The Illusion of “Freedom Island”

by Mesfin Negash    /  March 8, 2013  / No comments

The divergent mindsets of citizens living under a dictatorship.

Illusion of Freedom Island

There is no such thing as an island of freedom in the middle of a dictatorship. Photo: Cmozz via Flickr.

Why do some people living under a dictatorship believe they can build their own small “freedom island” in an ocean of repression, manipulation, and abuse? Why are some fellows deceived into assuming that dictatorship can provide them a solid base on which to build a dazzling tower of freedom? How can this be? What a paradox for a person with a firsthand experience of repression.

  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.

One may ponder this perplexing contradiction. It is quite understandable if a person, at least for some time, feels helpless under a system of lies and manipulation. People under repressive regimes may lack the information, freedom, institutions, and exposure needed to change their situation immediately. Yet, despite not having the capacity or courage to change the situation, one cannot be obliged to deny or excuse the reality surrounding him. Still, under dictatorship it’s normal for citizens to have two faces: On the one hand, they appear as if they support the system, or at least that they do not oppose it; their second and true face abhors the system and all that is associated with it. Some operate with the belief that hiding the second face is tantamount to their security and pretend as if it doesn’t exist. It’s understandable that a person can have an official narrative that fits the government’s propaganda while also holding a different perspective about his reality. Others choose a less critical position in which they undermine the magnitude of the repression but work (or at least hope) to effect democratic change.

What mesmerizes me most are the people who believe they can get a space to exercise their freedom under a system that inherently curtails it. But this is quite different from what some dissidents call the “as if” paradigm. This paradigm doesn’t deny reality, nor understate the level of repression. Instead, it allows pro-democracy activists to exercise their rights (holding meetings, peaceful demonstrations, etc.) and imagine a democratic state as if the system allowed it. The purpose of this paradigm is to inspire and enable citizens to push for change. There will always be such people who inspire millions and challenge the status quo. I consider the political opposition and journalists working in Ethiopia to be operating within this same paradigm.

However, the people I am discussing here, residents of the imaginary “freedom island,” have their own parallel reality. They are capable of believing that the very system that abuses, imprisons, and kills a significant portion of society will actually defend their freedom and rights. Not only do the “freedom islanders” feel sole ownership of the state, they also think that no one but them has ever posed a legitimate question. But their sense of freedom is, at least partly, an illusion. It’s only a matter of time before the system reaches their imaginary island. By the time the “freedom islanders” wake to reality, the rest of society will have already started the long process of change in earnest. The islanders will remain loyal servants of dictatorship until repression’s rude awaking disturbs their illusion.

An island only exists in the middle of a body of water; there is no such thing as an island of freedom in the middle of a full-fledged dictatorship. Nevertheless, it is tempting and relatively comforting to think that one’s particular group will be granted a “freedom island” while the remaining majority languish under dictatorship. Do we have the responsibility of waking up the islanders? May be.

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

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