By Alemayehu G. Mariam* | 18 October 2010
Ethiopian Citizens Have the Absolute Constitutional Right to Listen to the VOA
So many lessons to learn from Columbia University! When dictator-in-chief Meles Zenawi spoke unceremoniously at Columbia on September 22, he was talking trash about the Voice of America (VOA). He said he decided to jam VOA broadcasts in Ethiopia “by taking a page from U.S. policy”1. He wildly alleged that an evil cabal of supporters of the defunct Ethiopian military regime disguised as journalists had taken control of VOA’s Amharic service.
Now, I don’t know if you know this but VOA Voice of America is not allowed to broadcast to the U.S. by law. It is not allowed to broadcast to the U.S. by law. It is allowed to broadcast to other countries, but not to the U.S. because it is supposed to reflect the policy of the government in power of the day. Now, VOA Amharic service happens to be dominated by people associated with the previous regime who tend to have a particularly jaundiced view of events in Ethiopia for understandable reasons. We took a page from the policy of the United States and said VOA is not welcome to Ethiopia either.
This past March, Zenawi made the downright wacky allegation that the VOA’s Amharic service staff had been engaged in plotting genocide in Ethiopia for “many years”:
We have been convinced for many years that in many respects, the VOA Amharic Service has copied the worst practices of radio stations such as Radio Mille Collines of Rwanda in its wanton disregard of minimum ethics of journalism and engaging in destabilizing propaganda.
When the Voice of America’s Amharic Service interviewed me on October 1, 2010 to comment on Zenawi’s legal and policy justifications for jamming the VOA by taking a “page from the policy of the United States,” I told them it was a no brainer: “U.S. policy and laws are completely irrelevant to the exercise of expressive freedoms in Ethiopia. Ethiopian citizens have the absolute constitutional right to receive broadcasts of the VOA or “any other media of their choice.” Zenawi has no legal power or authority of any kind to prevent Ethiopian citizens from listening to VOA broadcasts.
The indisputable fact of the matter is that the right of Ethiopian citizens to listen to the VOA or “any other media of their choice” or to seek information from any source does not depend on U.S. policy or the permission of Zenawi. Their right is founded solely and exclusively on the sweeping constitutional guarantees they enjoy under Articles 29 and 13 of the Ethiopian Constitution. The language of these two articles is simple, plain, straightforward, unambiguous and requires no interpretation. Article 29 (reproduced also in the official Amharic text below2) states:
2. Everyone shall have the right to freedom of expression without interference. This right shall include freedom to seek, receive and impart information and ideas of all kinds, regardless of frontiers the official Amharic version reproduced below literally translates the word “frontier” to “without limits to information originating within the country or outside of the country”, either orally, in writing or in print, in the form of art, or through other media of his choice.
3. … Press freedom shall, in particular, include the rights enumerated hereunder: a) that censorship in any form is prohibited. b) the opportunity to have access to information of interest to the public.
In fact, the text of Article 29 (2) is taken almost verbatim from Article 19 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights which provides:
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.
Article 13 bolsters Article 29 by tying the interpretation of all “democratic constitutional rights” enjoyed by Ethiopian citizens to international human rights treaties and conventions to which Ethiopia is a signatory, and explicitly mentions the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR), which Ethiopia adopted as one of the original 48 members who voted for it in the U.N. General Assembly in September 1948. Article 13 (Scope and Interpretation) provides:
1. The provisions of this Chapter shall, at all levels, apply to the federal and state legislative, executive and judicial branches of government.
2. The fundamental rights and freedoms enumerated in this Chapter shall be interpreted in a manner consistent with the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, international human rights covenants and conventions ratified by Ethiopia.
All of the foregoing legal language can be reduced to four simple but irrefutable propositions:1) Ethiopian citizens have the absolute constitutional right to hear any radio broadcast “or media of their choice”. 2) Ethiopian citizens have the absolute right to hear any radio broadcast “or media of their choice” under international human rights laws and conventions to which Ethiopia is a signatory. 3) No official or institution in Ethiopia has the legal power to prohibit, exclude or interfere with the delivery of radio broadcasts or information from any other media (including internet sources) because “censorship in any form is prohibited.” 4) Zenawi is in flagrant, brazen and egregious violation of the Ethiopian Constitution and international human rights laws and conventions by jamming of VOA broadcasts in Ethiopia.
Living on Planet Denial-stan?
When Mahmood Ahmadinejad came to Columbia University in 2007 to speak, its president Lee Bollinger, rhetorically wondered why Ahmadinejad would deny the occurrence of the Holocaust, and concluded by telling him: “You are either brazenly provocative or astonishingly uneducated.” One is tempted to offer the same conclusion to Zenawi for saying the United States Government “for many years” has operated a radio broadcast service that had promoted genocide in Ethiopia and seeking to justify his jamming of VOA broadcasts on the basis of a U.S. Government “policy” that does not exist.
It would be easy to dismiss Zenawi’s outrageous allegations against the VOA as mere polemical political theatre but for a consistent pattern of other equally outlandish allegations and assertions he has made over the years. When I wrote my piece “The Grammar of Dictators” in August, 2008, I was fascinated by dictators’ use of language to humanize their cruelties and civilize their barbarism; or as George Orwell put it, to use “political language to make lies sound truthful and murder respectable, and give an appearance of solidity to pure wind.”
The cumulative evidence of Zenawi’s double talk and preposterous allegations and assertions unmistakably point to the fact that his manifest perception of the facts is completely detached from reality. 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.” That same year he told Time Magazine that there is no famine in Ethiopia, only “pockets of severe malnutrition in some districts in the south and an emergency situation in the Somali region.” In September 2007, Zenawi said there is not a “shred of evidence” that significant human rights violations have occurred in the Ogaden region: “We are supposed to have burned villages in the Ogaden. I can tell you, not a single village, and as far as I know not a single hut has been burned. We have been accused of dislocating thousands of people from their villages and keeping them in camps. Nobody has come up with a shred of evidence.” In October 2006, Zenawi denied the existence of political prisoners in his prisons: “There are no political prisoners in Ethiopia at the moment. Those in prison are insurgents. So it is difficult to explain a situation of political prisoners, because there are none.” To make such statements, one must spend a great deal of time on Planet Denial-stan, where the operating principle is, “I think, therefore things exist or do not exist.”
Does Zenawi Really Believe the VOA is the VOI?
It boggles the mind to think that Zenawi actually believes the Voice of America is the Voice of Interhamwe, Rwanda. It is equally incredible why he would make such a statement without backing it up with solid evidence or even giving a single example of a genocidal broadcast of any kind made by the VOA anywhere, anytime. What is stunningly astonishing is the fact that these words rolled off the tongue of an individual lionized for his prodigal intellect and political astuteness. In 2005 at an award ceremony for Zenawi, the internationally renowned Prof. Jeffrey Sachs of Columbia University, the man sworn to ending global poverty by 2015, could barely contain his fawning eulogy of Zenawi’s sagacity and intellectual prowess: “You have distinguished yourself as a one of our World’s most brilliant leaders. I have often said that our many hours of discussion together are among the most scintillating that I have spent on the topics of economic development. I invariably leave our meetings enriched, informed, and encouraged about Ethiopia’s prospects.”
Is it possible that “one of our World’s most brilliant leaders” actually believes the VOA is America’s version of genocide Radio Mille Collines, Rwanda!?!?
I cannot be sure, but I would like to believe Zenawi is being “brazenly provocative” by making such an allegation. I should like to think that he is using a “shock and offend” strategy calculated to trigger the ire of the United States Government and ensnare it in an all-out war of words on a propaganda battlefield over which Zenawi has control of the commanding heights. In other words, if the U.S. could be provoked to respond angrily or defensively to the allegation, it could then be dragged into a mud fight worthy of the proverbial wrestling match with the pig. At the end of the match both combatants will be filthy and exhausted, but one gets the distinct feeling that the pig enjoyed the experience very much. But the U.S. did not take the bait and steered clear off the mud issuing a terse statement: “Comparing a respected and professional news service to a group that called for genocide in Rwanda is a baseless and inflammatory accusation that seeks only to deflect attention away from the core issue. The Ethiopian government may disagree with VOA news, but interfering with its broadcasts undermines the nation’s constitutional commitment to censorship and freedom of expression.”
Why the VOA is Not Allowed to Broadcast Within the U.S.
Zenawi said he jammed VOA broadcasts “by taking a page from U.S. policy.” He must be “astonishingly uneducated” or willfully ignorant of some simple facts about the American system of laws and government. Anyone who has marginal familiarity with the American legislative and judicial process would refrain from making such an inane and thoughtless statement. The VOA (with over 1,500 affiliates throughout the world), is part of a larger system of global information, educational and cultural service created by the U.S. Congress to conduct “public diplomacy or government-to-people dialogue.” In 1948, Congress passed the United States Information and Educational Exchange Act with the purpose of “promoting better understanding of the United States among the peoples of the world and to strengthen cooperative international relations.” By authorizing the creation of a global broadcast service, the U.S. sought to create good will and shape the thinking and attitudes of elites in countries receiving the broadcasts.
Over the years, the VOA has played a central part in the U.S. media strategy to win hearts and minds in the Cold War. One of its central missions today is to uphold U.S. foreign policy objectives by promoting democracy, peace, prosperity, human rights and other programs to new generations in countries receiving VOA broadcasts. As absurd as it sounds, the VOA does not and has never fostered genocide of any kind in any country. In fact, Congress prohibited domestic U.S. broadcasts by the VOA to make sure that it is not abused politically by any individual or groups, and to make sure that the kind of state media abuse seen historically in totalitarian and other communist countries did not happen in the U.S. Because of this concern, Congress authorized the creation of a bi-partisan board consisting of eight members nominated by the President of the United States and confirmed by the U.S. Senate, with the Secretary of State as an ex officio member, to oversee its operations. To believe that the President of the U.S. would nominate individuals who would allow or condone genocidal broadcasts to Ethiopia using VOA broadcasts is downright crazy!
The fact of the matter is that whether VOA broadcasts are available domestically is of no consequence. Americans have more than 10,000 radio stations, tens of thousands of newspapers and magazines and millions of websites to get and choose the information they want or need. If they so choose, they can get VOA broadcasts instantaneously online, over satellite dishes, cellular phones and various other modern communications technologies.
But Zenawi’s campaign of fear and smear against the VOA Amharic service professionals is downright unfair and contemptible. If Zenawi has evidence, a molecule of evidence, to prove that these professionals are “people associated with” the defunct military Derg or part of a silent conspiracy with anyone else to promote genocide or anarchy in Ethiopia, he should produce it; and they will surely be held to account before the VOA administration and the law. If Zenawi has proof that their reporting is inaccurate, unfair, unethical or malicious, he should produce that evidence as well. Of course, he cannot produce a speck of evidence to back up any of his claims.
The reality is different. We could all criticize VOA’s Amharic service for whatever we choose, but we would be hard pressed to back up our criticism with substantial evidence of lack of accuracy, objectivity or fairness. Suffice it to say, how many hundreds of times over the years have we heard Amharic service VOA reporters announcing to their listeners: “We tried numerous times to get official comment from the Ethiopian Government but we were unable to do so because… the government official backed out at last minute… declined to comment… was not available for an interview at the appointed time… or…We will keep trying to get official comment from the Ethiopian Government.” That is what usually happens. The fact of the matter is that for whatever reason Zenawi has chosen not to make his people available to engage the VOA and challenge the Amharic service reporters on the air for all Ethiopians to hear.
Zenawi says the VOA operates in “wanton disregard of minimum ethics of journalism and engaging in destabilizing propaganda.” That is simply not true, and reflects his lack of knowledge of VOA’s strict legislative mandate. The VOA is a highly professional organization with journalistic integrity, and functions under close supervision of its presidentially-appointed board always guided by its clear legislative mandate set forth in its 1976 Charter which requires the VOA to 1) “serve as a consistently reliable and authoritative source of news by making sure news will be accurate, objective, and comprehensive; 2) “present a balanced and comprehensive projection of significant American thought and institutions ,and 3) ” present the policies of the United States clearly and effectively, and … responsible discussions and opinion on these policies.” If anyone at VOA promotes or attempts to promote genocide or “wantonly engages in destabilizing propaganda,” not only will such persons surely find themselves walking the streets without a job, they are guaranteed to do some serious jail time.
There are many things over which people could disagree. But there could be no disagreement over the fact that the sun always rises in the east, the law of gravity or the absolute constitutional right of Ethiopian citizens to listen to broadcasts of the VOA or any other “media of their choice.” Zenawi could learn a sound lesson from VOA’s founding motto: “The news may be good. The news may be bad. We shall tell you the truth.” If the VOA promotes genocide or broadcasts ‘destabilizing propaganda’, the Ethiopian people will be the first ones to vote with their fingers by turning their radio dials in a counterclockwise motion: Click!”
Mr. Zenawi: “Tear down the electronic wall you have built to keep VOA radio broadcasts and ESAT (Ethiopian Satellite Television) service out of Ethiopia! Let Ethiopians hear America’s voice, the Voice of America. Let the VOA tell the truth to the Ethiopian people who have a constitutional and international legal right to hear it and decide for themselves.”
RELEASE ALL POLITICAL PRISONERS IN ETHIOPIA.
* 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.