By Alemayehu G. Mariam* | 26 April 2010
“Four hostile newspapers are more to be feared than a thousand bayonets,” fretted Napoleon Bonaparte, Emperor of France, as he summed up the informative powers of an independent press. All dictators and tyrants in history have feared the enlightening powers of the independent press because, 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 was Napoleon’s greatest fears of a free press. He understood the power of the press to effectively countercheck his tyrannical rule, and he used censorship relentlessly to muzzle it. He harassed, jailed and persecuted journalists for criticizing his use of a vast network of spies that penetrated every nook and cranny of French society, exposing his military failures, condemning his indiscriminate massacres of unarmed citizen protesters in the streets and for killing, jailing and persecuting large numbers of his political opponents. Total control of the media remains the wicked obsession of modern day dictators who believe that by controlling the flow of information, they can control the hearts and minds of their citizens.
The importance of an independent free press (media) in any society, including Ethiopia1, can hardly be overstated. Thomas Jefferson, one of the chief architects of the American Republic was unrestrained in extolling the virtues of a free press: “The basis of our governments 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. Jefferson became singularly instrumental in the inclusion of a Bill of Rights in the U.S. Constitution which provided for sweeping and uncompromising protections of expressive freedoms: “Congress shall make no law… abridging the freedom of the press.” The free press is so vital to American democracy that the government is absolutely prohibited (“no law”) from passing laws that censor, regulate, restrict or suppress its functions and operations.
Press freedom, along with other expressive freedoms, is now a core value of all humanity. The U.N. General Assembly in its very first session in 1946 adopted resolution 59 (I) which declared: “Freedom of information is a fundamental human right and … the touchstone of all the freedoms to which the United Nations is consecrated.” In 1948, freedom of the press became a core human right principle when the U.N. enshrined it in 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 impart information and ideas through any media regardless of frontiers.” This universal right is today acknowledged robustly and expansively in Article 29 of the Ethiopian Constitution:
In the past few years, Ethiopia has been ranked at the bottom of the list of nations with the worst records on press freedom. In the 2009 Freedom House’s “Press Freedom Rankings”, Ethiopia came in at a dismal 165/195 countries. Reporters Without Borders ranked Ethiopia at 140/175 countries in 2009. The Committee to Protect Journalists on May 2, 2007 ranked Ethiopia as number 1 among the “top 10 backslider” countries “worldwide where press freedom has deteriorated the most over the last five years.” When Zenawi ordered the jamming of Voice of America (VOA) broadcasts recently, the International Federation of Journalists (world’s largest organization of journalists) on April 1, 2010 vehemently denounced his actions: “We condemn jamming of broadcasts. It is unprofessional, intolerant and flies in the face of promises that the Ethiopian Government is committed to press freedom.”
The recent history of the independent press in Ethiopia is a chronicle of brutal crackdowns, arbitrary imprisonments and harassments of local and international journalists, shuttering of newspapers and jamming of external radio transmissions. Meles Zenawi’s regime declared an open war on the independent press in Ethiopia in November 2005, following parliamentary elections in May of that year. He concocted a bizarre set of excuses and justifications to decimate the country’s small but growing independent press. He publicly alleged that the editors and reporters of the independent newspapers were engaged in a conspiracy with the opposition parties to overthrow the “constitutional order.” He claimed they had incited violence and spread information that led to violence and genocidal acts. Zenawi told the Committee to Protect Journalists that “They [independent press] went beyond their normal bias and went for the jugular. They became part and parcel of the day-to-day preparation for the insurrection after the elections.” But he has failed to produce a shred — a single speck — of evidence to link the occurrence of a single piece of any published material in the independent press to the occurrence of any violence or illegal acts in 2005 or at any other time.
Today Zenawi uses the same unhinged logic and the same old stale, discredited and patently absurd argument to justify jamming the VOA:
As usual, he has been unable to give a single example of a VOA broadcast that even faintly resembles the “worst practices” of the genocide-promoting radio station in Rwanda. The best he has been able to do is point to a dubious catalogue of complaints his regime has lodged with the VOA alleging overly critical reporting on his regime by the VOA’s Amharic service. Criticism of policies and leaders is a standard practice of an independent press in a democracy, but it must seem totally unnatural in dictatorships. Regardless of the irrefutable fact that there is not a single instance of independent press-caused violence or act of illegality, Zenawi’s regime for the past 5 years has used bogus and absurd justifications to jail, harass and intimidate Ethiopian and foreign journalists and close the vast majority of the independent newspapers in the country.
Why is freedom of the press so important that it has become one of the universal benchmarks of a free society?
Few have given a more definitive answer to this question than James Madison, the father of the American Constitution: “A popular government without popular information or the means of acquiring it, is but a prologue to a farce or a tragedy or perhaps both. Knowledge will forever govern ignorance, and a people who mean to be their own governors, must arm themselves with the power knowledge gives.” A free and independent press serves as the eyes, ears and mouths of citizens in any society. It plays many important roles. As a watchdog, the independent press keeps those in power honest. Where there is a fully functioning free press, leaders no longer become untouchable gods sitting high on a pedestal to be worshipped, but ordinary men and women who are accountable to their citizens for their actions and omissions; and government institutions operate with transparency and openness. A well-functioning independent press will toil vigorously to expose the corruption, abuse of power, misuse and theft of taxpayer money and scandal among those exercising power and their supporting cast of invisible power brokers, influence peddlers and fixers.
When it informs, a free press educates citizens on public policies, choices and decisions. Citizens are informed on societal issues and problems, and are exposed to the range of competing potential solutions. An informed citizenry is better positioned to more effectively participate in public life and help shape its structure of governance and economic development. By informing, the free media becomes the lynchpin that connects citizens for collective action, and effective interaction with their leaders and institutions. Without free access to information and ideas, citizens are unable to participate meaningfully in the political life of their nation by exercising their right to vote or by taking part in shaping the process of public decision-making.
The free press is also plays a vital role in equitable and sustainable economic development as articulated by the former World Bank president James D. Wolfensohn:
A society without a robust free press is a society condemned to live in darkness. Hate, like mushrooms, thrives in the hearts of those who live in the dark; fear grips the minds of those trapped in the darkness of ignorance; anger becomes the light at the end of the tunnel of darkness; corruption, like cancer, spreads in the dark corners of state and abuse of power roils the people in the dark vortex of despair and hopelessness. Without a vigorous free press in Ethiopia today, it is darkness at noon!
The functions of the independent press must be viewed in a broader context, and not only as a source of negative criticism. Leaders benefit from heeding the independent press and correcting their mistakes when it is pointed out to them. They can use the press to communicate with the people they govern and become more accountable, transparent and responsive to their citizens. Governance is not a private affair. When kings ruled by divine right, they claimed to be accountable only to divine authority. Thankfully, those days are long gone. At the dawn of the 21st Century, those who lead and govern must accountable to the people; but a citizenry intentionally kept ignorant does not have the means to demand accountability. That is why an independent media is a vital civic organ in society. President John Kennedy captured the essential role of a vigorous press when he said that the media’s role is not just to entertain but more importantly “to inform, to arouse, to reflect, to state our dangers and our opportunities, to indicate our crises and our choices, to lead, mold educate and sometimes even anger public opinion.”
An independent free press is not the enemy of good government. It is its strongest ally. It is through the press that leaders keep their fingers on the pulse of the people – learn about what ails them, angers them, pleases them, confuses and concerns them. When rumors and falsehoods spread and unfair criticisms are leveled, leaders have the opportunity to answer their critics and challenge them using the independent media itself. A government that persecutes the independent press and remains willfully ignorant of what its citizens think and feel, and refuses to acknowledge and redress their grievances is like the proverbial ostrich that buries its head in the sand while a rumbling volcano cascades behind it. An independent press is ultimately a mirror for leaders and governments; sometimes the face in the mirror is the face of a monster. Breaking the mirror does not make the monster an angel.
The right of the Ethiopian people to receive and give information regardless of frontiers is their inalienable right to have the information they need to make informed decisions about their form of government, leaders and lives. Journalists can not be made criminals because they speak truth to power, reveal the truth about those who wield power or because those in power abhor the truth. Civil and criminal defamation laws can not be excuses to censor criticism and debate concerning public issues.
For any one who truly believes in the rule of law, it is impossible to understand how any leader or government could possibly fear public scrutiny and criticism in the press. A real leader is willing, able and ready to stand up and defend his/her policies, action and omissions in full public view. A real leader understands that criticism is a natural part of political and public life. The chief of state like the chef must get out of the “state kitchen” if he can not stand the heat.
Freedom of the press and media in general in Ethiopia is not about protecting the rights of newspapers, editors, journalists, reporters or foreign correspondents and radio broadcasters. It is fundamentally about the constitutional and internationally-guaranteed legal rights of every Ethiopian citizen “to seek, receive and impart information and ideas of all kinds, regardless of frontiers and without interference, either orally, in writing or in print, in the form of art, or through other media of his choice and without censorship in any form.” It is emphatically the duty of every Ethiopian who believes in the rule of law and freedom of expression to help deliver “information and ideas of all kinds” to Ethiopians “regardless of frontiers.” Let us all as Ethiopians join hands and resolve in our hearts and minds to become a thousand points of light shining brightly like the stars on the curtain of darkness that has enveloped Ethiopia today.
* Alemayehu G. Mariam, is a professor of political science at California State University, San Bernardino, and an attorney based in Los Angeles. He writes a regular blog on The Huffington Post, and his commentaries appear regularly on pambazuka.org, allafrica.com, newamericamedia.org and other sites.