Freedom of expression is one of those fundamental rights that no government can claim to be democratic without allowing its unimpeded practice. The people have natural and constitutional rights that no government can limit without abdicating its legitimacy to govern.
In a free and democratic society, the people freely express their views within the bounds of the law, without fear of vendetta from their own government. These expressions can take the form of street demonstrations, letter writing campaigns, sit-ins, boycotts, strikes, and radio and television commentaries (when they are not controlled by ruling elite as is the case in Ethiopia).
In a dictatorship, ruling elites formulate rules and regulations that stifle freedom of expression. Those who dare to challenge the legality of these draconian rules and regulations are physically maimed, imprisoned or killed by the security forces, while others are tried in a court system that is partial to the ruling elite. Court sentencing for an alleged crime in expressing ones views and opinions are so severe that many activists have given-up challenging the unjust practices that exist within the country for fear of trumped-up charges that can see them behind bars for many years.
All this is done under the pretext of moving the economic development of the country forward, without the undemocratic ruling elite facing the challenges of democratic dissent. The idea that democracy derails economic development is a scheme espoused by dictators to protect their own selfish interests. It is an idea hatched and incubated in the hearts and minds of dictators in a futile attempt to preserve their illegitimate and unconstitutional authority to misrule without the democratic consent of the people.
As citizens of this country, people cannot aspire to breathe freely by expressing their views on subjects that matter most to them, for fear of offending the ruling elite. This can bring charges of terrorism to bully activists who worry much about the undemocratic trajectory that is evident in the way the country is governed. The ruling elite has total control over the media so much so that neither the opposition political parties nor any other civil society group have access to those not subservient to the interest of the ruling party. Media laws are legislated with the specific purpose of stifling freedom of expression.
Those who defy living by the rules set by the ruling elite, whether legal or not, are harassed and intimidated to the point of immigrating to other parts of the world, rather than succumb to the dictates of tyrants. Others suffer in local prisons for daring to challenge the suffocating laws.
The ruling elite have managed not only to restrict what people speak and write, they have also isolated the people of Ethiopia by limiting their access and use of the Internet. The people are allowed to access only websites that are predetermined by the ruling elite. It appears that the few at the helm of power in Ethiopia treat the country as an island condemned to live in isolation of the exploding information, communication and innovation age taking place in the rest of the world. This is, in large part, due to the unfettered access people have to the Internet.
What good is double digit economic growth if people have to live in fear of prosecution for petitioning their government to correct what pains them in government? What is economic development that does not allow people to exercise their freedom of expression? Is it not the height of hypocrisy to pretend to know what matters to the people more than the people themselves?
For all practical purposes, we, the people have become silent observers, while few among us misspeak and write on our behalf, pretending to know what is good for us.
Every expression, whether in print or electronic media, that challenges the legality of laws, policies, practices, and procedures put forth by the ruling elite is considered an affront. Voicing such can be construed as an act of terrorism that can ultimately land those who dare to challenge them in prison. There is no better weapon at the disposal of the ruling elite than the terrorism law that appears on the surface as legislation designed to protect the safety and security of the people; while at the same time its dual objective is to harass, intimidate and silence peaceful and legitimate dissent that challenges undemocratic practice. We all support laws that discourage or all together eliminate the scourge of terrorism from the face of the earth, but we cannot sit idly by when the same laws are used to terrorize innocent people who care about their country.
While the ruling elite has crafted the constitution of the country giving ample prominence to the diversity of nations, nationalities and peoples of Ethiopia, its failure to recognise the inalienable right of the people to express their views and opinions as they see fit, and within the limits of the law, are the heights of hypocrisy. Article 29 of the Ethiopian Constitution gives freedom of expression appreciable latitude to accommodate diversity of views and opinions; however, the reality on the ground is quite different.
The fact that this great nation of 90 million people has no private media to speak off, testifies volumes regarding the intolerance of the ruling elite for diversity in freedom of expression. Only its own and that of its cronies is permitted; as a result of which the Ethiopian people endure scarcity of information in isolation from the rest of the world. This truly will go in the records of history as the greatest harm perpetrated by a ruling elite to keep its people in total darkness while the rest of the world partakes in what is dubbed the information age.
By Temesgen Zewdie
former Member of Parliament (MP)
Published on Feb 08,2016 [Vol 16 ,No 823]