Alemayehu G Mariam
Free to Speak
To paraphrase an old expression, “There are two things that are quintessentially important in any society. The first is free speech and I can’t remember the second one.”
Free speech is the bedrock of all human freedoms. In my view, the value a society gives to freedom of expression determines whether that society is free or unfree. A society is unfree if individuals are afraid to speak their minds, to think unpopular thoughts, to criticize government, or to dispute ideas and opinions. Expressive freedoms were so paramount to the founders of the American Republic that they provided constitutional protections unrivalled in the history of mankind. In breathtakingly uncompromising, unambiguous, and sweeping words that could be found in the English language, they declared: “Congress shall make no law…abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press…”
There are many reasons that justify sweeping protections for free speech in any society. Without freedom of speech, the person is like a corked bottle, keeping under pressure his/her ideas, views or feelings about politics, government or society. Leaders and institutions could not be criticized or held accountable where free speech and the press are criminalized. There is little room for any meaningful artistic, literary or intellectual pursuits where free expression is censored or sanctioned. In short, without free speech, “self-development is crippled, social progress grinds to a halt, and official lies become the only ‘truth.’”
I am not writing here to discuss the abstract virtues of or government infringement on free speech. Many of my readers know that I take an uncompromising view on the practice of free speech. When dictator Meles Zenawi came to speak at Columbia University’s World Leaders Forum in September 2010, I defended his right to speak despite strong disapproval and scathing criticism from friends, colleagues and others. Yes, even Zenawi, who has the dubious honor of being called the “second-leading jailer of journalists in Africa” by the Committee to Protect Journalists, has the right to engage in free speech. When the 500+ page memoir of former Ethiopian junta leader and dictator Mengistu Hailemariam was electronically scanned this past January in violation of copyright laws and posted online because Mengistu was a “mass murderer” who should not “benefit from the sale of his book”, I defended his right to write and express himself. In defending the free speech rights of these two brothers-in-dictatorship, I was practicing Noam Chomsky’s axiom that “If we don’t believe in freedom of expression for people we despise, we don’t believe in it at all.” I venture to add that by not defending the rights of those we despise, we risk becoming their clones.
Free speech encompasses not only the right to speak (and not to speak) to others but also the right to hear (or not to hear) from others. It is a decision for each individual to make. I like to keep an open and critical mind; and therefore listen very attentively to those with whom I disagree strongly. It is logically impossible for me to agree or disagree (or even to disagree disagreeably) without listening to those with whom I agree or disagree. If I suspect a claim to be false, I contest the facts. If I find the truth shrouded, I undress the lies. If I disagree with an idea, I challenge it. If I agree with a point of view, I bolster it. But to do all these, I have to tolerate the right of free expression of those with whom I agree or disagree. But free speech is not only about my right to expression, but also the right of others to do the same.
The Fierce Urgency of Now for the Unfree to Speak, to Write, to Advocate… Freely
All of the foregoing discussion is intended to provide a springboard for a more specific discussion of the plight of those I characterize as “unfree” to speak or write publicly. There are legions of Ethiopian and non-Ethiopian scholars involved in the study of Ethiopian society, commentators and intellectuals who feel unfree to speak or write on matters of great public importance to Ethiopians. Many scholars in Ethiopia are silenced by official threats of employment termination, summary dismissals and even arrest and prosecution. The fear of “censorship by mudslinging and public vilification” keeps many Diaspora Ethiopian scholars silent. Many of these scholars often point to the barrage of personal attacks they face whenever they write or speak on matters that do not conform to the prevailing orthodoxy. If they say something politically incorrect, they are jumped on. If they express views that oppose one group or another at a conference, their names are dragged in the mud. If they write a historical analysis, they are vilified as apologists of a bygone era. They are intimidated and unnerved into silence by the self-appointed and self-righteous censors of democracy. As a result, many learned and experienced Ethiopian and non-Ethiopian scholars who have spent years studying Ethiopia have completely withdrawn from participation in the vital public debates of the day.
But all scholars involved in the study of Ethiopia face the fierce urgency of now. They must renounce the vows of silence they have imposed upon themselves or has been imposed upon them by the self-appointed and self-righteous censors of democracy and come forward to help the people of Ethiopia transition from dictatorship to democracy. Ethiopia today stands at the crossroads. The signs of change are plain to see. The dawn of freedom and democracy that enveloped North Africa and the Middle East is ever slowly swallowing the darkness of dictatorship and tyranny. The best days of Ethiopia’s dictators are long gone. These are the desperate days of desperate dictators who are playing out their end game by resorting to desperate measures. We see them stoking the flames of sectarianism. They are clamping down on all avenues of free expression. They are unleashing unspeakable violence to cling to power. They are finally facing the music; they are now beginning to understand the true meaning of Gandhi’s message: “There have been tyrants and murderers and for a time they seem invincible but in the end, they always fall – think of it, always.” So in the end game, the tyrants and murderers will pull out their trump card, their long-planned final solution: “Après moi le deluge (after me the flood)!” (or in the words of the proverbial donkey, “after me, no more grass”). But they seem to forget that floods, fires and earthquakes do not discriminate; they consume and destroy everything in their path.
But these are also hopeful days for the people. They can finally see a flickering light at the end of the long dark tunnel of tyranny. They can see a beacon of light pointing in the direction of freedom, democracy and the rule of law. The tables are turning in plain view. The people are losing their fear of the tyrants; and the tyrants are showing their fear of the people. They are worried sick of what the people might do. The people are also angry and hungry. Anger leads to bitterness, hatred and violence. Hunger destroys not only the body but also the soul. A hungry man is an angry man. That is what the tyrants fear as the last chapter of the end game is being written.
The times they are a-changing. Ethiopian scholars can no longer stand on sidelines as spectators in these trying times. They cannot afford to be “summer soldiers, sunshine patriots” and fair-weathered fans of freedom, democracy and human rights, as Thomas Paine might have put it. They must be actively engaged in the struggle against tyranny now; and not prepare to struggle for power later. They must stand with the people now, and not stand by them later.
Ethiopian scholars and intellectuals must share their expertise and knowledge to overcome not only the tyranny of man but also the tyranny of hunger, disease, ignorance and poverty. Tyranny must be confronted on all fronts. It is up to the agricultural experts to make battle plans to defeat the tyranny of hunger and famine. According to the Legatum Index, “Ethiopia’s education system is poor at all levels and its population is deeply dissatisfied.” Ethiopia’s educational scholars must rise to challenge the tyranny of a hopelessly decayed educational system. “On most health outcomes, Ethiopia performs very poorly.” According to Foreign Policy, “There are more Ethiopian physicians practicing in Chicago today than in all of Ethiopia, a country of 80 million and Africa’s second-most populous country.” Shouldn’t Diaspora Ethiopian physicians gather their forces to confront the tyranny of disease that afflicts our people? Shouldn’t Ethiopian economists, engineers, scientists, lawyers, historians, artists, researchers, etc., come forward and forge alliances to confront tyranny in all its manifestations?
Writing and speaking in their fields of expertise is only the beginning. I plead with members of the Ethiopian academic and scholarly community to also become public intellectuals. The internet has become the great equalizer not only between citizens and all powerful governments but also between the intelligentsia and “ignorigentsia” (the willfully ignorant or woefully uninformed). In many ways, the internet has given free speech its ultimate expression. The learned scholars and academics and those spewing words of provocation, hatred and intolerance potentially have equal access to the hearts and minds of millions. But for all of the information and resources available on the internet, there is precious little that is relevant, enlightening and actionable. Ethiopian intellectuals need to organize themselves to bridge the information and knowledge gap and come up with fresh and creative ideas to help transition Ethiopia from dictatorship to democracy.
Nearly two decades ago, the late Prof. Edward Said of Columbia University in a series of lectures argued that the role of the intellectual in society is not merely to advance knowledge and learning but also human freedom. He made his arguments even more compellingly for exiled intellectuals. Prof. Said urged scholars to aspire to become public intellectuals connecting their scholarship to issues and policies that impact the lives of ordinary people. He argued that intellectuals must advocate and work for progressive change while remaining vigilant over those who abuse and misuse their power. Above all, the intellectual has an obligation to always speak truth to power and the duty to stand for and with the voiceless, the powerless and the defenseless:
… The intellectual in my sense of the word, is neither a pacifier nor a consensus builder, but someone whose whole being is staked on a critical sense, a sense of being unwilling to accept easy formulas, or ready-made clichés, or the smooth, ever-so-accommodating confirmations of what the powerful or conventional have to say, and what they do. Not just passively unwilling, but actively willing to say so in public. This is not always a matter of being a critic of government policy, but rather of thinking of the intellectual vocation as maintaining a state of constant alertness, of a perpetual willingness not to let half-truths or received ideas steer one along…”
And this role [the intellectual’s] has an edge to it, and cannot be played without a sense of being someone whose place it is publicly to raise embarrassing questions, to confront orthodoxy and dogma (rather than to produce them) to be someone who cannot easily be co-opted by governments or corporations, and whose raison d’etre is to represent all those people and issues that are routinely forgotten or swept under the rug.
In the same vein, the late Czech president, human rights advocate and playwright Vaclav Havel wrote,
The intellectual should constantly disturb, should bear witness to the misery of the world, should be provocative by being independent, should rebel against all hidden and open pressure and manipulations, should be the chief doubter of systems, of power and its incantations, should be a witness to their mendacity.”
I believe Ethiopia’s intelligentsia could play the roles described by Said and Havel, and even go beyond their prescriptions and serve as consensus-builders, bridge-builders, facilitators, promoters and pacifiers. I would like to urge them to become Ethiopia’s eyes, ears and mouths and teach and preach to the younger generation and the broader masses. They do not have to be concerned about dumbing down their messages to the people, for when speaking truth to power the people get the message loud and clear.
These are different times. A new age is dawning without the old virtues that infused public dialogue and discourse. Civility, decency and respect in the public sphere were once considered necessary. The virtue of civility made it possible to disagree without being disagreeable; decency demanded that we agree to disagree without becoming mortal enemies. But the internet offers a convenient refuge of anonymity and unaccountability to the cacophonous and intolerant hordes whose mission is to drown out these virtues. But there is one surefire solution. Follow George Bernard Shaw’s wise admonition: “Never wrestle with a pig. You both get dirty, but the pig likes it!”
As one does not avoid going to sleep for fear of having nightmares, one must not disengage from public debate on the vital issues that affect Ethiopia today for fear of mudslinging and censorship by public vilification. Regardless, Ethiopian scholars and intellectuals must answer the urgent question of the day: Are they prepared to “bear witness to the misery” of the Ethiopian people by speaking truth to power?
Now is the time to stand up and be counted!
(to be continued in a future commentary…)
Amharic translations of recent commentaries by the author may be found at: http://www.ecadforum.com/Amharic/archives/category/al-mariam-amharic and http://ethioforum.org/?cat=24
Previous commentaries by the author are available at:
http://open.salon.com/blog/almariam/ and www.huffingtonpost.com/alemayehu-g-mariam/
Alemayehu G. Mariam
Zenawi’s Charm Offensive in America?
Fresh on the heels of shutting down all private distance education, including distance higher education, and “winning” the parliamentary election in May by 99.6 percent, dictator-in-chief Meles Zenawi is scheduled to speak at Columbia University on September 22 and trumpet his accomplishments as the guardian of democracy and prosperity in Ethiopia and provider of enlightened leadership to the African continent. The puffed up announcement for his appearance at Columbia’s World Leaders Forum, which was subsequently withdrawn by an embarrassed University administration, stated:
… Meles Zenawi of the Federal Democratic Republic of Ethiopia will present the keynote address on the topic of Ethiopia and African Leadership. His address will launch CGT’s the World and Africa series…. Zenawi has served as chairman of the Organisation of the African Union (1995-1996), as co-chairman of the Global Coalition for Africa, and was appointed as Chair of the African Heads of State and Government in Climate Change (CAHOSCC)… Zenawi was the co-chairperson of the Beijing Summit of the Forum on China-Africa Cooperation in 2006, which led to the adoption of the Beijing Action Plan for partnership in economic progress. Under the seasoned governmental leadership of… Zenawi…Ethiopia has made and continues to make progresses (sic) in many areas including in education, transportation, health and energy.
The event is designed to facilitate “conversations to examine Africa’s place in the world”. The “key subjects” of the conversation reportedly “include the future of African agriculture, the explosion of Asian investment on the continent, the evolving contours of global aid to Africa, and the impact of the financial crisis on the region.”
Allowing Zenawi to Speak at Columbia is “An Affront to His Victims” of Human Rights Abuses
Nowhere is the case for disallowing Zenawi the right to speak at Columbia University made more convincingly and compellingly than in the letter of two extraordinarily courageous Ethiopian husband and wife team of journalists, Eskinder Nega and Serkalem Fasil, to university president Lee Bollinger. They wrote:
We are banned Ethiopian journalists who were charged with treason by the government of PM Meles Zenawi subsequent to disputed election results in 2005, incarcerated under deplorable circumstances, only to be acquitted sixteen months later; after Serkalem Fasil prematurely gave birth in prison.
Severely underweight at birth because Serkalem’s physical and psychological privation in one of Africa’s worst prisons, an incubator was deemed life-saving to the new-born child by prison doctors; which was, in an act of incomprehensible vindictiveness, denied by the authorities. (The child nevertheless survived miraculously. Thanks to God.)
…While we acknowledge [Zenawi’s] right to express his views, it is an affront to his government’s numerous victims of repression to grant him the privilege to do so on the notable premises of Columbia…
Serkalem and Eskinder are absolutely right in their expressions of outraged disapproval of Zenawi’s speech at Columbia. These are two Ethiopian journalists for whom I have the highest respect and admiration. They are selfless patriots who could be described best in Churchillian terms: “Never in the field of journalism was so much owed by so many to so few.”
I have been approached by various groups and individuals to urge the leadership of Columbia to dis-invite Zenawi or have the university withdraw the offer of delivering the “keynote address”. The reasons are many. Some say mere invitation to speak at the world-class institution gives Zenawi a certain patina of legitimacy, which he could use to hoodwink Americans and camouflage his criminal history. Others say he will try to use the event as a soapbox to disseminate lies about his “accomplishments”, complete with wholly fabricated statistics about “double digit growth” and fairy tales of a 99.6 percent election victory, and use the Forum as a bully pulpit to rag against his critics. There are those who suggest that Stiglitz staged the “keynote address” to give his “buddy Zenawi” an opportunity to clean up his image and build up some intellectual “creds”, which Zenawi could take back to Ethiopia for bragging rights. I respect the views of those who urge Columbia to disinvite Zenawi.
But as a university professor and constitutional lawyer steadfastly dedicated to free speech, I have adopted one yardstick for all issues concerning free speech, Article 19 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights: “Everyone has the right to freedom of opinion and expression; this right includes freedom to hold opinions without interference and to seek, receive and impart information and ideas through any media and regardless of frontiers.” I underscore the words “everyone” and “regardless of frontiers.”
Alternatively stated, though I condemn Zenawi for his abuse, mistreatment and cruelty against Serkalem and Eskinder and other journalists, disagree with him on his repeated theft of elections, trashing of the human rights of Ethiopian citizens, boldfaced lies about economic growth, manipulation of the judiciary for political purposes, unjust incarceration of Birtukan Midekssa, the first woman political party leader in Ethiopian history and tens of thousands of other political prisoners, crackdown on the press and civil society organizations, subversion of the legislative process to mill out repressive laws and his completely bogus theory of “ethnic federalism” (an artifice of his divide-and-rule strategy) and so on, I shall vigorously defend his right to speak not just at Columbia but at any other public venue in the United States of America.
Right to Protest
Let me make it clear that I am not arguing here that those who wish to protest Zenawi’s speech at Columbia should not do so. They should; and I defend vigorously their constitutional right to protest and fully express their views about his actions and policies. My only plea to them is that we should strive to make this opportunity a teachable moment for Zenawi. In my view, it would be a crying shame for Zenawi to hop on his plane and go back to Ethiopia mumbling to himself something about the “extreme Diaspora” and so on because he is heckled, disrupted or somehow impeded from speaking. I say if we can tolerate racist and hate speech on university campuses, we can also tolerate the rant of a petty tyrant for an hour or two.
A Teachable Moment for a Tyrant
My reasons for defending Zenawi’s right to speak are principled, straightforward and myriad:
At the most elementary level, the American university is a traditional forum for the free exchange of ideas, whether silly or sublime. Every year, tens of thousands of speeches are given on American university campuses. Even the representatives of the Neo-Nazis, the Ku Klux Klan and motley crews of racists and fascists are allowed to speak on American university campuses. By the same token, Zenawi should be able to speak at Columbia.
I realize that this may not be a popular view to hold, but I am reminded of the painful truth in Prof. Noam Chomsky’s admonition: “If we don’t believe in freedom of expression for people we despise, we don’t believe in it at all.” On a personal level, it would be hypocritical of me to argue for free speech and press freedoms in Ethiopia and justify censorship or muzzling of Zenawi stateside. If censorship is bad for the good citizens of Ethiopia, it is also bad for the dictators of Ethiopia.
But there is another set of reasons why I want Zenawi to speak at Columbia. I want the event to be a teachable moment for him. Perhaps this opportunity will afford him a glimpse of the clash of ideas that routinely take place in American universities. He may begin to appreciate the simple truth that ideas are accepted and rejected and arguments won and lost in the cauldron of critical analysis oxygenated by the bellows of free speech, not in prison dungeons where journalists and dissidents are bludgeoned and left to rot. By denying Zenawi the right to speak at Columbia, we also risk becoming prisoners of ignorance. That is why free speech is at the core of Nelson Mandela’s teaching: “A man who takes away another man’s freedom is a prisoner of hatred, he is locked behind the bars of prejudice and narrow-mindedness.” Free speech is the key by which one escapes from the steel bars and stonewalls of “prejudice and narrow-mindedness.” I sincerely hope Zenawi will find that key at Columbia and finally escape from his bleak and desolate planet of “prejudice and narrow-mindedness.”
On another level, to disallow Zenawi from speaking is an implicit admission that we fear ideas. Zenawi has muzzled and intimidated nearly all of his critics and shuttered newspapers in Ethiopia, jammed the Voice of America and the independent Ethiopian Satellite Television Service and enacted repressive press and civil society laws because he is afraid of ideas – ideas about freedom, democracy, human rights, accountability, transparency, the rule of law and so on. But the old adage still holds true: “There is nothing more powerful than an idea whose time has come.” In America, we cherish and embrace good ideas (not fear them) and put them into practice; we discard the bad ones in the trash.
But I have a reason that overrides all others. I believe in the power of truth. We can neither defend the truth nor championed it by muzzling the liar. Let Zenawi speak! Let him have his “conversation”!
A Few Topics for “Conversation”
Since Prof. Stiglitz is interested in having a “conversation”, here are a few topics he should ask Zenawi to talk about. How is it that Ethiopia, under his “seasoned” leadership, managed to rank:
138/159 (most corrupt) countries on the Corruption Index for 2010.
17 among the most failed states (Somalia is No. 1) on the Failed States Index for 2010.
136/179 countries (most repressive) on the 2010 Index of Economic Freedom.
107/183 economies for ease of doing business (investment climate) by The International Bank for Reconstruction and Development in 2010.
37/53 (poorest governance quality) African countries in the 2010 Ibrahim Index of African Governance.
101/128 countries in 2010 on the Bertelsmann Political and Economic Transformation Index, and
141/153 (poorest environmental public health and ecosystem vitality) countries in the 2010 Environmental Performance Index.
Fables, Fairy Tales and Q&As
I can imagine Zenawi’s angst at the podium preparing to tell his fables and fairy tales about Ethiopia’s double-digit growth, democracy and leadership in Africa, globalization and its impact on Africa or whatever topic he chooses at the last minute to confuse his audience. It’s all good; fairy tales are entertaining. However, I suspect that the story-telling session will not be the usual cakewalk. At Columbia, unlike his rubberstamp parliament, Zenawi will not be able to scowl at, browbeat, belittle or mock anyone; and unless Stigliz and company rig the Q&A session to give Zenawi only softball questions, he is going to get some heavy duty drubbing from students and faculty. I would wager to say that his speech will not be the usual soporific monologue; it will be a real “conversation”where he will be asked questions that will make him cringe and wince.
I can imagine the audience asking these questions:
Mr. Zenawi, what is the special magical spell you used to win the May 2010 election by 99.6 percent?
Answer: “Say ‘abracadabra’ ten times while holding a rabbit’s foot in the left hand at the crack of dawn.”
When will you stop trashing the human rights of Ethiopian citizens?
Answer: “As soon as you tell me when they started having human rights.”
Why do you lie about double-digit economic growth by using cooked up numbers from your Central Statistics office?
Answer: “There are ‘lies and plausible lies’. Our statistics are of the latter variety.”
Why did you shut down all distance education programs in the country?
Answer: “Because education is overrated.”
Why did you wipe out the private independent media in the country?
Answer: “Because they don’t like me.”
Do you really believe the Voice of America is the same as Rwanda’s genocide Radio Mille Collines?
Answer: “VOA, VOI (Voice of Interhamwe). It all sounds the same to me.”
What do you think of your critics in the U.S.?
Answer: “They are all friggin extremists in the Diaspora. I can’t stand them. Why? Oh! Why don’t they like me?!?”
Do you believe in the rule of law?
Answer: “Yep! I am it.”
When will you release Birtukan Midekssa, the only woman political party leader in Ethiopian history, from prison?
Answer: “‘There will never be an agreement with anybody to release Birtukan. Ever. Full stop. That’s a dead issue.'”
“If there are no more questions, I am outta here!”
Just at that moment, I can imagine President Bollinger leaping to his feet with index finger wagging in righteous indignation and proclaiming: “Mr. Prime Minister, you exhibit all the signs of a petty and cruel dictator.”
We are All Ears!
Let Zenawi speak! Let’s hear what he has to say. Will it be the usual cascade of lies, half-truths, buzzwords, platitudes, clichés and boiler plate economics hokum bunkum? I have no idea. Over the past several days, Stiglitz and crew have been playing the old switcheroo on the topics Zenawi will be talking about. First, they said Zenawi will speak on “Ethiopia and Africa leadership.” They changed that and said he will talk about “the current global economy and its impact”. Now they say he will be talking about “the current global economy and its impact on Africa”. It is not clear what expertise Zenawi has on globalization or what morsels of wisdom he may be able to impart, but Stiglitz should have no problems writing a nice scholarly-sounding speech for Zenawi to read. After all, the “impact of the global economy on Africa” is the snake oil Joe “The Globalizer” Stiglitz has been peddling for the past decade.
Regardless, Zenawi may have something worthwhile to say. I don’t know. We won’t know unless we hear him speak. The bottom line is that Zenawi would rather go blind than face the naked truth about his atrocious record over the past two decades, but we are not afraid to confront his best dressed lies at the World Leaders Forum. At the end of the day on September 22, when the fog clears over Columbia, Zenawi would have walked off the stage at the Low Library as he walked on it: An emperor with new clothes! So I say: Rap on, Emperor. Rap on!
Welcome to the land of the free and home of the brave!
FREE BIRTUKAN MIDEKSSA AND ALL POLITICAL PRISONERS IN ETHIOPIA.
 “The Voodoo Economics of Meles Zenawi”, http://www.huffingtonpost.com/alemayehu-g-mariam/ethiopia-the-voodoo-econo_b_542298.html