By Alemayehu G. Mariam
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!