Four hostile newspapers are more to be feared than a thousand bayonets,” fretted Napoleon Bonaparte, dictator of France, as he summed up his determination to crush that country’s independent press. For dictator Meles Zenawi, Awramba Times, the tip of the spear of press freedom in Ethiopia, is more to be feared than ten thousand bayonets. Two weeks ago, Awramba Times, the last popular independent weekly, stopped publication after its outstanding managing editor and recipient of the 2010 Committee to Protect Journalists’ International Press Freedom Award, Dawit Kebede, was forced to flee the country. Dawit was tipped off about Zenawi’s decision to revoke his 2007 “pardon” for a bogus treason conviction and throw him back in jail.
Needless to say, all dictators and tyrants in history have feared the enlightening powers of the independent press. Total control of the media remains the wicked obsession of all modern day dictators who believe that by controlling the flow of information,
they can control the hearts and minds of their citizens. But that is only wishful thinking. As Napoleon realized, “a journalist is a grumbler, a censurer, a giver of advice, a regent of sovereigns and a tutor of nations.” It was the fact of “tutoring nations” — teaching, informing, enlightening and empowering the people with knowledge– that was Napoleon’s greatest fears of a free press. He understood the power of the independent press to effectively countercheck his tyrannical rule and hold him accountable before the people. He spared no effort to harass, jail, censor and muzzle journalists for criticizing his use of a vast network of spies to terrorize French society, exposing his military failures, condemning his indiscriminate massacres of unarmed citizen protesters in the streets and for killing, jailing and persecuting his political opponents. Ditto for Zenawi!
But enlightened leaders do not fear the press, they embrace it; they don’t condemn it, they commend it; they don’t try to crush, trash, squash and smash it, they act to preserve, protect, cherish and safeguard it. Enlightened leaders uphold the press as the paramount social institution without which there can be no human freedom. “Were it left to me to decide whether we should have a government without newspapers, or newspapers without a government,” asked Thomas Jefferson rhetorically, “I should not hesitate a moment to prefer the latter.” George Washington was no less enthusiastic in recognizing the vital importance of the free press in “preserving liberty, stimulating the industry, and ameliorating the morals of a free and enlightened people.” It should come as no surprise that the Frist Amendment to the U.S. Constitution imposes a sweeping prohibition: “Congress shall make no law… abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press…” NO government, NO official and NO political leader in America can censor, muzzle or persecute the press.
The American press, protected by the plate armor of the First Amendment, dutifully serves as the peoples’ eyes, ears and voices. In America, government trembles at the prospect of press scrutiny. In Ethiopia, government terrorizes the press. In America, government fears the press. In Ethiopia, the press fears government. In America, the press censors government. In Ethiopia, government censors the press. In America, the press stands as a watchdog over government. In Ethiopia, government dogs the press. That is the difference between an enlightened government and a benighted one.
Faced with a Jeffersonian choice, dictator Zenawi decided there shall be no independent newspapers or any other independent media in Ethiopia; and the only government that will exist shall be his own enchanted kingdom of venality, brutality, criminality and inhumanity. For years now, Zenawi has been shuttering independent newspapers and harassing, jailing and exiling journalists who are critical of his dictatorial rule earning the dubious title of “Africa’s second leading jailer of journalists.” On September 29, 2011, The Economist reported:
An open letter by international journalists to the Ethiopian foreign minister highlights broader abuses: ‘Ethiopia’s history of harassing, exiling and detaining both domestic and foreign reporters has been well-documented. Ethiopia is the second-leading jailer of journalists in Africa, according to the Committee to Protect Journalists. Over the past decade, 79 Ethiopian reporters have fled into exile, the most of any country in the world, according to CPJ data. A number of these have worked as stringers for international news agencies. Additionally, since 2006, the Ethiopian government has detained or expelled foreign correspondents from the Associated Press, the New York Times, the Daily Telegraph, Bloomberg News, the Christian Science Monitor, the Voice of America, and the Washington Post. We are also concerned by the government’s recent decision to charge two Swedish journalists reporting in the Ogaden with terrorism.’
Zenawi has indefatigably continued to swing the sledgehammer of censorship and finally succeeded in smashing and trashing Ethiopia’s free press. On November 11, 2011, the Committee to Protect Journalists reported, “A judge in Ethiopia’s federal high court charged six journalists with terrorism on Thursday under the country’s antiterrorism law, bringing the number of journalists charged under the statute since June to 10.” On November 15, newspaper satirist Abebe Tolla, better known as Abé Tokichaw, fled Ethiopia fearing imprisonment in retaliation for critical news commentaries. On November 21, Dawit Kebede, was forced into exile. Zenawi had long dangled the bogus 2007 pardon as a Sword of Damocles over Dawit’s head.
Over the years, I have written numerous commentaries in defense of the free press and press freedom in Ethiopia. A year ago this month, I penned “The Art of War on Ethiopia’s Independent Press” predicting the eventual shuttering of Awramba Times and Zenawi’s final solution to his problem of press freedom in Ethiopia:
Against the onslaught of this crushing juggernaut [of press repression] stand a few dedicated and heroic journalists with nothing in their hands but pencils, pens and computer keyboards, and hearts full of faith and hope in freedom and human rights. The dictatorship is winning the war on the independent press hands down. Young, dynamic journalists are going into exile in droves, and others are waiting for the other shoe to drop on them. The systematic campaign to decimate and silence the free press in Ethiopia is a total success. One by one, the dictatorship has shuttered independent papers and banished or jailed their editors and journalists. The campaign is now in full swing to shut down Awramba Times. The dictatorship’s newspapers are frothing ink in a calculated move to smear and tarnish the reputation of the Awramba Times and its editors and journalists. For the past couple of years, Awramba Times staffers have been targets of sustained intimidation, detentions and warnings.
Today Zenawi stands triumphant over the ashes of Awramba Times; and the destruction of press freedom in Ethiopia is now complete. There is no doubt Zenawi has won the war on Ethiopia’s independent press by total annihilation. But Awramba Times and its young journalists also stand triumphant. They have fought and won the most important war of all – the war for the hearts and minds of 90 million Ethiopians. Team Awramba Times fought Zenawi with pens and pencils and computer keyboards. They brought a ray of light into a nation enveloped by the darkness of dictatorship. They defended the truth against Zenawi’s falsehoods and exposed his lies and deceit. They stood up for the peoples’ right to know against the tyranny of ignorance. They made Zenawi squirm, squiggle, wiggle, fidget, twitch and go through endless sleepless nights. Zenawi persecuted and prosecuted them as enemies of the state, but they shall forever remain the true and loyal friends of the people. Zenawi accused them of being terrorists. That is true: They struck terror with the truth in the dark heart of tyranny. They unleashed terror in the minds of tyrants with demands for legal and moral accountability.
In the title of his commentary in the very last issue of Awramba Times, Dawit asked a simple but profound question: “Frankly, whose country is this anyway?” In the piece, Dawit explored many issues of vital interest to all Ethiopians. But in some of the most stirring words ever written against tyranny, Dawit informed the world why he decided to flee the country he loved so much:
When a man cannot live in his own country in freedom, faces privation and feels completely helpless, and where government, instead of being a shelter and sanctuary to its people, becomes a wellspring of fear and anxiety, it is natural for a citizen to seek freedom in any place of refuge.
Long before Dawit, Benjamin Franklin, “The First American” and one of the Founding Fathers of the United States and the man who declared, “Rebellion to tyrants is obedience to God”, summed it all: “Where liberty is, there is my country.” So Dawit, welcome to America, the land of free press!
A Tribute to Awramba Times and Its Young Journalists
I write this commentary not to denounce the wicked villains and enemies of press freedom in Ethiopia, but to praise and celebrate the heroes and heroines of Ethiopia’s independent press. I write this commentary not as a eulogy to the late Awramba Times but as a living and loving tribute to the heroic and dedicated young men and women who shed blood, sweat and tears and overcame daily fears to keep Awramba Times and press freedom alive in Ethiopia.
But how does one give tribute to the young heroes and heroines who risked their lives to defend press freedom and human rights in Ethiopia?
I wish I possessed the “eloquence of diction, that poetry of imagination or that brilliance of metaphor” to express my deep pride and joy in Awramba Times and its young journalists. I wish I possessed the talent, the insight and sensibility to tell the world of the sacrifices and contributions of these young people for the advancement of press freedom not just in Ethiopia but in all of Africa, and indeed the world.
Lacking that eloquence, I ask myself: What words can I use to express my gratitude and appreciation to these young people who toiled day and night to speak truth to tyranny? What can I possibly say to console these young truth tellers in a country that has been rendered the land of living lies? How can I show my respect, admiration and awe to these young people who soldiered for freedom and human rights in Ethiopia armed only with pens, pencils and computer keyboards? How do I acknowledge the historic contribution of the young journalists of Awramba Times and others like them who struggled beyond measure to keep the candle of press freedom flickering in the darkness of dictatorship?
Thank You Awramba Times!
Thank you Awramba Times! Thank you Dawit Kebede, Woubshet Taye (recently jailed by Zenawi), Gizaw Legesse, Nebyou Mesfin, Abel Alemayehu, Wosenseged G Kidan, Mekdes Fisseha, Abe Tokichaw and Mehret Tadesse, Nafkot Yoseph, Moges Tikuye, Tigist Wondimu, Elias Gebru, Teshale Seifu, Fitsum Mammo and [not pictured] Ananya Sori, Surafel Girma and Tadios Getahun. I thank you all; but I thank you not out of formality, obligation or courtesy. No, I thank you for
being the voice of the voiceless, the powerless, the voteless, the nameless and faceless. You kept on preaching the good news even when the tyrant sought to replace the peoples’ courage with cowardice, their faith with doubt, their trust in each other with suspicion and their hopes with despair.
teaching us all the meaning of responsible journalism. You pages shined with integrity, accuracy and truthfulness. You informed us of the most pressing issues of the day. You offered us critical but balanced perspectives to make us think and understand. You did it all with professionalism, with malice towards none.
teaching us the meaning of ethical journalism. You revealed the truth and told the story without sensationalism and distortions. You held yourselves accountable by maintaining high standards and being responsive to your readers. You showed supreme moral strength in the face of corruption, preached truth to tyranny and made superhuman efforts to open the minds of the narrow-minded.
showing Zenawi what it means to have and be a free press. You have taught him that a free press is a mirror to society. Whenever he looked in the mirror of Awramba Times, he saw the image of brutality, inhumanity, criminality and venality. But the mirror does not lie; it only reflects what it sees. Smashing the mirror does not obliterate the image; it only fragments it into 90 million pieces.
giving us a platform on which to exchange policy ideas and discuss problems of governance.
being a class act! When the pathetic, vulgar, pandering and pitiful state media launched its vilification and fear and smear campaign and brayed to have Awramba Times shuttered, you responded with decency, civility, dignity, propriety, honesty, integrity, rationality and humanity. You even treated the tyrants with respect, honor, dignity and courtesy. What a class act you all are! I have never been more proud!
All of the young journalists of Awramba Times are my personal heroes and heroines. As I write these words, I am overcome with emotion of admiration, pride and joy; but Team Awramba Times does not need my praise or recognition. Team Awramba Times does not need my words to document their heroic struggle; they have inscribed their own glorious history of press freedom on the calloused breast of tyranny. Because of Awramba Times, generations of young Ethiopians to come will learn and appreciate the true meaning of human freedom and the need to maintain eternal vigilance over tyranny.
Awramba Times shall rise from the ashes of tyranny, and press freedom will be reborn on the parched landscape of dictatorship in Ethiopia. A new world rising over the horizon as the sun sets on tyranny and dictators sweat to cling to power in the Middle East. The wind of freedom shall blow southward from North Africa. A brave new world of knowledge, information, ideas and enlightenment awaits young people all over Africa. In this new world, ignorance, the most powerful weapon in the hands of African tyrants, is useless. It is easy to misrule, mistreat and enslave a population trapped in ignorance. But “A nation of well-informed men who have been taught to know and prize the rights which God has given them cannot be enslaved. It is in the religion of ignorance that tyranny begins.” It was the religion of ignorance and its high priests in Ethiopia that Awramba Times and its young journalists were sworn to oppose and expose.
I have never met any member of Team Awramba Times. But I have read every issue of Awramba Times since it became available online. Awramba Times was not only a source of news, informed analysis and opinion for me, I regarded it as the ultimate symbol of press freedom in Ethiopia. Those of us who are blessed to live in a land where press freedom is valued higher than government itself pledge to uphold our oath proudly inscribed on a frieze below the dome at the Jefferson Memorial in Washington, D.C.: “I have sworn upon the altar of God eternal hostility against every form of tyranny over the mind of man [and woman].” Amen!
Thank You Awramaba Times! Thank you Dawit, Woubshet, Gizaw, Nebyou, Abel, Wosenseged, Mekdes, Abebe, Mehret, Nafkot, Moges, Tigist, Elias, Teshale, Fitsum, Ananya, Surafel, and Tadios. I also thank the indomitable Eskinder Nega (recently imprisoned by Zenawi), Serkalem Fasil, the internationally acclaimed journalist, former political prisoner and wife of Eskinder Nega, Sisay Agena and so many others!
I salute you! I honor you! I stand in awe of your achievements and struggle for press freedom in Ethiopia!