Journalists as Political Citizens: Throwing Shoes and Words
The case of Abebe Gelaw, who protested the Ethiopian Prime Minister, opens discussion on the limits of a journalist.
On December 14th, 2008, George W. Bush was on his last visit to Iraq as US President when he received a unique farewell gift from a young Iraqi journalist. The journalist, Muntadhar al-Zaidi, threw his shoes at Bush, yelling, “This is a farewell kiss…you dog!”
- Why does a country with her own unique alphabet and long history of writing persist to deny citizens the right to freedom of expression in this era of Expression? No other country in Africa may typify this paradox more than Ethiopia. As Leopold Senghor’s famous collection of poems entitled “Ethiopiques” remained ‘powerful and popula’ so does the source of his intriguing title, Ethiopia, in her own ways. In “Ethiopiques,” I share Ethiopian views on pertinent issues related to journalism, culture and, of course, the overarching subject of politics.
- Mesfin Negash is an Ethiopian journalist living in exile in Sweden. He is one of the journalists accused of “terrorism” in 2011 by the Ethiopian government. The co-founder and first editor-in-chief of an acclaimed Ethiopian newspaper, Addis Neger, he is currently the Managing Editor of Addisnegeronline.com. He is a political science student by training and known for his critical commentaries on significant political and social issues.
No one could argue that Muntadahar did this as part of his professional responsibilities. The most he could have done as a journalist was throw challenging questions (not shoes) without hoping to get a satisfactory answer.
An Ethiopian journalist, Abebe Gelaw, repeated this act by throwing words at the Ethiopian PM [watch at 03:31:54] during the recent G8 meeting in Chicago. Prime Minister Meles Zenawi was just starting his populist speech when Abebe stood up and started shouting: “Meles Zenawi is a dictator…free Eskinder Nega and other political prisoners…don’t talk about food without freedom, we need freedom more than food; freedom, freedom, freedom!” The defiant journalist and the shocked dictator dominated the conversations among Ethiopians both at home and abroad. No one had ever seen PM Meles, the BIG MAN of Ethiopia who always appeared so strong, shocked and humiliated in front of an audience and camera. That’s why, within hours of its occurrence, the Ethiopian government tried to filter websites that carried video footage of the incident.
Throwing shoes and words in these two contexts are purely political actions made by journalists. Their professional capacity and responsibilities are irrelevant to the essence of their actions. Neither journalist argued that their action be considered ‘journalistic’ in any sense. If there is one thing that links these political actions with the profession of journalism, it is that they used their professional access to stage their political message.
Any critique of these actions from a professional point of view will only tell us how the journalists ‘misused’ their professional capacity for objectives other than journalism. It doesn’t tell us why they chose to do so, or the message behind the actions. On the other hand, the two are praised as heroes by many for daring to speak against political leaders they deemed responsible for what happened to their country.
Would the critics think differently if a medical doctor, examining the political leader, made a political statement like the journalists did? In short, the profession of these people has very little to do with their political actions. Should professionals suppress their political views whenever they’re wearing their professional cap, no matter the situation? Most who are living under a dictatorship, who feel helpless and powerless in the face of brutal suppression, will disagree.
The two journalists sound very clear in their cause and purpose. In his latest note, Abebe said, “I voiced the anger, frustration and aspiration of the Ethiopian people in front of world leaders…Some are calling me a hero, others say I deserve honours. While I appreciate all the outpour of support, this is not about me. It is not about my heroism but the truth that must be told with utmost clarity. It is about our country, people, and the freedom and dignity we deserve…”
Muntadar al-Zaidi reflected a similar sentiment after being released from prison: “What drove me to the confrontation was the injustice that befell my country and people, and how the occupation tried to humiliate my homeland and crushed the people, men, women and children…I confess that I am no hero, but I was humiliated to see my country violated, my Baghdad burned, and my people killed…the chance came and I did not miss it.”
Keeping professional and political actions separated under all circumstances, for all people, is impossible. Measuring one in terms of the other will only lead to a gross misunderstanding and misjudgment.