The Free Press in Ethiopia’s Kangaroo Kourts
By Alemayehu G Mariam:
Over the past six years, I have written numerous columns defending press freedom in Ethiopia. In a 2009 commentary entitled, “The Art of War on Ethiopia’s Independent Press”, I expressed astonishment over the heavy handed treatment of the free press: “Use a sledgehammer to smash a butterfly! That is the exquisite art of war unleashed on Ethiopia’s independent press by the dictatorship of Meles Zenawi today.”
In a 2007 column entitled “Monkey Trial in Kangaroo Kourt“, I wrote about the Kafkaesque use of the courts by the dictatorship in Ethiopia to crush dissent and suppress criticism. Franz Kafka’s famous novel, The Trial, begins with the sentence, “Someone must have been telling lies about Joseph K., for without having done anything wrong he was arrested one fine morning.” K., is ordered to stand trial before know-nothing judges who do the bidding of their invisible puppet masters. K’s guilt is a foregone conclusion. Everything about the trial is a secret — the charges, the court procedures and the judges. K cannot defend himself because he is never told what crimes he has committed. He is denied access to the evidence against him. K’s trial is delayed time and again. His lawyer is unable to help him in a system where there is neither law nor procedure.
Such is the stark portrait of Zenawi’s prosecution and conviction of journalists, dissidents and opposition political leaders in his Kafkaesque Kangaroo Kourts in Ethiopia (KKK) today. He uses lies, damned lies and loathsome lies as evidence to convict opponents and those who disagree with him under his cut-and-paste anti-terrorism law. To add political drama and add insult to injury, “sentencing” is scheduled for mid-July.
Human Rights Watch documented that the “convictions” last week, together with others over the past six months, “bring the total known number of individuals convicted of terrorism-related charges to 34, including 11 journalists, at least 4 opposition supporters and 19 others.” Zenawi can now beat his chest in triumph and do a few victory laps for “convicting” Eskinder Nega, Reeyot Alemu, Woubshet Taye, Swedish journalists Martin Schibbye and Johan Persson, and opposition party leaders and dissdents Andualem Arage, Nathnael Mekonnen, Mitiku Damte, Yeshiwas Yehunalem, Kinfemichael Debebe, Andualem Ayalew, Nathnael Mekonnen, Yohannes Terefe, Zerihun Gebre-Egziabher and many others.
None of this is new even to the casual observer. Over the years, Zenawi has been using his KKK to railroad into prison independent journalists, opposition leaders and dissidents. So say the U.S. Government and various international human rights organizations using diplomatic language. The 2010 U.S. State Department Country Reports on Human Rights Practices on Ethiopia concluded: “The law provides for an independent judiciary. Although the civil courts operated with a large degree of independence, the criminal courts remained weak, overburdened, and subject to significant political intervention and influence.” Human Rights Watch concluded in its 2007 report: “In high-profile cases, [Ethiopian] courts show little independence or concern for defendants’ procedural rights… The judiciary often acts only after unreasonably long delays, sometimes because of the courts’ workloads, more often because of excessive judicial deference to bad faith prosecution requests for time to search for evidence of a crime.”
Condemnation of the KKK Verdicts
There has been an outpuring of condemnation against the KKK verdicts and demands for the immediate release of the “convicted” journalists and others from various soruces. The Committee to Protect Journalists issued a statement asserting that “The Ethiopian government has once again succeeded in misusing the law to silence critical and independent reporting. Ethiopia will not hesitate to punish a probing press by imprisoning journalists or pushing them into exile.” Human Rights Watch expressed dismay: “This case shows that Ethiopia’s government will not tolerate even the mildest criticism. The use of draconian laws and trumped-up charges to crack down on free speech and peaceful dissent makes a mockery of the rule of law.” Amnesty International condemned the “trumped up” charges and declared: “This is a dark day for justice in Ethiopia, where freedom of expression is being systematically destroyed by a government targeting any dissenting voice. The verdict seemed to be a foregone conclusion.”
U.S. ambassador to Ethiopia, Donald Booth said, “I find the convictions of predominantly journalists and politicians raises questions about the compatibility of the anti-terrorism law with constitutional guarantees for freedom of expression.” According to the Embassy’s posted statement: “The arrest of journalists has a chilling effect on the media and on the right to freedom of expression. We have made clear in our ongoing human rights dialogue with the Ethiopian government that freedom of expression and freedom of the media are fundamental elements of a democratic society. A U.S. State Department spokesman explained that even though the U.S. works with the regime in Ethiopia “on certain things, you can be straight with them when you disagree with their policies in other areas, as we always are with Ethiopia with regard to press freedom.”
U.S. Senator Patrick Leahy, who two weeks ago in his statement in the Congressional Record, noted that the ruling regime in Ethiopia has made it impossible for “journalists like Eskinder Nega to do their work of reporting and peaceful political participation”, issued a strongly worded press release condemning the travesty of justice:
The Ethiopian Government’s use of vague anti-terrorism laws to silence the press has been widely and rightly condemned. The conviction of Eskinder Nega and other journalists, who are accused of nothing more than the peaceful exercise of rights clearly recognized under international law, is the work of a regime that fears the democratic aspirations of its own people. Over the years, United States administrations have provided Prime Minister Meles a veneer of legitimacy due to our shared interest in countering real terrorist threats, but he has exploited the relationship for his own political ends. It is time to put the values and principles that distinguish us from terrorists, above aid to a government that misuses its institutions to silence its critics.
Eskinder and Andualem, Invictius!
Unlike Kafka’s Joseph K. who met his end helplessly bleating out the words, “like a dog”, Eskinder and Andualem returned to their prison cells like two roaring lions sauntering to their cages. (I say, one caged lion commands more respect than a thousand free hyenas.) They knew long ago that their “conviction” was inevitable and a foregone conclusion. No journalist, dissident or opposition party leaders has ever been found not guilty by Zenawi’s KKK. Eskinder Nega, a man whose name is synonymous with the word dignity and the irrepressible symbol of press freedom not only in Ethiopia but throughout the world, had a few words of wisdom to share with the unprincipled hacks in robes: “I have struggled for peaceful democracy, and I have never disrespected any individual and I didn’t commit a crime. My conscience is clear.” The hacks tried to silence him, but as always Eskinder spoke truth to power: “You have to stand for justice, you have to allow us to say what we want… you have no right to limit our freedom of speech.”
Recently, a who’s who of world-renowned journalists who have themselves suffered at the hands of dictatorships came together to express their “extremely strong condemnation of the Ethiopian government’s decision to jail journalist Eskinder Nega on terrorism charges” and demanded his immediate release. This past April, I struggled to find the right words to honor my personal hero:
Eskinder is a hero of a special kind. He is a 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.
It is a crying shame that Eskinder, who is a hero to so many heroes of press freedom throughout the world, should be judged by an unholy trinity of benighted, scheming and pusillanimous judicial puppets.
Andualem Aragie, the dynamic and courageous young opposition leader was defiant and unbowed:
The last six months that we have spent are days when the people of Ethiopia have struggled for their human dignity and human rights. But the people have not been fortunate enough to enjoy their democratic rights. In my generation, I have tried to struggle to the best of my ability for my children and for all the people of Ethiopia. In doing so, I did not start with malice [or ill will]. In doing so, I did not commit a crime. In doing so, I did not aim to undermine the interests of my poor country. In what I have done, I do not believe I have offended my Creator, the people of Ethiopia or my own conscience. I am in total peace. Why I am standing here is because of my yearning for freedom. This is not the first time that I have sought justice in Ethiopian courts and been denied jusitce. I will not ask for mercy [from this court] for I have committed no crime. I will graciously drink from the cup of oppression my persecutors have prepared for me for my conscience will not allow me to do anything else.
Why Does Zenawi Persecute and Prosecute the Free Press and Dissidents?
Why does Zenawi go through hell and high water to crush the few struggling independent newspapers, dissidents and opposition leaders in the country? Why does he shutter newspapers that have a circulation of just a few thousand copies when he owns ALL of the printing presses and radio and television media in the country? What is he afraid of?
The answer is simple: The Truth! Zenawi can’t handle the truth. He hates the independent press because it reflects the corruption, repression and oppression of his regime. He fears criticism and genuine expression of public opinion because he does not want to see his reflection in the true mirror of the peoples’ eyes. He much prefers to wallow in his own delusional, imaginary and virtual image of the “Great Leader of the Renaissance” reflected in the glazed and bulging eyes of his Yes-men. But as the recent history of the “Arab Spring” has shown, dictatorships are like castles built of sand which dissolve and are washed away when struck by a single sweep of the ocean’s wave. Regardless of how long dictators keep cracking down on the free press and terrorize the people, in the end they are always swept and vacuumed into the dustbin of history by the tornadic force of the people’s fury. Think of it, always!
The War on the Free Press Will Continue…
Zenawi’s war on the free press will continue because his war is on truth itself. The war has now been declared on Feteh, the only remaining independent weekly newspaper in Ethiopia. In an amateurish dirty trick, the regime’s security department circulated a fake email message linking Temesgen Desalegn, the Editor-in-chief of Feteh, with al-Shabaab, the Somali terrorist group. The pathetically fabricated email supposedly sent by an al-Shebaab operative to Temesgen and intercepted by security officials claims:
It has to be remembered that AlShebab has assigned me secretly to make propagation activities in Ethiopia, Somaliland, Kenya and Uganda. To accomplish the task we have agreed with you through your representative Ato Mamush Sentie in Eritrea to publish propaganda articles against the Ethiopian government, against the interest of the Ethiopian people and the American government…”
Give us a break!
But we have seen it all before. Zenawi’s MO goes through three stages. First, he demonizes his adversaries. Then he criminalizes them. In the third stage, he dehumanizes them.That is how he did it to Eskinder Nega, Andualem Aragie, Dawit Kebede and so many others.
Temesgen and Feteh are now undergoing the demonization stage. In a few weeks or less, a full scale campaign will be waged against them in the regime owned media. They will be called “terrorists”, “insurrectionists”, “agitators”, “foreign agents” “spies” and whatever else the dirty tricks department can manage to fabricate. There will be frenzied “calls” to the regime from “ordinary citizens” to take action against them.
The criminalization stage will begin in a couple of months or less with a videotaped arrest of Temesgen and possibly other Feteh members in the street in much the same way as they did Eskinder Nega and Andualem Aragie. (Someone must really enjoy watching the videotape of those arrests.Eskinder’s official captors videotaped the whole arrest and laughed boisterously as Eskinder’s traumatized six year old child cried his eyes out for his daddy.)
Then, the dehumanization stage takes place in jail as they await “trial” in the KKK — torture and beatings, denial of medical care, denial of family visits, daily insults, humiliation and degradation, solitary confinement and on and on. In the end, there will be a show KKK trial for Temesgen Desalegn et al with ambassadors, representatives of international organizations and family members sitting in the gallery. The verdict and sentnece will be the same as always: Guilty, guilty, guilty… 15 years at hard labor… 20 years at hard labor… life in prison…
It is all so pathetically predictable.
Losing the Battle, Winning the War
This is the unfinished story of the war on the independent free press in Ethiopia, and the victors and the victims in that war. The final struggle between the dictators who wield swords and the journalists who wield pens, pencils and computer keyboards will be decided in a war for the hearts and minds of the Ethiopian people. I have no doubts whatsoever that the outcome of that war is foreordained. In fact, I believe that war has already been won. For as Edward Bulwer-Lytton penned in his verse, in the war between swordholders and penholders, final victory always goes to the penholders:
‘True, This! – Beneath the rule of men entirely great, The pen is mightier than the sword. Behold The arch-enchanters wand! – itself a nothing! – But taking sorcery from the master-hand To paralyze the Caesars, and to strike The loud earth breathless! – Take away the sword – States can be saved without it!’
But if the paramount question is to save the Ethiopian state or to save Ethiopia’s free press, I would, as Thomas Jefferson said, save the latter: “The basis of our government being the opinion of the people, the very first object should be to keep that right; and were it left to me to decide whether we should have a government without newspapers or newspapers without a government, I should not hesitate a moment to prefer the latter.”
The Actions of Our Enemies, the Silence of Our Friends
Dr. Martin Luther King said, “We will remember not the words of our enemies, but the silence of our friends.” I would add that we will remember and forgive the words and actions of our enemies for they know not what they say and do; but the cowardice, indifference, apathy, disinterest and cold neutrality of our friends who know or should know better but stand in the face of evil with their heads bowed, eyes closed, ears plugged and lips muted, we can neither forgive nor forget!!!
I believe nothing is more important and uplifting to political prisoners than knowledge of the fact that they are not forgotten, abandoned and forsaken by their compatriots. We must stand with Eskinder Nega, Andualem Aragie, Reeyot Alemu, Woubshet Taye and the countless political prisoners in Ethiopia. Every day, they are beaten down and brought to their knees. We cannot hear their whimpers of pain and the silence of their desperation. Because they have no voice, we must be their voices and speak on their behalf. Because they are walled behind filthy prisons, we must unfailingly remind the world of their subhuman existence.
We must all labor for the cause of Ethiopian political prisoners not because it is easy or fashionable, but because it is ethical, honorable, right and just. In the end, what will make the difference for the future of Ethiopia is not the brutality, barbarity, bestiality and inhumanity of its corrupt dictators, but the humanity, dignity, adaptability, audacity, empathy and compassion of ordinary Ethiopians for their wrongfully imprisoned and long-suffering compatriots. That is why we must join hands and work tirelessly to free all political prisoners in Ethiopia.
FREE ALL POLITICAL PRISONERS IN ETHIOPIA!
FREE THE FREE PRESS IN ETHIOPIA!
Amharic translations of recent commentaries by the author may be found at:
Previous commentaries by the author are available at:
- Meles Zenawi: Ethiopia to Liberalize Telecom and Banking (ethioandinet.wordpress.com)
- Journalists: Ethiopia refining Internet censorship (kansascity.com)
- PEN American Center – Ethiopia: Eskinder Nega (faktensucher.wordpress.com)
- Journalists: Ethiopia refining Internet censorship (utsandiego.com)