The Emperor’s New Clothes

Gezahegn Mekonnen is an Ethiopian journalist and filmmaker, and one of the founding members of PEN Ethiopia. He currently lives in exile in Toronto, Canada, where he edits the journal New Perspectives, among other projects. In this issue of the Dissident Blog we present a detailed account of the difficulties besetting PEN Ethiopia by Gezahegn Mekonnen. He describes how freedom of expression in Ethiopia constantly encounters resistance and obstacles, including in the ongoing process of democratization. 

May 3 2019 Text: Gezahegn Mekonnen

In his tale The Emperor’s New Clothes, Hans Christian Anderson reflects on the fact that the emperor had caused such fear in his subjects that no one was willing to tell him that the expensive “outfit” he was “wearing” was vaporware—it didn’t actually exist. In the tale, a child finally blurts out that the emperor was naked—because the child was fearless and not trained to be subservient. So, what this phrase means is: the boss is clueless. 

After three decades of pain taking the battle for freedom of expression and a free society, Ethiopians and the world had been hoping that the day when the brutality of the authoritarian and nativist government—which was and still is responsible for killings, imprisonments, and forced exile—would finally ceased to be, and that the sun could shine. But unfortunately, for all this, there is only a mere hope. As the poet William Butler Yeats put it: 

Hurrah for revolution and more cannon – shot!
A beggar upon horseback lashes a beggar on foot. 
Hurrah for revolution and cannon come again!
The beggars have changed places, but the lash goes on. 

In our centuries-old Ethiopian political history, there has never been a free and independent civil society serving as a whistle blower for the common good. But there have been individuals, artists and intellectuals, men who always stood to serve the truth. Unfortunately even religious institutions, whose prime purpose is to serve the truth, have stood on the side of authority at all times.  

The lack of a free media and civil society makes the struggle to bring democracy and develop a free society in the Ethiopian political landscape very difficult and complicated. Since the overthrow of the Ethiopian Empire in the so-called 1974 Revolution, the country has seen great suffering while wearing the mask of pseudo-democracy. With each regime change, each new group in power began by promising to create a land of peace and harmony, or paradise, but in practical terms they instead created hell for the nation. 

At what may be seen as one of the historical crossroads for Ethiopia there existed, at one point, a glimpse of the emergence of a democratic society. That was in the year 2005. The year 2005 introduced a lot of good things to Ethiopian society. One fine example was the introduction of PEN Ethiopia to the writers and media groups of the country. The idea of establishing PEN Ethiopia was brought into our writer’s circle by Solomon Hailemariam, the founding board member and president since its inception.

At the first PEN Ethiopia congress, held February 2012 in Addis Ababa, the then International President of PEN, the philosopher and writer John Ralston Saul, said the following: 

“I think of the words of Tsegaye Gebre Medihin: 
‘I crave for knowledge. 
I envy tolerant, peaceful folks. 
I am frightened by ignorance. 
I loathe violence.’”

He spoke for all of us. Our differences are real and essential but we members of PEN are drawn together by the principles of our charter. 

One of PEN Ethiopia’s current and exciting initiatives is to represent each of the country’s different language groups. This reinforces among us one of the essential aspects of free speech and literature, i.e. the right to one’s own culture and to use one’s own language. This is a very different idea of culture compared to that of the 19th century western nation-states obsessed with the notion of a single language and single cultural model—and thus the elimination of minority languages. This is not the idea of PEN

Before PEN Ethiopia began operations and became a legal entity in Ethiopia, it already enjoyed membership status at the 2008 PEN International congress held in Bogota, Colombia. Even though PEN Ethiopia had been accepted by PEN International as a full member, it was difficult to register at home as a legal entity, taking a full three years. The process was however significant, in that our insistence raised questions within the circle of the Ethiopian Charities and Societies Agency, the government agency with responsibility for and authority over NGOs and other voluntary associations. It also put them on notice that they needed to watch us, which they did immediately after the issuance of our legal registration. We believe they registered us to test how we would go about working, so they would be able to intervene in our operations with the aim of diverting our positions according to the government’s interests—customary whenever independent organizations show up in Ethiopia.  

I remember that the registering officer at the time asked me a weird question about why we needed to establish another writer’s organization when there was already the Ethiopian Writers Association. I gave him a brief answer, saying that the Ethiopian Writers Association was only for creative writers like novelists and poets, but PEN was for journalists, publishers and all kinds of writers, ‘creative’ or otherwise. I say that the question was weird because the right to form and exist as an organization was not limited at the time according to the Ethiopian constitution. But for them, it didn’t matter what the constitution says—they follow the words of the authorities, not the articles and ideals of the constitution. That is why, time and again, they tried to bargain with us to make us betray the ideals of PEN and to work in their interest instead. In addition to the requirements specified in the registration form we, the board members of PEN Ethiopia, were asked to submit detailed personal information. It was around that time a new, repressive and undemocratic civil society law was enacted. 

The establishment of PEN Ethiopia created, at least among us, a sense of inspiration and enlightenment, a hope that one day our country, with possession of its own unique language(s) and of a rich heritage of literacy on the African continent, would get a chance to promote such wealth to the outside world. But the new draconian civil society law made things very difficult, even impossible. Fighting against this big obstacle, in the form of a law, we were still able to organize three international annual congresses. The congresses focused on three major themes: Promoting reading and literacy in Ethiopia in 2012; The role of translation in the development of Ethiopian literature; and, Freedom of expression and literature in Ethiopia. 

As stated in the constitution of PEN Ethiopia, and in line with the ideals of PEN International to promote friendship and intellectual cooperation among writers of the world, PEN Ethiopia aims to follow suit and to promote cooperation among individuals engaged in writing activities. It strives to benefit both readers and writers by promoting literature and by removing barriers to engagement in reading and writing. 

PEN Ethiopia’s impetus to promote literature and freedom of expression occurred in an Ethiopia ruled with an iron fist by an authoritarian government. 2014 was the last year in which we held our annual congress of freedom of expression and literature. That year was described as the most dangerous year for the Ethiopian press; 17 journalists were imprisoned and most of them, including Eskinder Nega, were charged with terrorism. Thirty others were forced into exile, turning the country into the second-worst jailor of journalists in Africa, after only Eritrea. Now in 2019, for the first time in decades, Ethiopia now has no journalists in prison, according to PEN America and the Committee for the Protection of Journalists. But still, there remains in place a draconian law, an authoritarian government and an infamous constitution—drafted and ratified by secessionist leftist groups.

In light of this, in its initial years, PEN Ethiopia started off under low profile, addressing fundamental issues concerning freedom of expression in Ethiopia. Step by step, we came to address the burning issue of freedom of expression and human rights. But in doing so, we set off an alarm for the government, who in response focused its intelligence machine on our activities.

The 2014 Congress had the theme Freedom of Expression and Literature, a subject the government frowned upon. A number of foreign diplomats were invited to the congress, held at the Italian Cultural Institute. Tellingly, many stayed away. Following this, the government suspended the registration of PEN Ethiopia. The situation for PEN Ethiopia has been murky ever since.

When PEN Ethiopia learned that its license had been suspended, its general assembly was called to determine what to do regarding the matter. After heated discussions, the assembly remained of two minds, one side in favour of protesting, holding demonstrations and issuing a communiqué condemning the government’s action, the other wanting to wait to see what the government’s final decision on the matter would be. 

But, PEN Ethiopia—having inaugurated its anthology, “Yenege Nafqot” (Longing for Tomorrow) on the premises of the American embassy in Addis and, having already published 10,000 copies—had grabbed the attention of the security forces. It was clear that renewal of our license would be impossible. 

When the proceedings of our congress emerged in print, 2000 copies were distributed in Addis Ababa as well as in other regions. The proceedings included a demand for the release of journalists Reeyot Alemu and Eskinder Nega. (Luckily, Reeyot Alemu was released shortly thereafter, but Eskinder Nega languished on in prison, where he had been since 2011.) These actions by PEN Ethiopia could not have been seen favorably by the government.

In preparation for the 81st PEN International Congress in Canada, PEN representatives were asked to prepare a report on the then current situation in Ethiopia. We thus repeatedly asked the government’s Charities and Civil Societies Agency for their final decision regarding PEN Ethiopia’s suspended license. We eventually got our answer—a firm and ominous refusal.

The exile was the only way out.

After the congress in Canada, we sought asylum. We felt very welcomed in Canada, and received warm support from the family of writers and journalists there, who protected us from any possible danger. Since then, we have held hope to operate PEN Ethiopia in exile, but there are many reasons why this cannot happen. Unless the situation in Ethiopia changes, there can thus be no clear picture of how PEN Ethiopia can proceed.

The political situation in Ethiopia is very chaotic and currently even more hostile. The great defender of rights, Oxfam Novib/PEN International Freedom of Expression Award winner, Eskinder Nega, has received threatening intimidation from the new transitional Prime Minister over matters of freedom of assembly and discussion pertaining to matters of governance of, and self-determination for, the city of Addis Ababa. This has cast a pall of gloom over our hopes. It certainly seems that the freedom of speech restrictions put in place by the old regime, i.e. the Tigrean People’s Liberation Front (TPLF), have left an enduring scar on the political, societal, and cultural life of Ethiopia. No one can forecast what will happen next in terms of freedom of expression in this country.

Currently, in an increasingly ethnically conflicted Ethiopia, the practice of freedom of speech is no simple matter—it is often not possible. Criticism of, for example, the Prime Minister or the mayor, coming from a group using a particular language, provokes subsequent attacks against their language group. This situation is even more dangerous than the one that existed under the TPLF—and that is why the intimidation of Eskinder Nega by Prime Minster Abiy Ahmed is a modern day form of silencing the man who first cried out: “The Emperor is naked!”