Foundation 2012 Courage in Journalism Award) and Woubshet Taye (2012 Hellman/Hammett Grant Award) and all political prisoners in Ethiopia. Birtukan is the first female political party (Unity for Democracy and Justice) leader in Ethiopian history. Birtukan, like Eskinder, was the personal political prisoner of the late dictator Meles Zenawi. Meles personally ordered Birtukan’s arrest and on December 29, 2008, a year and half after he “pardoned” and released her from prison, he threw her back in jail without even the usual song and dance of kangaroo court. On January 9, 2010, Meles sent chills down the spines of reporters when he declared sadistically that “there will never be an agreement with anybody to release Birtukan. Ever. Full stop. That’s a dead issue.” On January 15, 2010, the United Nations Working Group on Arbitrary Detention adopted an opinion finding that Birtukan Midekksa is a political prisoner.
It is heartwarming to read Birtukan’s moving and robustly principled defense of Eskinder Nega and the other Ethiopian journalists and political prisoners. It is also ironic that Eskinder should replace Birtukan as the foremost political prisoner in Ethiopia today.
Few can speak more authoritatively on the plight of Eskinder and all Ethiopian political prisoners than my great sister Birtukan who also spent years in in the belly of Meles Zenawi Prison, a substantial part of it in solitary confinement. In her Al Jazeera commentary she wrote:
My journey to become a political prisoner in Ethiopia began as a federal judge fighting to uphold the rule of law. Despite institutional challenges and even death threats, I hoped to use constitutional principles to ensure respect for basic rights… [Ethiopian] authorities have detained my friend Eskinder Nega eight times over his 20-year career as a journalist and publisher. After the 2005 elections, Eskinder and his wife – Serkalem Fasil – spent 17 months in prison. Pregnant at the time, Serkalem gave birth to a son despite her confinement and almost no pre-natal care. Banned from publishing after his release in 2007, Eskinder continued to write online. In early 2011, he began focusing particularly on the protest movements then sweeping North Africa and the Middle East. Eskinder, who does not belong to any political party because of a commitment to maintain his independence, offered a unique and incisive take on what those movements meant for the future of Ethiopia. Committed to the principle of non-violence, Eskinder repeatedly emphasised that any similar movements in Ethiopia would have to remain peaceful. Despite this, police briefly detained him and warned him that his writings had crossed the line and he could face prosecution. Then in September , 2011, the government made good on that threat. Authorities arrested Eskinder just days after he publicly criticised the use of anti-terror laws to stifle dissent. They held him without charge or access to an attorney for nearly two months. The government eventually charged Eskinder with terrorism and treason, sentencing him to 18 years in prison after a political trial. Unfortunately, Eskinder is not alone; independent journalists Woubshet Taye and Reeyot Alemu also face long prison terms on terrorism charges.
Eskinder is a hero to the world but a villain to Meles Zenawi and his disciples
Who really is Eskinder Nega? In Meles Zenawi’s kangaroo court, Eskinder has been judged a “terrorist”, a “public enemy”. In the court of world public opinion, Eskinder is celebrated as the undisputed champion and defender of press freedom.
When speaking of my brother Eskinder, I could be accused of exaggerating his virtues, hyperbolizing his singular contributions to press freedom in Ethiopia and overstating his importance to the cause of free expression throughout the world. Perhaps I am biased because I hold this great man in such high respect, honor and admiration. If I am guilty of bias, it is because seemingly in Ethiopia they have stopped making genuine heroes like Eskinder Nega, Woubeshet Taye, Anudalem Aragie, Temesgen Desalegn… and heroines like Birtukan Midekssa, Serkalem Fasil, Reeyot Alemu….
Let others more qualified and more eloquent than I speak of Eskinder Nega’s heroism, courage, fortitude, audacity and tenacity in the defense of press freedom.
On December 3, 2012, when Carl Bernstein (one of the two investigative journalists who exposed the Watergate scandal leading to the resignation of President Richard Nixon) read at a public forum Eskinder’s last blog before he was arrested, he said:
… No honor can be greater than to read Eskinder Nega’s words. He is more than a symbol. He is the embodiment of the greatness of truth, of writing and reporting real truth, of persisting in truth and resisting the oppression of untruth… So let us marvel at and celebrate Eskinder Nega. For who among us could write what I am about to read [a blog of Eskinder’s] spirit unbound, faith in freedom and the power of the word untrammeled…
When Eskinder was named as the recipient of the prestigious 2012 PEN/Barbara Goldsmith Freedom to Write Award, Peter Godwin, president of PEN American Center said, “The Ethiopian writer Eskinder Nega is that bravest and most admirable of writers, one who picked up his pen to write things that he knew would surely put him at grave risk…”
Larry Siems, director of PEN Freedom to Write Award, at the award ceremonies groped for words trying to describe Eskinder Nega. “…[This year] one [journalist] really stood out, and that is Eskinder Nega. So tonight we recognize one of the world’s most courageous, most intrepid, most creative advocates of press freedom that I have ever seen…”
In awarding its prestigious Hellman/Hammett Award for 2012, Human Rights Watch described Eskinder and the other journalists as “exemplifying the courage and dire situation of independent journalism in Ethiopia today. Their ordeals illustrate the price of speaking freely in a country where free speech is no longer tolerated.”
The Committee to Protect Journalists declared, “The charges against Eskinder are baseless and politically motivated in reprisal for his writings. His conviction reiterates that Ethiopia will not hesitate to punish a probing press by imprisoning journalists or pushing them into exile in misusing the law to silence critical and independent reporting.”
Charlayne Hunter-Gault, the American civil rights heroine and former CNN Johannesburg bureau chief defended Eskinder and travelled to Ethiopia to plead for his release:
The specific charge against Eskinder was that he conspired with a banned opposition party called Ginbot 7 to overthrow the government. At his trial, government prosecutors showed as evidence a fuzzy video, available on YouTube, of Eskinder at a public town-hall meeting, discussing the potential of an Arab Spring-type uprising in Ethiopia. State television labeled Eskinder and the other journalists as “spies for foreign forces.” There were also allegations that he had accepted a terrorist mission—what the mission involved was never specified.
United States Senator Patrick Leahy read a lenghty statement into the Congressional Record informing his colleagues that “7,000 miles from Washington, in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia… a journalist named Eskinder Nega stands accused of supporting terrorism simply for refusing to remain silent about the Ethiopian government’s increasingly authoritarian drift…”
The U.S. State Department has condemned the imprisonment of Eskinder and the other journalists:
The United States remains deeply concerned about the trial, conviction, and sentencing of Ethiopian journalist Eskinder Nega, as well as seven political opposition figures, under the country’s Anti-Terrorism Proclamation. The sentences handed down today, including 18 years for Eskinder and life imprisonment for the opposition leader Andualem Arage, are extremely harsh and reinforce our serious questions about the politicized use of Ethiopia’s anti-terrorism law in this and other cases.
Eskinder is a hero to the heroes of international journalism. In April 2012, twenty international journalists who have been recognised as “World Press Freedom Heroes” by the Vienna-based International Press Institute (IPI) stood by Eskinder’s side, condemned his unjust imprisonment on trumped up terrorism charges and demanded his release and the release of other journalists. These press freedom heroes minced no words in telling Meles Zenawi of their “extremely strong condemnation of the Ethiopian government’s decision to jail journalist Eskinder Nega on terrorism charges.”
On November 21, 2012, the U.N. Human Rights Council Working Group on Arbitrary Detention issued a 9-page legal Opinion concluding:
The deprivation of liberty of Eskinder Nega is arbitrary in violation of articles 9, 10, 19 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and articles 9, 14, and 19 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights… The Working Group requests the Government to take the necessary steps to remedy the situation, which include the immediate release of Mr. Nega and adequate reparation to him.
In December 2012, 16 member of the European parliament demanded the release of Eskinder Nega and journalists Reeyot Alemu and Woubshet Taye.
Who is (are) the real terrorist(s) in Ethiopia?
Meles said Eskinder and all of the journalists he jailed are “terrorists”. If Eskinder Nega is a terrorist, then speaking truth to power is an act of terrorism. If Eskinder Nega is a terrorist, then advocacy of peaceful change is terrorism; thinking is terrorism; dissent is terrorism; having a conscience is terrorism; refusing to sell out one’s soul is terrorism; standing up for democracy and human rights is terrorism; defending the rule of law is terrorism and peaceful resistance of state terrorism is terrorism. If Eskinder Nega is a terrorist today, Nelson Mandela was a terrorist then. The same goes for all of the other jailed journalists and opposition leaders jailed by Meles Zenawi.
But the real terrorists know who they are. When Meles and his horde of guerilla fighters challenged military dictator Mengistu Hailemariam, they were officially branded as terrorists, bandits, mercenaries, criminals, thugs, murderers, marauders, public enemies, subversives, rebels, assassins, malcontents, invaders, traitors, saboteurs and other names. Were they?
Let the evidence speak for itself. In an interview Meles Zenawi gave to an Eritrean magazine called Hiwot (which was translated into Amharic and published by Etiop newspaper, (Vol. 5 Issue No. 52), he presented himself as the Willie Sutton of Tigray pulling bank jobs all over the palce. Meles spoke proudly of the banks he and his comrade-in-arms robbed or attempted to rob to finance their guerilla war. Meles boasted of his “victorious” robberies in Shire and Adwa while regretting botched jobs in Axum. Today they own the banks!
The current ruling party, “Tigrayan Peoples Liberation Movement” (TPLF), is listed today in the Global Terrorism Database as a terrorist organization. Documented acts of terrorism by the TPLF include armed robberies, assaults, hostage taking and kidnapping of foreign nationals and journalists and local leaders, hijacking of truck convoys, extortion of business owners and merchants, nongovernmental organizations, local leaders and private citizens and intimidation of religious leaders and journalists.
An official Inquiry Commission established by Meles Zenawi to investigate the deaths that occurred in the post-2005 election period determined that security forces under the personal control and command of Meles Zenawi massacred 193 unarmed protesters in the streets and severely wounded another 763. The Commission concluded the “shots fired by government forces were intended not to disperse the crowd of protesters but to kill by targeting the head and chest of the protesters.” On November 1, 2005, security forces in the Meles Zenawi Prison in Kality gunned down 65 inmates while confined in their cells. No one has ever been brought to justice for these crimes against humanity.
In September 2011, the world learned that “Ethiopian security forces (had) planted 3 bombs that went off in the Ethiopian capital on September 16, 2006 and then blamed Eritrea and the Oromo resistance for the blasts in a case that raised serious questions about the claims made about the bombing attempt against the African Union summit earlier this year in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia.” Following its own investigation and “clandestine reporting”, the U.S. Embassy in Addis Ababa fingered “GoE (Government of Ethiopia) security forces” for this criminal act. If all other acts of state terrorism committed against Ethiopian civilians were to be included, the body count would be in the hundreds of thousands.
Who are the real terrorists and criminals in Ethiopia today?
Tale of the Good Wolf and Evil Wolf
The late Meles Zenawi and his apostles remind me of an old Cherokee (Native American) tale of two wolves: A grandfather tells his young grandson that everyone has a Good Wolf and an Evil Wolf inside of them fighting with each other every day. The Good Wolf thrives on peace, love, truth, generosity, humility and kindness. The Evil Wolf feeds on hatred, anger, greed, lies and arrogance. “Which wolf will win, grandfather?” asked the boy. “Whichever one you feed,” replied the grandfather.
Meles and his disciples have been feeding the Evil Wolf for decades, and now the Evil Wolf sits triumphantly crowned on the Throne of Hatred and Falsehood. They have fattened the Evil Wolf with a lavish diet of inhumanity, barbarity, brutality, ignobility, immorality, depravity, duplicity, incivility, criminality, ethnocentricity, mediocrity, corruptibility and pomposity.
Eskinder, Reeyot, Woubshet, Andualem. Temesgen and the rest have managed to tame the Good Wolf and have followed the path of peace, love and truth. Their wolf thrives on a simple diet of humanity, unity, integrity, authenticity, civility, morality, incorruptibility, dignity, affability, humility, nobility, creativity, intellectuality and audacity.
It is hard for the reasonable mind to fathom why Meles and his disciples chose to embrace and follow the path of the Evil Wolf. Indeed, the Evil Wolf has been very good to them. The Evil Wolf has made it possible for them to accumulate great wealth and amass enormous power. They have unleashed the Evil Wolf to divide and rule the country along ethnic, religious, linguistic and regional lines. They have used the Evil Wolf to destroy not only the lives and futures of young professionals like Eskinder, Birtukan, Reeyot, Woubshet, Temesgen and Andualem but also the future of the younger generation. They have used the Evil Wolf to sell off the country’s most fertile lands for pennies and plunder its natural resources. They have used the Evil Wolf to convict the innocent in kangaroo courts. They have used the Evil Wolf to strike fear and loathing in the hearts and minds or ordinary citizens.
They have given new meaning to the ancient Roman playwright Paluatus’ aphorism homo homini lupus est (“man is a wolf to his fellow man”). They have used the Evil Wolf to create war from peace; strife from harmony; wrong from right; vice from virtue; division from unity; shame from honor; immorality from decency; poverty from wealth; hatred from love; ignorance from knowledge; corruption from blessing; bondage from freedom and dictatorship from democracy. In 21 years, Meles and his disciples have managed to jam a whole nation between the jaws of a snarling, gnarling and howling Evil Wolf.
How long before the Good Wolf wins over the Evil Wolf?
The great Nelson Mandela wondered when Apartheid would end. He told those who had unleashed the Evil Wolf of Apartheid, “You may succeed in delaying, but never in preventing the transition of South Africa to a democracy.”
My friend Eskinder Nega warned the overlords of the Evil Wolf in Ethiopia, “Freedom is partial to no race. Freedom has no religion. Freedom favors no ethnicity. Freedom discriminates not between rich and poor countries. Inevitably freedom will overwhelm Ethiopia.”
But how long before freedom overwhelms Ethiopia? How long before Ethiopia transitions to democracy? How long before “truth crushed to earth rises again” in Ethiopia? How long before all Ethiopian political prisoners are set free? Before Eskinder is released and joins his wife Sekalem and their son Nafkot? How long before Reeyot, Woubshet, Andualem… rejoin their families? How long before the Good Wolf wins over the Evil Wolf?
Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. agonized over similar questions during the darkest days of the struggle for civil rights in America. His answer to the question, “How long?” was “Not long!”.
I know you are asking today, “How long will it take?” Somebody’s asking, “How long will prejudice blind the visions of men…?”
Somebody’s asking, “When will wounded justice, lying prostrate on the streets of Selma and Birmingham… be lifted from this dust of shame…? … How long will justice be crucified, and truth bear it?”
I come to say to you this afternoon, however difficult the moment, however frustrating the hour, it will not be long, because “truth crushed to earth will rise again.”
How long? Not long, because “no lie can live forever.”
How long? Not long, because “you shall reap what you sow.”
How long before the Good Wolf wins over the Evil Wolf? Not long, because “once to every man and nation comes the moment” to decide between Good and Evil.
How long before wounded justice, lying prostrate on the streets of Addis Ababa, Mekele, Adama, Gondar, Awassa, Jimma… is lifted from the dust of shame? Not long, “because the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.”
How long before truth and right crushed to earth rise up again in Ethiopia? Not long, because truth and right will not remain forever on the scaffold nor wrong and falsehood nest forever on the throne!
I have no greater honor than to stand up, speak up and defend my friends, brothers and sisters Eskinder Nega, Serkalem Fasil, Reeyot Alemu, Woubshet Taye, Temesgen Desalegn, Andualem Aragie and all political prisoners held in Meles Zenawi Prison!
Professor Alemayehu G. Mariam teaches political science at California State University, San Bernardino and is a practicing defense lawyer.
Previous commentaries by the author are available at:
Amharic translations of recent commentaries by the author may be found at:
2013 shall be the Year of Ethiopia’s Cheetah Generation.
“The Cheetah Generation refers to the new and angry generation of young African graduates and professionals, who look at African issues and problems from a totally different and unique perspective. They are dynamic, intellectually agile, and pragmatic. They may be the ‘restless generation’ but they are Africa’s new hope. They understand and stress transparency, accountability, human rights, and good governance. They also know that many of their current leaders are hopelessly corrupt and that their governments are contumaciously dysfunctional and commit flagitious human rights violations”, explained George Ayittey, the distingushed Ghanaian economist.
Ethiopia’s Cheetah Generation includes not only graduates and professionals — the “best and the brightest” — but also the huddled masses of youth yearning to breathe free; the millions of youth victimized by nepotism, cronyism and corruption and those who face brutal suppression and those who have been subjected to illegal incarceration for protesting human rights violations. Ethiopia’s Cheetah Generation is Eskinder Nega’s and Serkalem Fasil’s Generation. It is the generation of Andualem Aragie, Woubshet Alemu, Reeyot Alemu, Bekele Gerba, Olbana Lelisa and so many others like them. Ethiopia’s Cheetah Generation is the only generation that could rescue Ethiopia from the steel claws of tyranny and dictatorship. It is the only generation that can deliver Ethiopia from the fangs of a benighted dictatorship and transform a decaying and decomposing garrison state built on a foundation of lies into one that is deeply rooted in the consent and sovereignty of the people.
Ethiopia’s Hippo Generation should move over and make way for the Cheetahs. As Ayittey said, Africa’s “Hippo Generation is intellectually astigmatic and stuck in their muddy colonialist pedagogical patch. They are stodgy, pudgy, and wedded to the old ‘colonialism-imperialism’ paradigm with an abiding faith in the potency of the state. They lack vision and sit comfortable in their belief that the state can solve all of Africa’s problems. All the state needs is more power and more foreign aid. They care less if the whole country collapses around them, but are content as long as their pond is secure…”
Ethiopia’s Hippo Generation is not only astigmatic with distorted vision, it is also myopic and narrow- minded preoccupied with mindless self-aggrandizement. The Hippos in power are stuck in the quicksand of divisive ethnic politics and the bog of revenge politics. They proclaim the omnipotence of their state, which is nothing more than a thugtatorship. Their lips drip with condemnation of “neoliberalism”, the very system they shamelessly panhandle for their daily bread and ensures that they cling to power like barnacles on a sunken ship. They try to palm off foreign project handouts as real economic growth and development. To these Hippos, the youth are of peripheral importance. They give them lip service. In his “victory” speech celebrating his 99.6 percent win in the May 2010 “election”, Meles Zenawi showered the youth with hollow gratitude: “We are also proud of the youth of our country who have started to benefit from the ongoing development and also those who are in the process of applying efforts to be productively employed! We offer our thanks and salute the youth of Ethiopia for their unwavering support and enthusiasm!”
The Hippos out of power have failed to effectively integrate and mobilize the youth and women in their party leadership structure and organizational activities. As a result, they find themselves in a state of political stagnation and paralysis. They need youth power to rejuvenate themselves and to become dynamic, resilient and irrepressible. Unpowered by youth, the Hippos out of power have become the object of ridicule, contempt and insolence for the Hippos in power.
Ethiopia’s intellectual Hippos by and large have chosen to stand on the sidelines with arms folded, ears plugged, mouths sealed shut and eyes blindfolded. They have chosen to remain silent fearful that anything they say can and will be used against them as they obsequiously curry favor with the Hippos in power. They have broken faith with the youth. Instead of becoming transformational and visionary thinkers capable of inspiring the youth with creative ideas, the majority of the intellectual Hippos have chosen to dissociate themselves from the youth or have joined the service of the dictators to advance their own self-interests.
The shameless canard is that Ethiopia’s youth “have started to benefit from the ongoing development.” The facts tell a completely different story. Though the Ethiopian population under the age of 18 is estimated to be 41 million or just over half of Ethiopia’s population, UNICEF estimates that malnutrition is responsible for more than half of all deaths among children under age five. Ethiopia has an estimated 5 million orphans; or approximately 15 per cent of all children are orphans! Some 800,000 children are estimated to be orphaned as a result of AIDS. Urban youth unemployment is estimated at over 70 per cent. Ethiopia has one of the lowest youth literacy rate in Africa according to a 2011 report of the United Nations Capital Development Fund. Literacy in the 15-24 age group is a dismal 43 percent; gross enrollment at the secondary level is a mere 30.9 percent! A shocking 77.8 per cent of the Ethiopian youth population lives on less than USD$2 per day! Young people have to sell their souls to get a job. According to the 2010 U.S. State Department Human Rights Report, “Reliable reports establish that unemployed youth who were not affiliated with the ruling coalition sometimes had trouble receiving the ‘support letters’ from their kebeles necessary to get jobs.” Party memberships is the sine qua non for government employment, educational and business opportunity and the key to survival in a police state. The 2011 U.S. State Department Human Rights Report concluded, “According to credible sources, the ruling party ‘stacks’ student enrollment at Addis Ababa University, which is the nation’s largest and most influential university, with students loyal to the party to ensure further adherence to the party’s principles and to forestall any student protest.”
Frustrated and in despair, many youths drop out of school and engage in a fatalistic pattern of risky behaviors including drug, alcohol and tobacco abuse, crime and delinquency and sexual activity which exposes them to a risk of acquiring sexually transmitted diseases including HIV. Poor youths (the overwhelming majority of youth population) deprived of educational and employment opportunity, have lost faith in their own and their country’s future. When I contemplate the situation of Ethiopia’s youth, I am haunted by the penetrating question recently posed by Hajj Mohamed Seid, the prominent Ethiopian Muslim leader in exile in Toronto: “Is there an Ethiopian generation left now? The students who enrolled in the universities are demoralized; their minds are afflicted chewing khat (a mild drug) and smoking cigarettes. They [the ruling regime] have destroyed a generation.”
Unchain the Cheetahs
Many of my readers are familiar with my numerous commentaries on Ethiopia’s chained youth yearning for freedom and change. My readers will also remember my fierce and unremitting defense of Ethiopia’s Proudest Cheetahs — Eskinder Nega, Serkalem Faisl, Andualem Aragie, Woubshet Alemu, Reeyot Alemu, Bekele Gerba, Olbana Lelisa and so many others — jailed for exercising their constitutional rights and for speaking truth to power. But in the Year of the Cheetahs, I aim to call attention to the extreme challenges faced by Ethiopia’s youth and make a moral appeal to all Hippos, particularly the intellectual Hippos in the Diaspora, to stand up and be counted with the youth by providing support, guidance and inspiration. In June 2010, I called attention to some undeniable facts:
The wretched conditions of Ethiopia’s youth point to the fact that they are a ticking demographic time bomb. The evidence of youth frustration, discontent, disillusionment and discouragement by the protracted economic crisis, lack of economic opportunities and political repression is manifest, overwhelming and irrefutable. The yearning of youth for freedom and change is self-evident. The only question is whether the country’s youth will seek change through increased militancy or by other peaceful means. On the other hand, many thousands gripped by despair and hopelessness and convinced they have no future in Ethiopia continue to vote with their feet. Today, young Ethiopian refugees can be found in large numbers from South Africa to North America and the Middle East to the Far East.
In this Year of the Ethiopian Cheetahs, those of us with a conscience in the Hippo Generation must do a few things to atone for our failures and make amends to our youth. President Obama, though short on action, is nearly always right in his analysis of Africa’s plight: “We’ve learned that it will not be giants like Nkrumah and Kenyatta who will determine Africa’s future. It will be the young people brimming with talent and energy and hope who can claim the future that so many in previous generations never realized.” We, learned Hippos, must learn that Ethiopia’s destiny will not be determined by the specter of dead dictators or their dopplegangers. It will not be determined by those who use the state as their private fiefdom and playground, or those who spread the poison of ethnic politics to prolong their lease on power. Ethiopia’s destiny will be determined by a robust coalition of Cheetahs who must unite, speak in one voice and act like fingers in a clenched fist to achieve a common destiny.
I craft my message here to the Hippos out of power and the intellectual Hippos standing on the sidelines. I say step up, stand up and be counted with the youth. Know that they are the only ones who can unchain us from the cages of our own hateful ethnic politics. Only they can liberate us from the curse of religious sectarianism. They are the ones who can free us from our destructive ideological conflicts. They are the ones who can emancipate us from the despair and misery of dictatorship. We need to reach, teach and preach to the Cheetahs to free their minds from mental slavery and help them develop their creative powers.
We must reach out to the Cheetahs using all available technology and share with them our knowledge and expertise in all fields. We must listen to what they have to say. We need to understand their views and perspectives on the issues and problems that are vital to them. It is a fact that we have for far too long marginalized the youth in our discussions and debates. We are quick to tell them what to do but turn a deaf ear to what they have to say. We lecture them when we are not ignoring them. Rarely do we show our young people the respect they deserve. We tend to underestimate their intelligence and overestimate our abilities and craftiness to manipulate and use them for our own cynical ends. In the Year of the Cheetah, I plead with my fellow intellectual Hippos to reach out and touch the youth.
We must teach the youth the values that are vital to all of us. Hajj Mohamed Seid has warned us that without unity, we have nothing. “If there is no country, there is no religion. It is only when we have a country that we find everything.” That is why we must teach the youth they must unite as the children of Mother Ethiopia, and reject any ideology, scheme or effort that seeks to divide them on the basis of ethnicity, religion, gender, language, region or class. We must teach to enlighten, to uncover and illuminate the lies and proclaim the truth. It is easier for tyrants and dictators to rob the rights of youth who are ignorant and fearful. “Ignorance has always been the most powerful weapon in the arsenal of tyrants.” Nelson Mandela has taught us that “Education is the most powerful weapon which you can use to change the world.” Educating and teaching the youth is the most powerful weapon in the fight against tyranny and dictatorship. In the Year of the Cheetah, I plead with my fellow intellectual Hippos to teach the Cheetahs to fight ignorance and ignoramuses with knowledge, enlightenment and intelligence.
We must also preach the way of peace, democracy, human rights, the rule of law, accountability and transparency. No man shall make himself the law. Those who have committed crimes against humanity and genocide must be held to account. There shall be no state within the state. Exercise of one’s constitutional rights should not be criminalized. Might does not make right! In the Year of the Cheetah, I plead with my fellow intellectual Hippos to preach till kingdom come.
We need to find ways to link Ethiopian Diaspora youth with youth in Ethiopia in a Chain of Destiny. Today, we see a big disconnect and a huge gulf between young Ethiopians in the Diaspora and those in Ethiopia. That is partly a function of geography, but also class. It needs to be bridged. We need to help organize and provide support to Ethiopian Diaspora youth to link up with their counterparts in Ethiopia so that they could have meaningful dialogue and interaction and work together to ensure a common democratic future.
The challenges facing Ethiopia’s Cheetah Generation are enormous, but we must do all we can to prepare the youth to take leadership roles in their future. We need to help them develop a formal youth agenda that addresses the wide range of problems, challenges and issues facing them. All we need to do is provide them guidance, counsel and advice. The Cheetahs are fully capable of doing the heavy lifting if the Hippos are willing to carry water to them.
Ethiopian Youth Must Lead a National Dialogue in Search of a Path to Peaceful Change
I have said it before and I will say is again and again. For the past year, I have been talking and writing about Ethiopia’s inevitable transition from dictatorship to democracy. I have also called for a national dialogue to facilitate the transition and appealed to Ethiopia’s youth to lead a grassroots and one-on-one dialogue across ethnic, religious, linguistic and religious lines. I made the appeal because I believe Ethiopia’s salvation and destiny rests not in the fossilized jaws of power-hungry Hippos but in the soft and delicate paws of the Cheetahs. In the Year of the Cheetahs, I plead with Ethiopia’s youth inside the country and in the Diaspora to take upon the challenge and begin a process of reconciliation. I have come to the regrettable conclusion that most Hippos are hardwired not to reconcile. Hippos have been “reconciling” for decades using the language of finger pointing, fear and smear, mudslinging and grudge holding. But Cheetahs have no choice but to genuinely reconcile because if they do not, they will inherit the winds of ethnic and sectarian strife.
In making my plea to Ethiopia’s Cheetahs, I only ask them to begin an informal dialogue among themselves. Let them define national reconciliation as they see it. They should empower themselves to create their own political space and to talk one-on-one across ethnic, religious, linguistic, gender, regional and class lines. I underscore the importance of closing the gender gap and maximizing the participation of young women in the national reconciliation conversations. It is an established social scientific fact that women do a far superior job than men when it comes to conciliation, reconciliation and mediation. Dialogue involves not only talking to each other but also listening to one another. Ethiopia’s Cheetahs should use their diversity as a strength and must never allow their diversity to be used to divide and conquer them.
Up With Ethiopian Cheetahs!
Africans know all too well that hippos (including their metaphorical human counterparts) are dangerous animals that are fiercely territorial and attack anything that comes into their turf. Every year more people are killed by hippos (both the real and metaphorical ones) in Africa than lions or elephants. Cheetahs are known to be the fastest animals, but their weakness is that they give up the chase easily or surrender their prey when challenged by other predators including hyenas. A group of hippos is known as a crash. A group of cheetahs is called a “coalition”. Only a coalition of cheetahs organized across ethnic, religious, linguistic and regional lines can crash a crash of hippos and a cackle of hyenas and save Ethiopia.
In this Year of Ethiopian Cheetahs, I expect to make my full contribution to uplift and support Ethiopia’s youth and to challenge them to rise up to newer heights. I appeal to all of my brother and sister Hippos to join me in this effort. As for the Cheetahs, I say, darkness always give way to light. “It is often in the darkest skies that we see the brightest stars.” Ethiopia’s Cheetahs must be strong in spirit and in will. As Gandhi said, “Strength does not come from physical capacity”, nor does it come from guns, tanks and war planes. “It comes from an indomitable will.” Winston Churchill must have learned something from Gandhi when he said, “Never give in–never, never, never, never, in nothing great or small, large or petty, never give in except to convictions of honour and good sense. Never yield to force; never yield to the apparently overwhelming might of the enemy.” Ethiopian Cheetahs must never give in!
Professor Alemayehu G. Mariam teaches political science at California State University, San Bernardino and is a practicing defense lawyer.
Previous commentaries by the author are available at:
Amharic translations of recent commentaries by the author may be found at:
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
Honor Thy Independent Journalists
I often write about the trials and tribulations of Ethiopia’s independent journalists, sometimes in tones of lamentation, other times in wistful philosophical reflection. I have always defended the constitutional and human rights of Ethiopian citizens “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 their choice.” Unfortunately, I have had few opportunities to publicly celebrate and express my pride in the extraordinary deeds of Ethiopia’s emerging young and courageous journalists.
Courage, it seems, is fast becoming the common middle name for many young Ethiopian journalists. They are certainly racking up some of the most prestigious international journalism awards for courage. It is a special privilege for me to write a few words in honor of Ethiopian journalist Dawit Kebede and his young colleagues at Awramba Times (AT) and congratulate them for being the recipients of the Committee to Protect Journalists’ (CPJ) “2010 International Press Freedom Award”. This annual award is given to journalists who have shown extraordinary courage in defending press freedom in the face of attacks, threats or imprisonment. On November 23, Dawit, barely 30 years old, will accept the CPJ award on behalf of Team Awramba Times and all independent Ethiopian journalists who are still suffering and struggling in Ethiopia and others who have been forced into exile.
I am also privileged to congratulate another courageous young journalist, Sisay Agena, a former political prisoner and erstwhile publisher of Ethiop and Abay newspapers, for receiving the prestigious “Freedom to Write Award” from PEN Center USA. He will be honored in absentia on November 17 in Los Angeles. Last year this award was given to Liu Xiaobo, the imprisoned Chinese writer and human rights advocate and the winner of the 2010 Nobel Peace Prize. The PEN award honors exceptional international literary figures who have been persecuted or imprisoned for exercising and defending the right to freedom of expression.
In October 2007, another young journalist, Serkalem Fasil, received the prestigious “Courage in Journalism Award” given by the International Womens’ Media Foundation to women journalists that have shown extraordinary bravery in the face of danger. Serkalem and her husband Eskinder Nega, (both former political prisoners and publishers of Menelik, Asqual and Satenaw newspapers) today serve as the personifications of journalistic courage and integrity in Ethiopia. This past March, the Supreme Kangaroo Kourt of Ethiopia ordered Serkalem, Eskinder, Sisay and two other journalists, Zekarias Tesfaye and Fasil Yenealem, to pay the largest fines assessed against journalists in Ethiopian history. These journalists have been denied licenses to publish their newspapers for the past three years.
Dawit Kebede, a former political prisoner, and his young team at Awramba Times are part of a new breed of courageous young journalists in Ethiopia who continue to risk their lives and livelihoods every day to speak truth to power by exercising their constitutional and human rights to free expression. The members of Team Awramba Times, like the other independent journalists, do not hide behind clever pen names or concealed identities to do their work. They are always out there in the line of fire facing intimidation, threats on their lives, harassment, interrogations and imprisonment. I take this opportunity to single out and honor, congratulate and thank each and every member of Team Awramba Times: Fitsum Mamo, editor-in-chief and one of the founders of AT (and not long ago a victim of trumped up charges of defamation of state-appointed church head Paulos); Woubshet Taye (forced to resign on the eve of election in May 2010 following official threats); Gizaw Legesse, deputy editor-in-chief; Wosenseged Gebrekidan (a former political prisoner with Dawit Kebede and the others); Abel Alemayehu, senior editor; Elais Gebru and Surafel Girma, senior reporters; Tigist Wondimu (arts and entertainment editor), Abebe Tola and Solomon Moges, columnists; Nebyou Mesfin, graphics editor; Teshale Seifu, Sisay Getnet, Teshale Wodaj, marketing and advertising and Mekdes Fisaha, computer technologist.
Dawit is the managing editor of Awramba Times. If one were to ask him to describe himself, he would simply say he is journalist. He will say he is not “in the opposition”. He is not a politician. He is not partisan to any political party or ideology; but like his AT colleagues, he is uncompromisingly partial to the truth. He will not hesitate to report or write the truth regardless of who is in power. He will solemnly promise to continue to do his job as a professional journalist by exercising his constitutional and human rights for as long as he can given the intensity of press repression in Ethiopia.
The State of Press Freedom in Ethiopia Today
When I wrote “The Art of War on Ethiopia’s Independent Press” last December, I argued that the regime of Meles Zenawi is conducting a search and destroy mission to completely wipe out the free press in the country. The history of the independent press in Ethiopia over the past five years is a chronicle of brutal crackdowns, arbitrary imprisonments and harassment of local and international journalists, shuttering of newspapers and jamming of international radio transmissions. In May 2009, the Ethiopian Free Press Journalists Association (EFPJA) reported: “Over 101 journalists are forced into exile, 11 are still facing serious plight in Kenya, Uganda, Yemen, Japan and India… Journalists Serkalem Fasil, Eskindir Nega and Sisay Agena are still denied press licenses. Editors of weeklies: Awramba Times, Harambe, Enku and Addis Neger are suffering under frequent harassments and the new punitive press law, which has become the tool of silencing any criticisms against the ruling party.”
Zenawi like all depraved dictators preceding him fears and loathes the independent press more than anything else. Emperor Napoleon Bonaparte of France expressed his deepest fears of the press when he said: “Four hostile newspapers are more to be feared than a thousand bayonets.” In Ethiopia, that could be translated as “one journalist is to be feared more than a thousand soldiers (‘ke shee toregna, ande gazetegna’). The informative powers of an independent press are so awesome that dictators and tyrants in history have lived in constant fear of having their crimes discovered by the press and reported to the people. 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 drove Napoleon “bat crazy”. He hated the press passionately because they exposed his vast network of spies that had penetrated every nook and cranny of French society and his failed military adventures. They relentlessly condemned his indiscriminate massacres of unarmed French citizens protesting in the streets and his killing, jailing and persecution of his political opponents.
Zenawi is no different. He wants to crush the few struggling independent newspapers in the country for the exact same reasons Napoleon wanted to crush the press. For Zenawi, the independent press is the mirror of truth that shows and tells it like it is. Whenever Zenawi looks into the press mirror, he asks the same old proverbial question: “Mirror, mirror on the wall/ Who in the land is the cruelest and wickedest of all?” The independent press is always there to answer that question for him truthfully. Zenawi fears and abhors criticism because he can’t handle the truth. His problem is that in the new breed of Ethiopian journalists he is facing his worst nightmare: the truth in the hands, hearts and minds of the youth. These young journalists have captured the hopes and aspirations of the millions of the young people in the country (which represent nearly 70 percent of the population). The youth armed with the truth and united can never be defeated!
Zenawi has used the “law” to crush these young journalists in much the same way as other dictatorships have crushed the free press in history. When the Nazis decreed the “National Press Law” in October 1933, propaganda minister Joseph Goebbels crowed that the “law is the most modern journalistic statute in the world! I predict that its principles will be adopted by the other nations of the world within the next seven years. It is the absolute right of the State to supervise the formation of public opinion!” Another decree known as the Law Guaranteeing a Peace of Right was proclaimed immediately after the press law imposing the death penalty on anyone who imports, publishes or distributes in Germany “treasonable articles” and 5 years for importing, publishing or distributing “atrocity stories” about the Nazis or “endangering public security and order.”
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.” His “law” provided: “Whosoever writes, edits, prints, publishes, publicises, disseminates, shows, makes to be heard any promotional statements encouraging… terrorist acts is punishable with rigorous imprisonment from 10 to 20 years.” Dr. Goebbels’ press laws are still alive and well 75 years after he introduced them in Germany. This is proof that history never repeats itself; it just finds a new theatre to play itself out.
Knowledge Will Forever Govern Ignorance
Zenawi lives to control everything around him. He has been pretty successful in monopolizing political power by wiping out the opposition. He controls the economy by controlling aid handouts and cornering the lucrative international panhandling business. He controls the daily lives of the people with fear and intimidation. But there are two things he has been unable to control: Ideas and the minds of the people. It is not for lack of effort. Zenawi has tried to control the flow of ideas by shuttering newspapers, jamming radio stations, filtering websites, jailing and harassing journalists and intimidating the people from expressing themselves. But he has not been able to control the flow of ideas or the minds of the people. No one can do that. A good leader inspires with sound ideas and lofty ideals. She encourages the people to freely shop in the marketplace of ideas. To play such a role, a leader needs to have vision, insight, foresight, hindsight, the ability to “look at things the way they are, and ask why” and the courage to “dream of things that never were, and ask why not.” A man blinded by hatred can have no vision. He can only think and ask, “How can I can make things so crooked and so warped that they can never, ever be straightened out again.” A man with no vision lives in darkness and ignorance. As the father the American Constitution James Madison advised: “Knowledge will forever govern ignorance, and a people who mean to be their own governors, must arm themselves with the power knowledge gives.” It is the free press, “the tutor of nations”, that will help the people gain the knowledge they need to govern ignorance.
Kudos to All Independent Ethiopian Journalists
Ethiopia’s young independent journalists are fighting the armies of darkness against overwhelming odds. The Dawits, Serkalems, Sisays, Eskinders and all the rest man the frontlines with nothing more in their hands than pens, pencils and keyboards. They fight with the written word to inform and educate citizens and help them find ways to effectively participate in their own governance. I admire these young journalists for doing something that has never been done in the history of press freedom in Ethiopia. They have taught us by personal example what it takes to defend freedom of expression. They are inventing for us a new culture of free expression, societal openness, official accountability and transparency in Ethiopia. They are developing a style of journalism based on truth-searching, truth-telling and exposition of lies costumed as truth. They keep the candle of liberty flickering in the darkness of oppression.
I believe all independent journalists in Ethiopia are bonded together by a common cause of press freedom. They suffer the slings and arrows of a vindictive dictatorship together; they fight together, they rise and fall together and in the end they win or lose together. The CPJ, PEN USA and IWMF awards honor all of them. As we celebrate these young journalists, we should remember what it is all about: Press freedom in Ethiopia is not about protecting the rights of newspapers, editors, journalists, reporters or foreign correspondents and radio broadcasters. It is quintessentially about the right of every Ethiopian citizen “to seek, receive and impart information and ideas of all kinds, regardless of frontiers and without interference.” Zenawi believes that by keeping Ethiopians in darkness his regime and hangers-on will thrive on forever. He needs to borrow a cup of wisdom. Only three things thrive and propagate rapidly in darkness: mushrooms, hate and anger. Mushrooms proliferate in dark caves; hatred and anger mushroom and smolder in the hearts and minds of men and women who are oppressed and subjugated. Let Zenawi ask himself these questions: What happens to hate and anger deferred, to paraphrase a poetic line of Langston Hughes? Do they just sag like a heavy load, or do they explode?
LET ETHIOPIANS “SEEK, RECEIVE AND IMPART INFORMATION AND IDEAS OF ALL KINDS, REGARDLESS OF FRONTIERS.”
RELEASE ALL POLITICAL PRISONERS IN ETHIOPIA.
 See fn. 1