Journalists as Political Citizens: Throwing Shoes and Words

by Mesfin Negash    /  June 1, 2012  / 11 Comments

The case of Abebe Gelaw, who protested the Ethiopian Prime Minister, opens discussion on the limits of a journalist.

Meles Zenawi and Abebe Gelaw

Left: Ethiopian PM Meles Zenawi. Right: Journalist Abebe Gelaw via tadias.com.

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!”

  1. Ethiopiques
  2. 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.
  3. Mesfin Negash
  4. 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.

About the Author

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.

View all articles by Mesfin Negash

11 Comments on "Journalists as Political Citizens: Throwing Shoes and Words"

  1. abaw June 4, 2012 at 11:56 am ·

    I have a few comments Mr. Negash,

    Gellaw was there in the capacity of a journalist, as such, I dont think its correct to see his actions and professional responsibilities separately.

    This is yet another case of us Ethiopians displaying our lack of principles.

    Just imagine the scenario where a reporter from Walta (gov. news agency) or Aiga forum, coming to Oslo Freedom Forum and shouting “terrorist! terrorist!”. I bet then you and your mate Abyie would have taken a 180 degrees moral turn and argued that this was an unprofessional and unitelligent manner of behaviour. This is not typical only of you, the Addis Neger crew, or a certain political faction in Ethiopia. It is symptomatic of the entire Ethiopian political culture. So we exhibit similar attitudes from the government and its supporters as well.

    The context was this: the US governemnt had invited speakers of their choice and arranged a seminar/symposium, with the topic as agriculture. It was not arranged by the Ethiopian government nor was the topic of discussion human rights. Are we of the oppinion that we can go and hijack any meeting we please and turn it into a propoganda event for whatever cause we believe in?

    But as the topic of the article was the separation of professional and political actions, let us examine your analogy with the doctor. Being a doctor does not only include medical resonsibilities, it also involves ethical responsibilities. Essentially, a doctor which cannot refrain from shouting political slogans during the treatment of a political leader is a BAD doctor. Furthermore, in professions such as journalism and academia it is even more important to remain professional and objective, despite your urge to be partial.

    You could of course be bluntly partial, like for example the ETV journalists or bill o’reilly from Fox news, but then again your reputation as a professional will be affected by this.

  2. tt June 5, 2012 at 12:51 pm ·

    it is good but z people in this country they are very frighten so i don’t think so you’re
    commitment will not result in successful but we have to try z best

  3. John June 8, 2012 at 9:19 am ·

    @abaw these is not about responsibility my friend these is about freedom if needs be the doctor should kill or poison the dictator in any means because no body give the right for the dictator to kill any one who opposes him so I would say these is about getting a chance or been in the right place at the right time. The G8 summit shouldn’t be about dictators but be a real issue for food and human right even though many countries who are G8 like china are far worst than ours. If i got the chance I would shot him in the face and end the suffering of many innocent ppl in my country

  4. Mike June 13, 2012 at 8:16 am ·

    I very much second Abaw’s comment. Such commentary coming from a journalist like yourself Mesfin is really sad. I can’t help but question your professional integrity.

  5. ezana June 25, 2012 at 3:15 pm ·

    Mr. mesfen, there is one big thruth that Ethiopians, Africans and the whole world understood. That’s Meles wasn’t and is’t a DICTATOR at all. Meles and his party rather led the country to unpredictable growth and democracy which drives you people crazy and made you say he is a dictator. well we sorry Mr. mesfen he is not. He took the power from dictators which you like most and gave Ethiopians freedom which makes you realy mad. Moral? Moral? Moral? let alone jornalism.

  6. Heranie June 28, 2012 at 4:54 am ·

    You guy why do you denay the broad light facts we are alwas facing here in Ethiopia?
    Don’t you see that the regime has totally been changing its shape in to dictatorship?? Are you denying that the constitutional rigts of cizens violated from time to time . Tell me where is the right to demonstration? freedom of speech? and others… have you think for a minute about the failurity of multiparty system in this country ? How many of us has to flee seeking forced Asylum ??When do we live in freedom and with out any fear in Ethiopia

    God bless this country

  7. Ras Mitat July 8, 2012 at 3:54 am ·

    Big joke!

    Ethiopians opposition groups themselves are violently intolerant of any free speech debate against their principles…Even their leader, Hailu Shawel, himself was a minister in last brutal Communist regime.

  8. Abba Tobia July 29, 2012 at 12:32 am ·

    Abebe Gelaw welcomed Woyane to Addis Ababa in 1991. He started opposing Woyane because he wanted but could not enter the palace of woyane. Therefore, he can not be a patriot.

    Patriotic Ethiopians aret those who have never welcomed woyane and have never recognised Eprdf. After all, Ethiopians were warned who Woyane was long before this front entered Addis!!!

  9. Muhammed August 4, 2012 at 11:00 am ·

    Thank you! Abebe Gelaw! Great job……

  10. mahare shalalhashibaz September 1, 2012 at 4:54 am ·

    ወንድም ኢዛና! (መቼም ቅንጣት ታክል ኢዛናዊ ቅንነትና ሀቀኝነት ቢኖርህ ኖሮ ይህን ግፈኛና ፍርደ-ገምድል ሀሳብ አትሰነዝርም ነበር፡፡) መለስና ፓርቲአቸዉ ኢትዮጵያን እናነተ ከምትወቸዉ አምባገነኖች ተረክበዉ ሊተነበይ ወደማይችል እድገትና ዲሞክራሲ መሯት፤ ይህም እንተን “ስላሰከራችሁና ስላሳበዳችሁ” ነዉ መለስን አምባገነን የምትሏቸዉ እንጅ እርሳቸዉ መልአክ እንደሆኑ ኢትዮጵያዉያን፣አፍሪቃዉያንና መላዉ ዓለም የሚያዉቀዉ “እዉነት” ነዉ አልከን!!!!መልካም እንዲህ ነዉ እንጅ “አምባገነንን ማግነን” ፤ ሆድን መዉደድ፣ ወገንን መጥላት፣ ከምንም በላይ ደግሞ እዉነትን መካድ… ህሊናን መርሳት ማለት!!!
    እንዲያዉ ለመሆኑ፣ መለስንና መሰሎቻቸዉን እንዲሁም አፋኝ ድርጅታቸዉን የምንቃወማቸዉ እንዳንተ ስላላበሉን፣ ስላልሾሙን…ሳይሆን ስለጠሉን፣ ስላሰሩን፣ ስለገደሉን፣ ስለገነጠሉን…መሆኑን እንዴት ብንነግራችሁ ነዉ የምትረዱን/ ወንድሜ ሆይ! ለማንኛዉም እኛም አንተም ነጳ የምንወጣበት ጊዜ ቅርብ ነዉ፤ እድሜዉን ይስጠን እንጅ፡፡
    ሆዳም ይዉደም፤ ኢትዮጵያ ትቅደም!!!

  11. Bailey March 2, 2014 at 11:27 pm ·

    It’s obvious alot of the many things are ending up wrong at the moment. Good job for sending me in the right direction.

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