Who is afraid of the Ethiopian bloggers?

June 8, 2014

by Alemayehu G. Mariam*

Who is afraid of  Eskinder Nega, Reeyout Alemu, Woubshet Taye, Zone Nine bloggers…?Who is afraid of  Eskinder Nega, Reeyout Alemu, Woubshet Taye, Zone Nine bloggers…?

The “dean” of independent Ethiopian journalists and blogger extraordinaire, Eskinder Nega, is serving an 18 year sentence for blogging. The late Meles Zenawi personally ordered Eskinder’s arrest and even determined his sentence. Meles Zenawi feared and hated Eskinder Nega more than any other journalist in Ethiopia. Meles feared Eskinder for the same illogical reason elephants “fear” mice.

In a recent “open letter” from prison to his eight year-old son Nafkot, Eskinder wrote, “ I have reluctantly become an absent father because I ache for what the French in the late 18th Century expressed in three simple words: liberté, egalité, fraternité.” Eskinder is a blogger for liberty, equality and brotherhood. That is why he is my personal hero!

Reeyot Alemu, the 34 year-old undisputed Ethiopian heroine of press freedom, was also jailed by Meles Zenawi for 14 years. She has been internationally recognized as  “Ethiopia’s Jailed Truth Teller.”  Reeyot was jailed for writing a  “scathing critique of the ruling political party’s fundraising methods for a national dam project, and drew “parallels between the late Libyan despot Muammar Gaddafi and Meles Zenawi.” Reeyot refused to be gagged and muzzled even in prison and courageously kept on speaking truth to the abusers of  power. “I believe that I must contribute something to bring a better future [in Ethiopia]. Since there are a lot of injustices and oppressions in Ethiopia, I must reveal and oppose them in my articles… I knew that I would pay the price for my courage and I was ready to accept that price,” said Reeyot in her moving handwritten letter smuggled out of prison.  The regime has denied Reeyot basic medical care to punish her for unyielding defiance.  According to the London-based Media Legal Defence Initiative reported in Al Jazeera, Reeyot “has received severely inadequate treatment for the fibroadenoma she was diagnosed with. She has had surgery without anaesthesia, has been left with surgical stitches in her breast for over a year and never received proper aftercare.” She is my personal heroine!

The indomitable journalist and editor Woubshet Taye has also been silenced and languishes in a hell-hole called Zwai (“Zenawi”) prison. He is sentenced to 14 years. Woubshet would not back down from using his newspaper as a watchdog on the regime’s corruption and abuses of power. Woubshet has also been denied medical care for a severe kidney condition. Denial of medical care (a crime against humanity) is a routine punishment imposed on prisoners of conscience in Ethiopia. Woubshet’s five year-old son Fiteh (meaning “justice”) keeps asking, “When I grow up will I go to jail like my dad?”  Fiteh is too young to realize that he is already in an open air prison now.

A few weeks ago, Ethiopia’s “Zone Nine Bloggers” (named after a prison block  holding political prisoners at  the infamous “Meles Zenawi Kality Prison” a few kilometers outside of the capital) and other journalists including Atnaf Berahane, Zelalem Kibret, Befeqadu Hailu, Abel Wabela, Mahlet Fantahun, Natnael Feleke, Asmamaw Hailegeorgis, Tesfalem Waldyes and Edom Kassaye were arrested and detained on unknown charges. The “police” are trying to figure out what charges to bring against them. (Ethiopia is the ONLY country in the world where the police arrest and detain a suspect and then go out looking for evidence of wrongdoing!!! The “courts” deny bail to detainees and grant endless continuances and delays to “prosecutors” to enable them to fabricate evidence. That’s one of the reasons I call them “kangaroo courts”.) The real crime of the “Zone 9ers” is  “advocating freedom of expression and what they call Dreaming of a Better Ethiopia.” A recent scheduled “court” hearing for the “Zone 9ers” was closed to the public and diplomatic observers.

Why they are afraid of  Eskinder Nega, Reeyout Alemu, Woubshet Taye, Zone Nine bloggers… ?

“Four hostile newspapers are more to be feared than a thousand bayonets,” fretted Napoleon Bonaparte, dictator of France, as he declared war on that country’s independent press. For the regime in Ethiopia, the pens and computer keyboards of a handful of independent journalists and bloggers are more to be feared than ten thousand bayonets mounted on AK-47s.  All dictators and tyrants in history have feared the enlightening powers of the independent press. The benighted dictators in Ethiopia fear the enlightening powers of an independent press more than the firepower of several fully equipped infantry divisions.

Total control of the media and suppression of independent journalists remains the wicked obsession of the regime. They believe that by controlling the flow of information, they can control the hearts and minds of the people. They believe they can fabricate truth out of falsehood by controlling the media. By crushing the independent press, they believe they can fool all of the people all of the time. But they know deep down in their stone cold hearts that “truth will not forever remain on the scaffold, nor wrong remain forever on the throne.” They live each day in the land of living lies fearful of losing their throne.

The benighted dictators in Ethiopia today confront a reality Napoleon confronted long ago. “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 fear 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. The press exposed his military failures, condemned his indiscriminate massacres of unarmed protesters in the streets and  for jailing, persecuting and killing his political opponents. Ethiopia’s dictators now face Napoleon’s nightmare and are jailing and persecuting young bloggers and independent journalists. They spend sleepless nights in cold sweat afraid of the truth!

The E bloggers and journalists are special Ethiopian heroes and heroines. They are truth-tellers and -warriors. They fight tyranny with their pens and computer keyboards. Their ammunition are truth, words, ideas, facts and opinions. They slay falsehoods with the sword of truth. They chase bad ideas with good ones and advocate replacing old ideas with new ones. They fight the people’s despair with words of hope. They teach the people that fear is overcome with acts of courage. They fight ignorance and powerful ignoramuses with knowledge and reason. They stand up to arrogance and hubris with defiant humility. They seek to transform intolerance with forbearance; resist oppression with perseverance and defeat doubt with faith. They fight with their pens and keyboards on the battleground that is the hearts and minds of the Ethiopian people.

Living on Planet denial-istan, lies and fear

The regime in Ethiopia lives on a planet of its own where lies are truth, the truth is mangled daily and the con artists live in fear. The regime has upended the Cartesian principle. “We think, therefore things exist or do not exist.” The demigod of the regime, the late Meles Zenawi, was a master of denial. He always 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.” He denied the occurence of famine and starvation during his overlordship; he said there were only  pockets of severe malnutrition in some districts in the south and an emergency situation in the Somali region.” He denied any violations of human rights. “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.” The fact that the American Association for the Advancement of Science confirmed the burning of Ogadeni villages with satellite images meant nothing on Planet Zenawi. Meles declared with a straight face that his press law which has resulted in the imprisonment and exile of dozens of  Ethiopia’s topindependent journalists and bloggersa  is “on par with the best [press laws] in the world.” Following the 2010 “election”, Meles said his party won the 2010 “election” by 99.6 percent because the people love his party. Meles was an Orwellian archetype. He used “political language to make lies sound truthful and murder respectable, and give an appearance of solidity to pure wind.”

There are certain undeniable truths about those running the regime in Ethiopia today. They all live in FEAR. They live in FEAR of the TRUTH.  They fear the power of the free press as the exposer of the truth. They fear the press as much as their one-time ideological master V.I. Lenin: “Why should freedom of speech and freedom of the press be allowed? Why should a government which is doing what it believes to be right allow itself to be criticized? It would not allow opposition by lethal weapons. Ideas are much more fatal things than guns. Why should any man be allowed to buy a printing press and disseminate pernicious opinion calculated to embarrass the government?”

They fear the TRUTH because they know the TRUTH makes the people free. They fear FREEDOM because they fear new IDEAS. They fear new ideas because they fear CHANGE. A free people armed with the truth, animated with ideas of freedom is free to change its form of government at will.

What is the truth about the regime in Ethiopia? The truth is that they are  criminals against humanity; they have no legitimacy; they cling to power by force of arms; they steal elections; they are corrupt to the core; they abuse and misuse their power;  they flout the rule of law and they are outlaws who rule by the law of the jungle.  The truth is they are total frauds practicing bushcraft as statecraft. The truth is that they are thugtators who operate Africa’s most ruthless thugtatorship.

They fear independent journalists and bloggers because these journalists and bloggers expose the truth about their crimes and corruption, failed policies, incompetence and ignorance. They fear the independent journalists and bloggers as much as the demons who possess their victims fear exorcists and holy water. They have done everything in their power to keep the truth from the people for whom the truth is manifest. They have jammed satellite transmissions, clamped down on internet access, shuttered newspapers and jailed journalists. Just last week, Arabsat informed the International Communication Union and the Arab League that Ethiopia is jamming its transmissions and vowed to take “all appropriate actions to prosecute the culprit” and recover compensation for “any damage already incurred or to be incurred as a result of the jamming.”  The regime is today harassing, threatening and arresting newspaper peddlers on the streets who sell copies of the few newspapers mildly critical of the regime.

The truth is that the Chinese are the invisible hands behind the suppression of free expression in Ethiopia. They provide not only the electronic jamming technology to the regime but also the telecommunication  infrastructure used for mobile and internet services. They are the one stop shop for the whole kit and caboodle used to suppress and constrict the free flow of information into and out of Ethiopia. Two years ago almost to the day, former U.S. Secretary of State Hilary Clinton visiting Zambia said of China in Africa, “We saw that during colonial times, it is easy to come in, take out natural resources, pay off leaders and leave. And when you leave, you don’t leave much behind for the people who are there. We don’t want to see a new colonialism in Africa.” The truth is that the Chinese are not only staying and expanding their neocolonial hegemony in Ethiopia, they are principally responsible for the suppression of free expression by providing the regime technical support and equipment used in audio and video surveillance and electronic jamming.

They fear FREEDOM. What is freedom? The essence of all human freedom is the freedom from FEAR. In practical terms, freedom is not fearing to speak one’s mind; not fearing to write what one pleases; not fearing to believe or not believe in any idea, religion or philosophy; not fearing to come together with anyone one chooses. The ultimate freedom any human being can experience is to live in a society where those in power fear and respect the people who have given them power.

They fear IDEAS. “Ideas are much more fatal things than guns,” warned Lenin. Ideas power change in science, politics and all other areas of human endeavors. The world is not flat after all. But the dictators in Ethiopia are the new flat-earthers. They think they can rule like kings, czars and maharajahs without the consent (or stolen consent) of the people. They have few wholesome ideas and do not have the intellectual capacity to understand and appreciate new ones. But their minds are supreme diabolical workshops for destructive ideas that create ethnic division, perpetuate bigotry and hatred, incite strife, provoke conflict, spread and proliferate corruption, instigate disunity and animosity and arouse suspicion and distrust among the people. They are incapable of generating ideas that unite people, create ethnic harmony, forge national unity, build consensus, establish solidarity and inspire faith.

The centophobic (those who fear new ideas) dictators in Ethiopia pretend to be visionaries, men of new and grand ideas. They want the people and the world to believe they are forward looking, imaginative and creative dreamers and innovators; but one cannot dream living a nightmare of fear. They are clueless about what it takes to be visionary leaders: integrity, acceptance of personal responsibility, ability to inspire others, learning from mistakes and failures instead of repeating them mindlessly, saying “I am sorry” when they make mistakes, open mindedness, fairness and passion about doing the right thing. They are myopic “leaders” who are passionate about doing the wrong thing. They can clearly see the wads of stolen loot bulging their pockets but they are completely blind to the dire consequences of what they are doing now in the foreseeable future. A powerful idea — an idea whose time has come — is unstoppable. The yearning for freedom by the people of Ethiopia is unstoppable and once unleashed, it will sweep away everything in its path with tornadic force.

They fear CHANGE. What is change? Change is that eternal universal law which governs the processes of growth and decay in all things. The regime in Ethiopia fears change because they fear they will lose their dominant economic and political position in society. They will crush any attempt, including peaceful ones, to bring about change. They fail to understand that “Those who make peaceful revolution impossible will make violent revolution inevitable.”

Because of lack of political legitimacy and lack of state capacity, Ethiopia today is in a state of terminal political decay; it has become a failed state. For the past quarter century, the policy of ethnic division (“ethnic federalism”) has left Ethiopia with two options, despite the silly propaganda about the “developmental state” surging forward with  “double-digit growth.” Only their lies are growing with double and triple digits.

Ethiopia stands at the crossroads today. It may go forward as a nation united, or splinter into mini-“thugistans” carved out of the so-called “kilils” (Ethiopia’s version of apartheid-style bantustans). If Ethiopia becomes a collection of mini-thugistans, the biggest losers will be the regime in power, their cronies and supporters. Not only will they lose political power, they will lose all of the loot they have stolen and accumulated, at least inside the country. It is in the rational self-interest of those in power to work for peaceful change and for political regeneration and bring the people together as one nation. It is in their self-interest to harmonize relations with opposition groups and leaders and provide for political space. Change in Ethiopia may be like a train that arrives late. The winds of change that blew over Eastern Europe and the Middle East will certainly blow over Ethiopia too. The only question is whether those winds will be breezy or hurricane-force.

The TRUTH shall make you free if you are free but torments those who are not

It is written that the “truth shall make you free.” Free and fear are mutually exclusive. The sole purpose of the independent press and bloggers is to tell the truth as they see it. They are free to give their opinions of the truth without fear. But the people already know the truth. Despite the bold-faced lies that “Ethiopia is growing by double digits”, the people know the truth. They know they do not have enough to eat and millions starve every day; they do not have adequate water supply or electrical power; they receive little medical care; the young people are under-educated and unemployed;  the regime is corrupt and routinely commits crimes against humanity. The people know they live in an open-air prison.

The crime of the independent journalists and bloggers is disclosing to the people what they already know. Their crime is digging 24/7 at the mine of corruption and abuse, unearthing new evidence of crimes against humanity.  That is why the regime is are afraid of them. The regime wants the truth to remain buried and forgotten. The regime believes  that by suppressing the truth and jailing and silencing the truth-tellers, they could permanently silence and kill the truth. As George Orwell observed, “In a time of deceit telling the truth is a revolutionary act.” The E-bloggers are Ethiopia’s revolutionary vanguards today.

Weaponization of fear in the media

The regime has long decided to use its quintessential weakness into its forte. It has used fear as its preferred weapon of mass confusion, division, deception, demonization and distraction.  The regime has used the public media to conduct a relentless campaign of fear, smear and demonization. They have broadcast much-ballyhooed “documentaries” (“docutrash”) to paint all who oppose the regime as “terrorists”. In a revolting and scandalous docutrash entitled “Akeldama”, they depicted  Ethiopia as a country under withering terrorist attack by Ethiopian Diaspora opposition elements and their co-conspirators inside the country and other “terrorist” groups. “Akeldama” stitched revolting and gruesome video clips and photomontage of terrorist carnage and destruction throughout the world to tar and feather all opponents of the late Meles Zenawi as stooges of Al-Qaeda and Al-Shabaab in Somalia.

In another docutrash entitled  “Jihadawi Harakat”, they tried to stoke the fires of Islamophobia by spreading fear and loathing between Christians and Muslims. They thought they could scare Ethiopian Christians into believing that the same Muslims with whom they have coexisted peacefully for a millennia have been suddenly transformed into bloodthirsty “Islamic terrorists” secretly planning to wage a jihadist war to establish an Islamic government.

They have used Ethiophobia and ethnophobia  to spread fear and loathing among the people, and place themselves as the only salvation to an imaginary ethnic and sectarian strife and carnage. They have played one ethnic group against another. They have used ethnic cleansing in the name of “ethnic federalism”. They have resurrected historical grievances to stoke the fires of ethnic hatred. They have used their own fears as a weapon against the people.

The war on Ethiopian journalists and bloggers is a war on truth itself

The regime’s war on Ethiopia’s independent journalists and bloggers is a war on truth itself. The regime has been the victor in all of the battles and skirmishes over the last quarter of a century. But there will be a final decisive war  between the dictators who swing swords and brandish AK47s and the journalists and bloggers who wield pens and computer keyboards. That war will be waged in 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 sword holders and pen holders, final victory always goes to the pen holders:

‘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 regime in Ethiopia or to save Ethiopia’s independent press and bloggers, I would, as Thomas Jefferson chose,  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. But I should mean that every man should receive those papers & be capable of reading them.”

Were it left to me to decide whether we should have a regime without independent journalists and bloggers or independent journalists and bloggers without a regime, I should not hesitate a moment to prefer the latter. After all, I am a hard-core, proud-as-hell, dyed-in-the wool, rootin’-tootin’, foot stompin’, unapologetic, unabashed and unrelenting E-blogger!!!

Power to independent journalists and E-bloggers!

Professor Alemayehu G. Mariam teaches political science at California State University, San Bernardino and is a practicing defense lawyer.

Previous commentaries by the author are available at:

Amharic translations of recent commentaries by the author may be found at:

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