William Freivogel, for the Pulitzer Center
William Freivogel is director of the School of Journalism at Southern Illinois University Carbondale. He and SIUC journalism colleagues met with journalists in Ethiopia, Kenya and Uganda on a State Department-sponsored tour.
Back in America, my mental images of Ethiopia have taken on the unreal quality of vivid dreams. This is an ancient civilization where the oldest remains of humans walking upright have been found along with the oldest tools. The roots of Christianity date back to 3rd century A.D., older than those in Europe. And, legend has it that the Arc ofthe Covenant, which held tablets of the 10 Commandments, is housed in the ancient city of Axum, where they were brought around the time of King Solomon and the Queen of Sheba.
Unfortunately the age of the civilization hasn't translated into progress. Ethiopia is an ally of the United States in the War on Terrorism with an army in Somalia fighting Islamic forces. But the U.S. State Department's Human Rights Report tells a story of a country where democracy, freedom of the press and the rule of law are hollow constitutional promises. The report details more than 30 unresolved political killings from 2005, in addition to a laundry list of other human rights abuses that include election irregularities, arrests of journalists, shuttered newspapers, female genital mutilation and the detention of hundreds of political opponents and other people without charges.
Ethiopia was aligned with the Soviet Union during the Cold War and still has the look and feel of a decaying Soviet client state. Many of the taxis are two-decade-old Ladas made in Eastern Europe. They are dark blue, chug slowly up hills and often lack inside door handles needed to exit.
Driving into the city from airport, we traveled along wide boulevards. The road leading to the Hilton Hotel where we stayed had a nice park in the middle, but it was totally gated making it inaccessible to pedestrians. A tall monument with a red star on top is a sad reminder of the country's days as a Soviet client.
Our first day in Addis we went shopping at a group of small shops. As soon as we got out of the car, little children and mothers with babies on their backs tried to sell us maps of Africa, books of stickers with the Ethiopian flag and other useless stuff. Other children would simply beg for a handout. A few disabled men unable to walk would drag themselves along reaching up for a handout. I discovered pretty quickly that I had to coldly ignore all of these people or I would have a crowd around me. At one point, when I got tired of shopping, I fell asleep in the cab; when i woke up a few minutes later the person who had been begging at the window was still there begging. I felt awfully heartless.
Our journalism workshop was at a hotel surrounded by a shantytown of tiny hovels with steel corrugated roofs. The workshop was on the top floor of the hotel that had a panoramic view of the area around it. When i wasn't involved in the workshop, I couldn't take my eyes off the street scene below. Little children who should have been in school, were running around playing. There are no mandatory school attendance laws here. I wondered whether, despite their poverty, they felt as happy playing as American children.
The country is a mixture of Christians and Muslims. The largest Christian group is Greek Orthodox, but more and more Christians are converting to Protestant religions, according to some of the journalists I talked to. Addis is heavily Christian, but one sees Muslims as well. At one point i could see two young women in very tight jeans crossing the street while, just across the intersection, two other young women in colorful Muslim garb were crossing the other way. Meanwhile, burros walked down the street with cars darting between them.
As memorable as this street scene was, the discussions at the workshop were more so. Before the first workshop got started, I chatted with a professor from a local university. He said he had been working as a journalist until two years ago - something he and I had in common. His career ended in a different way from mine, however. His paper was one of 14 shut down after the last election. More than 35 journalists were arrested at that time, the journalists said. It seems that about half a dozen remain in prison. After the professor and I had talked for a few minutes, I asked him if I was putting him in danger. His answer was simple: "Yes." He may have said that for dramatic effect, but he did disappear from the workshop after we broke for tea.
It was my job to start off the workshop and to talk about the role of a free press in a democracy. The professor's comment and the specter of jailed journalists and closed newspapers were much in my mind.
Two representatives of the U.S. embassy were present as we got underway. They were a perfect foil. I told the journalists that even though we were there on a State Dept. grant we could say anything we wanted. To prove the point I told the group how wrong I thought the Iraq war had been and how much I had opposed Attorney General John Ashcroft's handling of terrorism prosecutions. I emphasized that as mad as Ashcroft was at the editorials I wrote, he couldn't arrest me for them. I gave the journalists a thumbnail history of free speech in the U.S. - from Alien and Sedition Acts when Jeffersonian editors were arrested, to the WWI Sedition act when Eugene Debs was imprisoned for criticizing the draft, to Watergate and Pentagon Papers. I felt quite emotional - in a way i hadn't felt in either Uganda or Kenya -as I finished up saying how dear this right is to us and how it involves constant struggle to protect freedom from government intrusion.
The journalists seemed very interested but the discussion that followed was pretty stiff. In the afternoon I had a very interesting breakout session with half a dozen journalists. After a time it seemed as though everyone in the circle felt comfortable with each other and the journalists told of their efforts to express themselves. A top editor for the government paper said he was able to write an op-ed column calling for Ethiopian troops to be brought home from Somalia, but he couldn't write an editorial for the paper expressing that view. This editor also said that they never criticize a prosecution before a verdict or a proposal in the legislature before its passage. I explained that we saw it as crucial to express our opinions when they still could affect the result.
I was glad that the group was loosening up and talking more about deep feelings. Our lunches also were more relaxed. A couple of the Ethiopians encouraged me to try some of their injera, a flatbread with a sweet taste. It is used a little like tortillas; you heap food on the injera and roll it up and eat it. I had been trying to avoid eating much of the local food at this restaurant because it wasn't hot, but this bread was great with hardboiled eggs and chicken.
The other thing I noticed at lunch and during the workshops is that I forgot entirely that everyone but us has black skins. That is I forgot unless one of us brought up something about the civil rights era in American, in which case their blackness suddenly became vivid to me.
During an ethics discussion the next day I showed the journalists the cartoons that ran in the Danish paper depicting Mohammed. Quickly it became apparent that the issue here wasn't whether to publish the cartoons but whether to publish the stories about them and about the widespread protests about the cartoons. The government had ordered the media not to print the story. Most of the journalists seemed willing to concede this point to the government, fearing that a story could roil the Muslim community and lead to riots. Knowing how angrily the Muslim community had responded in Kenya, I could see the point. Still I asked them how they could withhold a story about riots and protests occurring across four continents. One journalist wondered aloud if the media could have handled the story with sensitivity that would allow the news to be printed but would not incite riots. I thought this was some progress.
Here, as in Uganda and Kenya, we talked about whether free expression and freedom of the press were universal rights or instead Western ideas we were imposing on Africa. Once again, as in Kenya and Uganda, it was clear that free expression is a deeply felt right. Still, the Rwandan massacre and riots here after the 2005 elections are much on the minds of the journalists. After the 2005 election, the opposition contested the results. Newspapers that supported the opposition urged nonviolent protest to bring about a change in the government. The protests got out of hand and there were riots where several dozen people were killed. The question then is whether vigorous speech on the stump and in the press advocating nonviolent government change is protected if it is followed by deadly violence. The government's answer was clear. It effectively shut down 14 newspapers accounting for a circulation of about 400,000 copies, leaving only a government press with a circulation of 40,000. The editors of these papers were charged with publication of false information, incitement of ethnic hatred and libel. Sixteen of the journalists were charged with treason, genocide, and attempts to subvert the constitution, potentially carrying death sentences.
It was easy for me, with a flight to Amsterdam scheduled for the next day, to say that advocacy of nonviolent government change is protected speech; it was a lot harder for these journalists knowing about the penalties their colleagues had faced, to say the same.
Still, as I left Africa, one impression stuck with me. The one thing that all of these Ethopian journalists agreed on and that all of the journalists in Kenya and Uganda agreed on was the same belief that
motivated Thomas Jefferson - that the freedom of expression is an inalienable right. Across time and space, this fundamental belief beats deep in all of us.