My topic for my Monday Commentary this week was not about a teachable moment for Ethiopian-Americans. I dropped my intended topic and wrote this piece because I was madder than a nest of hornets.
A couple of weeks ago, I was reading a report by the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) entitled, “Journalists Assaulted While Covering Protest in Western Kenya.” That report stated:
[Journalist Saka] Richards told CPJ that the protesters and the protest organizers fled the area after they were threatened by a mob of residents. Police helped take the protester organizers to safety, he said. The mob then turned on the journalists, who were left at the scene. Richards said the mob began to punch, kick, and beat Waswa with clubs. ‘We then tried to intervene to assist our colleague, only to be beaten ourselves.’” (Emphasis added.)
I shook my head in disgust and asked myself, “When will Africa ever have a free press that is free from harassment, intimidation, incarceration, violence and persecution?”
I reassured myself it was great to live in country where no journalist is beaten, harassed, threatened, intimidated, jailed or otherwise persecuted doing the work of the independent press. I even thought fleetingly about the despicable tabloids who publish trash about celebrities and other public figures in the name of press freedom with impunity.
I thanked my lucky stars for living in a country that constitutionally prohibits the making of any laws that interfere with the right of the individual to speak freely and of the press to report freely.
It was a great political achievement for the Framers of the American Constitution to amend their Constitution in 1791 and include language that imposed a sweeping ban on censorship. In the very first amendment to the Constitution, Congress did the unthinkable and even incomprehensible. It made a constitutional amendment against itself: “Congress shall make no law… abridging the freedom of the press…”
The First Amendment was not only a stroke of wisdom, it was an act of genius.
The Framers gave the Government of the United States the power to make all sorts of laws. Congress has the power to pass a law and declare war on any country and raise armies to fight that war. Congress can tax and spend like a drunken sailor. (The U.S. Government is 13 trillion plus dollars in the red to date.) Congress can coin money, regulate commerce and do much more.
However, the mighty U.S. Congress is powerless to censor the press. Even the most powerful man on the planet who carries the “nuclear football” and incinerate the world is completely powerless when it comes to abridging press freedom.
I make the foregoing observations not as some sort of patriotic declaration of faith on Independence Day, but as an object lesson for Ethiopian Americans.
On July 3, 2015, I watched a Youtube video that appalled, shocked and outraged me beyond words can express.
What I saw in that video is the ultimate insult on one of the most fundamental of all American liberties, the right to freedom of the press.
What I saw in that video was the hypocrisy of those who want freedom of speech, freedom of press, freedom of assembly and freedom to petition government only for themselves and no one else.
What I saw in that video was the ultimate assault, an act of war, on the First Amendment itself.
The video speaks and shows for itself. A small group of irate Ethiopian protesters are assembled outside the White House shouting out their disapproval of President Barack Obama’s visit to Ethiopia later this month. Henok Semaegzer, a reporter for the Voice of America, Amharic (Ethiopian) Service (VOA AS) arrived at the protest site to report on the event and speak to some of the protesters for shortwave broadcast to Ethiopia.
Henok’s appearance at the protest site triggered an angry and violent reaction by a dozen or so protesters in the crowd. Without any provocation, the protesters surrounded the VOA AS reporter like a pack of wolves closing on a wounded deer for the final kill. It was frightening to see an angry mob working itself into a frenzy to commit not only a crime against a journalist but also American liberties enshrined in the First Amendment.
I asked myself, “is this really happening? Is this happening across the West Wing of the White House or in Western Kenya?
The protesters closed around Henok. One protester is heard calling the VOA AS reporter, “stupid garbage”. Other protesters chant, “thief, thief, thief” as they push, shove and jostle Henok. They chase Henok chanting “Shame on you!” right into the arms of a U.S. Secret Service officer. Even in the presence of the Secret Service officer, the protesters taunted, jeered and sneered at the VOA AS reporter. They accused him of being a “woyane” (ruling regime in Ethiopia) stooge and threatened him with physical violence.
Other protesters stood and watched. No one tried to stop the mob chasing after Henok. Still others appeared to be engaged in the exercise of their legitimate right to assemble and petition their president for redress of grievances, two rights secured in the Frist Amendment.
What is supremely ironic is the fact that protesters who assaulted the VOA AS reporter were protesting to name and shame President Obama for visiting Ethiopia which is classified by the CPJ as the 4th “most censored country in the world”. The Tigrean Peoples Liberation Front (TPLF) regime in Ethiopia jails and persecutes not only professional journalists and shutters independent newspapers and magazines, it also jails and persecutes youthful bloggers on Facebook. The “Zone 9 bloggers”, a group of young men and women bloggers, remain in jail facing terrorism charges for blogging. In Ethiopia journalism is a crime as is blogging!
The mob that set upon the VOA AS reporter was blinded to the fact that as they pointed an index finger at Obama for standing with the thugtatorship that crushes press freedom in Ethiopia, three fingers were pointing at them.
The mob was completely blinded to the fact that their right to protest outside the White House is intrinsically bundled with Henok’s right to report in the public space.
The mob was completely blinded to the fact that Obama’s Secret Service did not beat and jail them as they protested outside the White House because they have the constitutional right to protest just as the VOA reporter has the constitutional right to report on them.
The protesters who chased the VOA AS reporter from the scene of the protest have every right to criticize and disapprove of Henok’s reporting or analysis of issues. They also had legal, moral and practically effective ways of showing their disapproval of his “biased” and “misleading” reporting.
When the VOA AS reporter showed up at their protest event, they could have simply ignored him.
They could have denied him interviews.
They could have given him interviews and told him exactly how they felt about his reporting.
Better yet, they could have used the reporter to communicate their message to their compatriots in Ethiopia. If Henok’s reporting is “biased” and “misleading”, they could file a complaint with the VOA administration.
The protesters certainly have the right to use alternative media to show Henok’s pattern and practice in “biased” reporting. There are limitless ways of showing their disapproval of the VOA AS reporter’s lack of professionalism and journalistic integrity.
No one, not even the Congress and President of the United States, has the right to assault, intimidate, harass and threaten physical violence against Henok, or for that matter any reporter, for doing his or her job.
Yet the mob that chased Henok committed the worst form of censorship imaginable: Censorship by physical intimidation. Censorship by verbal abuse. Censorship by vilification.
In his radio broadcast report, Henok documented in a balanced and measured tone what happened to him at the hands of the mob.
In my view, he understated the fury and hysteria of the crowd and the imminent danger he faced as he was being chased from the scene of the protest. The VOA AS reporter could have used the audio from that incident to demonize and vilify the protesters. He did not, much to his professionalism and credit. He did mention in his report that one or more of the protesters snatched the press credential he wore around his neck.
As most of my readers know, I have defended the VOA AS service on a number of occasions. I have also filed complaints against the Amharic Service for what I felt were acts of journalistic neglect of issues I thought were important.
In October 2010, I wrote my commentary, “Let Ethiopians Hear America’s Voice”, in the Huffington Post and argued “Ethiopian citizens have the absolute constitutional right to listen to the VOA.”
In July 2011, in my commentary “Educating a Dictator”, I cheered on the VOA Board of Governors for smacking down the late dictator Meles Zenawi for demanding a ban on VOA Amharic Service interviews of certain individuals critical of him and his regime in the Ethiopian Diaspora.
In a letter dated January 27, 2014, I filed a complaint with the Board of Governors concerning matters and issues I felt were ignored or disregarded by VOA Amharic Service. I pursued my complaint by filing a freedom of information request, which the agency accommodated after a long process.
I have been interviewed on VOA AS on various occasions over the years on a variety of issues and questions. Given my blunt and hypercritical views on the ruling regime in Ethiopia, I could imagine the regime in Ethiopia complaining to the VOA Board of Governors about my appearances on VOA AS programs.
I have issues on issues and topics covered and not covered in VOA AS programs. I have major disagreements on quite a few VOA AS reports and analyses.
Despite my disagreements with VAO AS on things they have done and not done, I have the highest respect for the professionalism and journalistic integrity of the reporters in the Amharic Service. I believe they perform their jobs consistent with the VOA Charter, even though I have on various occasions challenged them that they have fallen short of their Charter obligations.
I have recollection of a telephone interview I did with Henok Semaegzer. I do not remember the topic or the year of the interview. But I do remember a young man with journalistic curiosity. I have no recollection of ever meeting Henok in person.
There have been allegations over the past year or so that Henok’s reporting is sympathetic to the ruling regime in Ethiopia.
It has been alleged that at least one report done by Henok was “substandard”.
I have no way of independently verifying the factual bases for these claims.
Assuming Henok is servile to the regime in Addis Ababa as alleged, so what?
Frankly, I do not care one bit if he is biased in favor of the regime in Addis Ababa. That, of course, implies that the other VOA AS reporters are biased against the regime. I don’t believe that.
Neither do I believe that there is any reporter who is unbiased or beyond reproach for his or her reporting.
I will challenge any VOA AS reporter if I believed they are biased not only to the regime in Ethiopia, but also in favor of those like me who are hypercritical of the regime in Ethiopia. As I argued in my commentary, “VOA is Not VOZ” (the Voice of America is not the voice of Zenawi), I do not believe VOA is the voice of the Ethiopian Diaspora.
There is no question the VOA is “the voice of the voiceless” in Ethiopia.
We, the VOA audience, have a right to demand that the VOA AS be the voice of voiceless Ethiopians. It is written in the VOA’s Audiences’ Bill of Journalism Rights. Among the various obligations imposed on VOA reporters is the duty to “monitor power and give voice to the voiceless.”
No journalist, no human being, is free from biases. Sometimes those biases come from a wellspring of ignorance; at other times from malice. The way to fight biases is not by propagating our own biases or physically intimidating those with their own biases. As Dr. Martin Luther King taught, “Darkness cannot drive out darkness, only light can.”
If Henok suffers from “biases” and journalistic deficiencies, it is incumbent upon us to show him the light, to challenge him with facts and to shame him for failing his Agency’s journalistic standards.
But no one, not even the President of the United States has the right or power to touch a single strand of hair on his head, let along yank his press credentials from his neck, verbally abuse him or physically manhandle and intimidate him in the course of performing his journalistic duties.
I wonder how the mob that attacked the VOA AS reporter would feel if they were attacked in the same manner by DC police or officers of the U.S. Secret Service. I would bet my bottom dollar they would be crying out, “police brutality.”
Mob brutality is no different from police brutality!
I am deeply saddened by what happened to the VOA AS reporter.
The attack on Henok Semaegzer made a mockery of the sacrifices of my brother and personal hero Eskinder Nega who was jailed 8 or nine times over the past two decades and is now serving 18 years because the ruling regime, and particularly the late Meles Zenawi, did not like his reporting in his newspapers and opinions in his blogs. Eskinder stood for absolute press freedom, even press freedom for regime reporters to lie and mislead.
The attack on the VOA AS reporter made a mockery of the sacrifices of my sister and she-ro Reeyot Alemu who challenged Meles Zenawi on his white elephant projects and was sentenced to 14 years in prison.
The attack on the VOA AS reporter made a mockery of the sacrifices of my brother and personal hero Woubshet Taye who refused to stand down and shutter his weekly magazine and is now serving 14 years in prison.
The attack on the VOA AS reporter made a mockery of the sacrifices of so many courageous jailed and exiled Ethiopian journalists.
I shuddered when I asked myself, “What would Eskinder, Reeyot and Woubshet think if they had seen the video I saw?” “How would they have reacted seeing the VOA AS reporter hounded by a mob who disapproved of that reporter’s professionalism and journalistic integrity.
I trembled when I contemplated their possible answers.
Eskinder, Reeyot, Woubshet and others went to prison and many others into exile defending the right of the press to report freely. That is the essential quality that makes them and others like them Ethiopian heroes and she-ros.
When Henok showed up outside the White House, he was there to do his job.
We may doubt his integrity and professionalism. We may disagree with his reporting. We may not even like him as a person. But none of that grants us the right to push him around, verbally abuse him and physically assault him.
Henok has an absolute, non-derogable constitutional right to report as a journalist.
Would the protesters outside the White House have harassed and mistreated a CNN or Washington Post reporter in the position of the VOA AS reporter?
Physical attacks on journalists are thuggish. They must never be tolerated.
What was done to VOA AS reporter Henok Semaegzer is a crime under federal and District of Columbia law
The individuals who harassed, intimidated and assaulted the VOA AS reporter at the protest are liable for prosecution under Code of District of Columbia 22-404 (a) (1) which provides, “Whoever unlawfully assaults, or threatens another in a menacing manner, shall be fined not more than the amount set forth in § 22‑3571.01 or be imprisoned not more than 180 days, or both.”
The word “assault” in the law is defined as “as the threat or use of force on another person that causes that person to have reasonable apprehension of imminent harmful or offensive contact.” No physical contact is required for conviction under 22-404 (a) (1), only the belief of immediate harm in the mind of a reasonable person.
There are different forms of misdemeanor (simple) assault in the District including “attempted battery assault” (which occurs when the defendant injures or attempts to injure another person) and “intent-to-frighten” assault (which occurs when a threatening act puts another person in reasonable fear of immediate injury).
The penalty for either form of this type of assault is $1,000 and/or imprisonment of up to 180 days. It is important to note that “injury” under this section of the Code is defined as any physical injury, however slight, and includes an “offensive touching.”
The acts perpetrated against the VOA AS reporter and recorded in the Youtube video provide prima facie evidence for charges of simple assault under DC law.
Under District of Columbia Code § 22–2801, “Whoever by force or violence, whether against resistance or by sudden or stealthy seizure or snatching, or by putting in fear, shall take from the person or immediate actual possession of another anything of value, is guilty of robbery, and any person convicted thereof shall suffer imprisonment for not less than 2 years nor more than 15 years.” (Emphasis added.)
The forcible removal of the press pass from Henok neck could constitute robbery under DC law.
Under 18 U.S. Code § 111 (a) (2) any person who commits an assault constitute only simple assault against “any officer or employee of the United States or of any agency in any branch of the United States Government” (18 U.S. Code § 1114) is subject to fines and imprisonment by “not more than one year.”
Under 18 U.S. Code § 115 (b) (B) (i) “if the assault consists of a simple assault, a term of imprisonment for not more than 1 year; (i) if the assault consists of a simple assault, a term of imprisonment for not more than 1 year; (ii) if the assault involved physical contact with the victim of that assault or the intent to commit another felony, a term of imprisonment for not more than 10 years; (iii) if the assault resulted in bodily injury, a term of imprisonment for not more than 20 years…”
Voice of America reporters, including Henok Semaegzer, are “employees of the United States Government”.
Assault can also be a civil wrong for which the perpetrators could be liable for civil damages.
Harassment and persecution of the press
Harassment and persecution of the press is a common occurrence in African dictatorships. The regime in Ethiopia is the fourth worst violator of press freedoms in the world according to CPJ.
In America, we do not chase down reporters in the public space, hound and threaten to beat them up because we disagree with the content of their reporting, viewpoints or ideological or other preferences and biases. America is not the Coconut Republic of Ethiopia, to borrow a phrase from George Ayittey.
Journalists in America play a special role. Before reporting to the public, they go out and gather information and do research. Often, they interview ordinary persons and experts with relevant knowledge or opinion. They show up at protest sites to report first hand and seek the views of participants and report to the public. The role of the American press, among others, is to inform and educate the public. The press is the public’s watchdog sniffing out corruption and abuse of power and expose government officials to public accountability and scrutiny. (It was the press that revealed crimes and cover-ups of crimes committed in the Oval office of the White House resulting in the resignation of President Nixon.) The press are the eyes, ears and mouths of the people. Their ethical obligation is to present a balanced report that represents the views of the various stakeholders. Their job is not to echo the dominant public opinion or those in power.
The “meaning” of press freedom
“Give me the liberty to know, to utter, and to argue freely according to conscience, above all liberties,” wrote John Milton in Areopagitica. Milton was the first English poet and polemicist to offer a defense of press freedom. He wrote Areopagitica to defend against the Licensing Order of 1643 passed by the British Parliament requiring that all books be approved by an official censor before publication.
Areopagitica is arguably the first and most compelling argument made against government censorship of the press. Milton eloquently argued that “Unless wariness be used, as good almost kill a man as kill a good book; who kills a man kills a reasonable creature, God’s image; but he who destroys a good book, kills reason itself, kills the image of God, as it were in the eye… Suppressing freedom of press is the equivalent of “stop[ping] up all our havens and ports and creeks, it hinder[ing] and retard[ing] the importation of our richest merchandise, truth.” (Emphasis added.)
In the same vein, American patriot Patrick Henry gave a speech (“Give me Liberty or Give me Death”) in Virginia on March 23, 1775 and put out a resolution placing the colony of Virginia “into a posture of defense…embodying, arming, and disciplining such a number of men as may be sufficient for that purpose” (He called on the colonies to raise arms and undertake a revolution). He said, he “considered it as nothing less than a question of freedom or slavery; and in proportion to the magnitude of the subject ought to be the freedom of the debate. It is only in this way that we can hope to arrive at truth, and fulfill the great responsibility which we hold to God and our country.” (Emphasis added.)
Thomas Jefferson, the man who wrote the “the unanimous Declaration of the thirteen United States of America” in Congress on July 4, 1776, 239 years today, said, “If I had to choose between government without newspapers, and newspapers without government, I wouldn’t hesitate to choose the latter.”
In defense of press freedom
My readers know that I am second to none in defending press freedom in Ethiopia.
When Meles Zenawi came to speak at Columbia University in September 2010, I vigorously defended his right to speak in America.
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.’
In my September 2010 Huffington Post commentary “Mr. Zenawi Goes to College!”, I rejected calls to censor Meles at Columbia.
I even disagreed, with an aching heart, with my personal hero and she-ro, Eskinder Nega and his wife Serkalem Fasil on whether Meles should be allowed to speak.
I unapologetically rejected all calls to dis-invite Meles or prevent him from speaking at Columbia even though I held Meles in utter contempt for the crimes against humanity he had committed.
I stood up for Meles’ right to speak without an reservations. I also reserved the full right to respond to his speech. In that moment, I lived out the truth of Noam Chomsky’s axiom that “If we don’t believe in freedom of expression for people we despise, we don’t believe in it at all.”
I remain steadfast in my belief that “everyone” has the right to “receive and impart information and ideas through any media.” That includes opinionated bloggers like me and the Voice of America.
In July 2012, I stood on the side of Mengistu Hailemariam, the bloodthirsty dictator of Ethiopia before he was replaced by his clone Meles Zenawi in 1991.
Certain individuals illegally copied Mengistu’s book and made it available on line in pdf format. The copyright violators believed Mengistu was a “mass murderer” and a “liar” and should not be read or heard; nor should he be allowed to “benefit from the sale of his book”.
By illegally copying and distributing his book online, the copyright violators believed they could make Mengistu voiceless, the man who made thousands of Ethiopian literally voiceless. His victims speak from the grave as do Meles’. They are not heard by we the living, but speak thunderously loud to a much higher power.
For nine years, I have spoken truth to power and abusers of power especially in Ethiopia. It is painful for me to speak truth to those in the Ethiopian Diaspora with whom I share views and opinions against the regime in Ethiopia.
I have watched and seen many undesirable, offensive and self-destructive things in the Ethiopian Diaspora and in the Ethiopian opposition. I have kept my silence because I did not want to appear as if I am “beating” on those who share many of my views on the regime and are literally beaten down by the TPLF regime in Ethiopia.
For that I say, “Shame on me.” I have been a hypocrite.
I have used a double-standard for the truth: an unsparing standard against those I disagree with and turned deaf ears and blind eyes to those with whom I agree. I have been willfully ignorant and inexcusably silent when those I agree with do the wrong things in my view.
I have claimed to speak truth to power and those who abuse power. No I must speak truth to myself, to those with whom I agree with, the powerless, the power hungry and the power crazy.
My personal apologies to Henok Semaegzer
I offer to Henok Semaegzer my personal apologies for what happened to him on July 3 because I do not believe the mob that set up on him has the moral courage to apologize to him.
Honestly, I do not have the words to apologize to him. What can I really say after viewing the video of the mob chasing him?
Should I say, “I am really ashamed at his treatment at the hands of the mob.”
Should I offer him comforting words? “Don’t worry about it. This is just a fluke. It will never happen again.”
I really don’t know what to say, except to simply say, I am sorry you were assaulted, humiliated and vilified for doing your job. So sorry, Henok!
I would also say to Henok, I hope he learned firsthand how it feels to be persecuted for doing his job as a reporter. I would tell him that what he faced on July 3 is what his brother and sister journalists face every day of the year in Ethiopia. They are harassed, manhandled, jailed and exiled for doing exactly what he did on July 3.
That is why I will ask, no demand, that Henok to be a voice for my voiceless brothers Esknder Nega and Woubshet Taye and my sister Reeyot Alemu and many others like them jailed and exiled by the regime in Ethiopia.
I demand that he be the voice of all Ethiopian journalists persecuted at the hands of the regime not because of my preferences or his personal views or sympathies one way or the other.
I demand that Henok be a voice for Esknder Nega, Woubshet Taye, Reeyot Alemu and many other journalists like them because I have a right to do so under the VOA’s Audiences’ Bill of Rights mandates him to do so.
I am morally obligated to apologize to Henok. But I have a right to demand Henok and VOA AS “monitor power and give voice to the voiceless” in Ethiopia.