Ethiopia: Profiles in Journalistic Courage
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