Ethiopia in the Twilight Zone (9) of Fear

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Jul 21st, 2014
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By Alemayehu G Mariam
(Author’s note: In this commentary, I take a literary approach to reflect on the counter-productive and self-defeating actions the regime in Ethiopia has taken recently to punish its perceived opponents and critics. I am both amused and perplexed by the regime’s comedy of errors (bungling and incompetence) and tragedy of commons (scrapping the greater good for short-term selfish interests). Why did the regime jail a handful of twenty-something bloggers and a few mildly critical journalists on trumped up charges of “terrorism”? Why do they criminalize journalism? Why are they panic-stricken by the words, thoughts and ideas of a tiny group of bloggers and journalists when they have chokehold on the economy and a viselike grip on the military with its vast arsenal of guns, tanks and war planes? Why does the regime fear its own shadow?

Because of the regime’s ruthless suppression of press and expressive freedoms and jailing and exiling of hundreds of independent journalists, Ethiopia is no longer known as the “Land of 13 Months of Sunshine” but rather as the “Land of 13 Months of Darkness” on the Dark Continent. I wonder! Does that regime exist in a parallel universe, a self-contained political bubble and an echo chamber that is all its own? I have come to the conclusion that the blokes running the regime in Ethiopia are characters straight out of the twilight zone; better yet, trapped in the twilight zone (9) of fear.)

Is it the “Federal Republic of Ethiopia” or the “Republic of Dystopia” (police state)?

Has Ethiopia crossed into the Twilight Zone, the Fifth Dimension?

I ask these questions in earnest.

Ethiopia today might as well be called the “Republic of Dystopia”. Young men and women barely in their 20s are arrested and jailed for “terrorism” merely for blogging on Facebook and speaking their minds on other social media. Last week, the regime in Ethiopia charged six bloggers and three journalists (who have come to be affectionately known as “Zone 9 Bloggers”, named after a cell block holding political prisoners at the infamous Meles Zenawi Kality Prison just outside of the capital), with terrorism after illegally detaining them for some 80 days.

The bloggers include Abel Wabella (an engineer employed at Ethiopian Airlines), Atnaf Berhane (an Information Technology professional employed by Kefele Ketema), Mahlet Fantahun (a statistician working for the Ministry of Health), Natnael Feleke (an economist employed as a manager by the Construction and Business Bank; see picture with U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry below), Zelalem Kibret (a lecturer in law at Ambo University), and Befekadu Hailu (an Information Technology professional at St. Mary University College and later served as Editor-in-Chief for Enku Magazine). The other detainees include journalists Asmamaw Hailegeorgis (Addis Guday newspaper) and freelancers Tesfalem Waldyes (Addis Standard magazine) and Edom Kassaye (former Addis Zemen employee). (To listen to an illuminating interview of Ethiopian journalists and bloggers (including some of those mentioned above) posted by “Article 19”, a U.K.-based human rights group, click here.)

The gravamen of the terrorism charges is that the bloggers “working with foreign organizations claiming to be human rights activists acted to destabilize the nation” and “received funding to incite the public to violence via social media.”

(To review the official charging document in Amharic, click here. (Notice that the word “Ethiopia” in the printed official stationary letterhead of the charging document is misspelled as “Ethioia”. If they cannot get the spelling of the country right on the printed official charging letterhead, could they possibly get the charges against the bloggers right!? What a crying shame!!! )

The specific counts of “terrorism” allegations cover a wide range of activities including, among others, conspiracy to commit terrorism, incitement to subversion using communications (social) media, reporting on ESAT radio and television, serving as coordinators for Ginbot 7 to recruit members, receiving terrorist training to make explosives, developing strategy for terrorist forces and spreading OLF propaganda. The list of alleged evidence includes mainly digital documents seized on various electronic media possessed by the defendants.

The U.S. State Department issued a statement expressing “concern” over the charges levelled against the Zone 9 Bloggers and urged “Ethiopia to refrain from using anti-terrorism laws as a mechanism to curb the free exchange of ideas.” The Statement declared, “Freedom of expression and freedom of the press are fundamental elections of a democratic society. The arrest of journalists and bloggers, and their prosecution under terrorism laws, has a chilling effect on the media and all Ethiopians’ right to freedom of expression.” Human Rights Watch, the Committee to Protect Journalists and other human rights organizations also issued statements demanding the immediate release of the Zone 9 Bloggers.

In the Republic of Dystopia…

In the Republic of Dystopia, journalists are herded into prisons and jails for practicing their profession. Eskinder Nega who was recently awarded the 2014 Golden Pen of Freedom, the prestigious annual press freedom prize of the World Association of Newspapers and News Publishers (and winner of numerous other international press awards) is serving an 18-year sentence for blogging. Reeyot Alemu, the 34 year-old undisputed Ethiopian heroine of press freedom and internationally recognized as “Ethiopia’s Jailed Truth Teller” (and recipient of various international press awards) was sentenced to 14 years for writing a “scathing critique of the ruling political party’s fundraising methods for a national dam project” and for drawing “parallels between the late Libyan despot Muammar Gaddafi and Meles Zenawi.” Journalist Woubshet Taye, another international press award winner, is serving 14 years for using his newspaper as a watchdog on the regime’s corruption and abuses of power. There are many other journalists in the same situation.

In the Republic of Dystopia, criminalizing, demonizing and dehumanizing journalists, bloggers, opposition leaders and dissidents as “terrorists”, “insurrectionists”, “criminals”, etc. is an art form. When the late regime leader Meles Zenawi jailed editors of several newspapers following the 2005 election and declared war on the independent press, he stated, “For us, these are not just journalists. They will not be charged for violating the press laws. They will be charged, like the CUD leaders, for treason.” After jailing Swedish journalists Johan Persson and Martin Schibbye in 2011, he called them “messenger boys of a terrorist organization” and proclaimed that “if [what they were doing] is journalism, I don’t know what terrorism is.”

In the Republic of Dystopia, journalism is terrorism. Journalists are enemies of the State. Blogging is treason. Bloggers are enemies of the state.

In the Republic of Dystopia, an opposition leader with British citizenship is snatched from a plane in Yemen while in transit, subjected to extraordinary rendition and jailed without due process of law in flagrant violation of international law.

In the Republic of Dystopia, humans are dehumanized, civilization is barbarized, justice corrupted, ethnic cleansing practiced, people impoverished and hungry, the youth gagged, bound and canned, the environment destroyed, dams used to damn indigenous peoples and society on the brink of cataclysmic destruction.

In the Republic of Dystopia, poverty is prosperity; famine is feast; government wrongs are human rights; repression is expression and thugocracy is democracy.

In the Republic of Dystopia, ignorance is illuminance. The purpose of the State is to twist, stretch and massage the truth to keep the people ignorant, dumb and mindlessly compliant.

In the Republic of Dystopia, thugs rule! Fear of thugs is the rule of law!

In the Twilight Zone (9) of Fear

In the 1960s pioneering television anthology series “The Twilight Zone”, the incomparable Rod Serling presented stories containing drama of horror, suspense and mind-bending science fiction with fiendish twists and turns. In one episode, “The Obsolete Man”, a librarian is prosecuted by the Chancellor of the State who pompously argues before the judicial “Board” that the accused librarian should be given the death penalty for being “obsolete”. At “trial”, the Chancellor and the librarian engage in a vigorous argument over human dignity:

Chancellor (to librarian): “You are obsolete!

Librarian: I am nothing more than a reminder to you that you cannot destroy truth by burning pages!

Chancellor: You’re a bug. A crawling insect. An ugly, misformed, little creature, that has no purpose here, no meaning! You have no function…”

Librarian: “I am a human being…”

Chancellor: “You’re a dealer in books and two cent finds and pamphlets in closed stacks in the musty finds of a language factory that spews meaningless words on an assembly line. Words that have no substance, no dimension, like air, like the wind. Like a vacuum, that you make believe have an existence, by scribbling index numbers on little cards.”

Librarian: “I don’t care. I tell you: I don’t care. I’m a human being, I exist….and if I speak one thought aloud, that thought lives, even after I’m shoveled into my grave.

Chancellor: DELUSIONS!! That you inject into your veins with printer’s ink, the narcotics you call literature: The Bible, poetry, essays, all kinds, all of it are opiate to make you think you have a strength, when you have no strength at all!!! You are nothing, but spindly limbs and a dream, and The State has no use for your kind!!!! You waste our time, and you’re not worth the waste.

The Board imposes the death penalty.

The librarian courageously accepts his fate. Instead of begging for mercy, he resolves to stand up to the mighty State and assert his basic human dignity and liberty. He makes two special requests: 1) to be allowed to select his executioner to whom he will disclose his preferred method of death, and 2) that his execution and last few hours on earth be publicly televised. After arrangements are made, the librarian invites the prosecuting Chancellor to come to his room for the last time. The Chancellor shows up a few minutes before the appointed time for the execution. They chat for a few minutes:

Librarian: Thank you for coming.
Chancellor: You know why I’ve come, do you?
Librarian: Well, I invited you.
Chancellor: I’ll tell you why I came here. Perhaps to prove something to you.
Librarian: And that is…?
Chancellor: To prove to you that The State has no fears, none whatsoever…
Librarian: Forgive me Chancellor, that has the elements of a joke….I mean you come to MY room to prove that The State…isn’t afraid of me!? Why what an incredible burden I must be! For The State to have to prove that isn’t afraid of an obsolete librarian like myself. No, I’ll tell you the reason you came…I tell you the reason even though you won’t admit it to yourself.
Chancellor: Now, it’s my turn to ask, what might that be?
Librarian: I don’t fit your formuli. Your state has everything categorized…indexed, TAGGED. People like you are the strength, people like me are the weakness. You control order and dictate and my kind…merely follow and obey. But something has gone wrong hasn’t it? I don’t fit, do I?

The librarian tells the Chancellor that he wants to show the nation how a man of dignity faces death and begins to read verses from Psalms 23 and 53. On television, the people watch the librarian and Chancellor arguing. As the appointed time draws near, the Chancellor tries to leave the room but finds out that the door is locked.

Just before the clock strikes midnight, the Chancellor goes into total panic. The librarian remains calm and unafraid. The Chancellor begs the librarian to let him go: “In the name of God, let me out!” The librarian gladly opens the door to let him out but not without repeating the name of God whom the State had “proven not to exist”. As the Chancellor runs out of the room and down the stairs the room bursts into fire with the librarian inside. In the final scene, the Chancellor returns to the judicial Board which informs him that he had been branded a criminal and declared obsolete. An assembled crowd grabs the Chancellor and drags him across a table kicking and screaming to his demise.

The regime in Ethiopia by ruthlessly prosecuting and persecuting journalists and bloggers as terrorists is in effect saying they are “obsolete. They are a bug. Crawling insects. Ugly, misformed, little creatures, that have no purpose, no meaning!” The regime is telling them that they are “dealers in two cent newspapers, magazines and web logs in cyberspace spewing meaningless words on an assembly line. Words that have no substance, no dimension, like air, like the wind. Like a vacuum, the journalists and bloggers make believe they have an existence by scribbling words on newspapers, websites and blog sites.”

Like the librarian in Serling’s story, the Zone 9 Bloggers and jailed journalists calmly assert, “We are human beings… We don’t care what the regime says or says not. We exist… and if we speak one thought aloud, that thought lives, even after we are shoveled into our grave.” The regime may “control order and dictate” but the Zone 9 Bloggers and journalists will not “merely follow and obey”. Something has gone radically wrong in the Republic of Dystopia! The jailed journalists and bloggers do not fit the formuli.

The Obsolete Men and Women of Dystopia or the Obsolete State of the Republic of Dystopia?

Were Rod Serling alive, he might have written a script for one of his episodes entitled, “The Republic of Dystopia”. His introductory narration might have sounded something like this:

(Voice of narrator.) A present day African police state in which a regime of thugs rules with an iron fist. To be precise, it is an African “thugocracy”. Its motto, “If opposition groups resort to violence in an attempt to discredit [our] election, we will crush them with our full force; they will all vegetate in jail forever.” In this thugocracy, having a conscience is a crime. Speaking truth to those in power is a crime. Peaceful protest is a crime. Refusing to sell out one’s soul is a crime. Standing up for democracy and human rights is a crime. Defending the rule of law is a crime. Peaceful resistance of state terrorism is a crime.

In this African thugocracy, journalism is a crime punishable by death. Blogging is a crime punishable by death. Anyone who criticizes the regime is abducted, detained, tortured, made to disappear and executed. Protesting university students are shot on sight. Dissidents protesting elections are gunned down in the streets. The thugocracy maintains its power exclusively through handouts and the financial support of outsiders.

(Camera pans to Narrator.) You walk into this African country at your own risk, because it is not a future that will be, but one that is. This is not a new regime: It is simply an extension of what began in the old one. It has patterned itself after every dictator who has ever planted the ripping imprint of a boot on the pages of history since the beginning of time. It has refinements, technological advancements, and a more sophisticated approach to the destruction of human freedom. But like every one of the regimes that preceded it, it has one iron rule: Logic is an enemy, and truth is a menace. (Camera switches to the convicted defendants.) These are the Zone 9 bloggers, and journalists, reporters, publishers and editors accused of the crime of “terrorism” by the thugocracy and languishing in prison. They are citizens of a state who will soon be eliminated because they are built out of flesh and because they have minds to think and hearts to feel pain…

E H R for Ethiopian Human Rights

In the Obsolete Man, the Narrator concludes: “The chancellor, the late chancellor, was only partly correct. He was obsolete, but so is the State, the entity he worshiped. Any state, any entity, any ideology that fails to recognize the worth, the dignity, the rights of man, that state is obsolete. A case to be filed under “M” for mankind—in the Twilight Zone.”

The late Chancellor of the Republic of Dystopia and the State he created and worshipped are obsolete! A case to be filed under E H R for Ethiopian Human Rights – in the Twilight Zone (9) of Fear.

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P.S. The imaginary “narration” for the “Republic of Dystopia” is a variation on the narration in the script for the “The Obsolete Man”.

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

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