If anyone should seek the real definition of courage, let them not look for it in philosophical discourses or the annals of military history. Let them read the words of Reeyot and apply them to their cause.
There are few things more difficult or dangerous than speaking truth to abusers of power. But for Reeyot Alemu, the 31-year-old Ethiopian heroine of press freedom, no price is high enough to keep her from being ‘the voice of the voiceless’. She will speak truth to power even when she is muzzled and gagged and in prison: ‘I knew that I would pay the price for my courage and I was ready to accept that price,’ said Reeyot in her moving handwritten letter covertly taken out of prison.
‘Courage is the most important of all the virtues, because without courage you can't practice any other virtue consistently,’ said Maya Angelou, the great African American civil rights advocate and literary figure. Last week, the International Women’s Media Foundation (IWMF) awarded Reeyot Alemu its prestigious ‘2012 Courage in Journalism Award’. Last May, I wrote a column on Reeyot (Young Heroine of Ethiopian Press Freedom), expressing my outrage over the ‘legal’ process used to railroad her to prison.
The so-called evidence of ‘conspiracy’ against Reeyot in the kangaroo court consisted of intercepted emails and wiretapped telephone conversations she had about peaceful protests and change with other journalists. Reeyot’s articles in Feteh and other publications on the Ethiopian Review website on the activities of opposition groups were also introduced as evidence. Reeyot and Woubshet Taye [editor of Awramba Times"> had no access to legal counsel during their three months in pre-trial detention. Both were denied counsel during interrogations. The kangaroo court refused to investigate their allegations of torture, mistreatment and denial of medical care in detention.
Today, I am ecstatically proud to see Reeyot as a recipient of the IWMF award for 2012. When Serkalem Fasil won the same award in 2007, I was overjoyed. What can be more awesome than having young imprisoned Ethiopian journalists standing up for the truth and against tyranny and lies being recognized, honoured and celebrated by the world for their heroic efforts?
But what is the ‘courage’ for which Reeyot and Serkalem were honoured? Courage comes in many forms. The soldier who fights on the battlefield despite immediate danger to his life is driven by courage. A young woman who stands up to tyranny and defiantly declares, ‘I will be a voice for the voiceless and I am prepared to pay the price’, is equally driven by courage. But what is courage itself? The great philosophers tell us that courage is a virtue that is manifested in the endurance of our body, mind and spirit. It enables us to ‘stand immovable in the midst of dangers’. Others say courage is found between cowardice and rashness. Perhaps courage is a vessel that contains other virtues including perseverance, tenacity, determination, patience, compassion and moral conviction in one's beliefs. Those who practice courage in their lives, like Reeyot and others, do so despite personal sorrow and hardship, popular opposition, condemnation or commendation or official persecution and prosecution. We should be proud to have young women like Reeyot and Serkalem and young men like Eskinder Nega and Woubshet Taye and so many other jailed and exiled Ethiopian journalists who exemplify the highest standards of courage as human beings, citizens and journalists.
Reeyot’s handwritten statement read at the IWMF award ceremony in New York on October 24 2012 is a testament to courage for the ages. When the history of freedom - press freedom - in Ethiopia is written, future generations of Ethiopians will read the words of Reeyot and others like her and take pride in the fact that when the chips were down and the heavy boots of dictatorship crushed the people and trampled over their rights, there were a few who stood for truth and against falsehood; for truth and against tyranny; and for truth, honour and country. It is truly inspiring to see a young woman who is confined in one of the worst prisons in the world (a prison described as barbaric and primitive by none other than a world renowned expert hired by the ruling regime in Ethiopia) standing up defiantly and fighting a ruthless dictatorship from prison with a ballpoint pen and scraps of paper:
‘I believe that I must contribute something to bring a better future [in Ethiopia">. Since there are a lot of injustices and oppressions in Ethiopia, I must reveal and oppose them in my articles.
‘Shooting the people who march through the streets demanding freedom and democracy, jailing the opposition party leaders and journalists because of only they have a different outlook from the ruling party, preventing freedom of speech, association and the press, corruption and domination of one tribe are some of the bad doings of our government. As a journalist who feels responsibility to change these bad facts, I was preparing articles that oppose the injustices I explained before. When I did it, I knew that I would pay the price for my courage and I was ready to accept that price. Because journalism is a profession that I am willing to devote myself to. I know for EPRDF, journalists must be only propaganda machines for the ruling party. But for me, journalists are the voices of the voiceless. That’s why I wrote many articles which reveal the truth of the oppressed ones. Even if I am facing a lot of problems because of it, I always stand firmly for my principle and profession. Lastly, I want to ask the international community to understand the real Ethiopia. The real Ethiopia isn’t like what you watch on Ethiopia television or as you listen to the government officials talk about it. In real Ethiopia, a lot of repressions are being done. My story can show you the story of many Ethiopians who are in prison because of their independent thinking. Please, try your best to change this bad reality.’
If anyone should seek the real definition of courage, let them not look for it in philosophical discourses or the annals of military history. Let them read these words from Reeyot and apply them to their cause.
But I often wonder: What makes individuals like Reeyot do what they do while the rest of us do very little or nothing? Were they born with courage or did they acquire it?; and if so how and where? Was courage thrust upon them by circumstances? Why is it a moral imperative for Reeyot and others like her to ‘dream of things that never were, and ask why not’ when many of us ‘look at things the way they are, and ask why?’. Why did Reeyot defiantly declare from prison, ‘I believe that I must contribute something to bring a better future [in Ethiopia">’ while many of us sit comfortably in freedom and are only concerned about contributions to bettering ourselves? Why did she resolutely proclaim, ‘I always stand firmly for my principle and profession’? Why would she plead with the world, ‘Please, try your best to change this bad reality [in Ethiopia">.’ Why is it a moral imperative for Reeyot to pay a price for her courage while most of us expect to be paid handsomely for our cowardice?
I cannot even begin to fathom the extraordinary courage of young people like Reeyot. Perhaps courage is a virtue reserved for some very special young people. Perhaps many of us in the older generation have lost our nerve, our mettle, our consciences. Perhaps some of us believe courage is cowardice, shame is honour, fear is valour and falsehood is truth. I don’t know. But I do know many who live in the ‘capital of the free world’ write lofty opinions using pen names, pseudonyms and noms de guerre. They will boldly profess the ‘truth’ while hiding their identity in anonymity. I know many who shade, decorate and nuance the ugly truth about dictatorship with eloquent words of ambiguity, evasiveness and equivocation just to serve their personal interests. I know many who are willing to testify the whole truth about tyranny in private but not a word in public. I have heard many speak the language of silence against tyranny. I have seen many pretend to be deaf, mute and blind to crimes against humanity. I have also wondered why Reeyot and others like her are willing to pay the price for their courage and many of us lack courage. Could it be that we are unwilling to pay the price for the courage of our convictions because they have neither courage nor convictions?
I do not know Reeyot, but I know and deeply honour the courage of her moral convictions. People like Reeyot live according to ideas and beliefs that originate in higher moral, spiritual and patriotic purposes. They take a moral stand and give everything they have got for what they believe ought or should be done. They have moral concerns which reside deep in their consciences. They are driven by irrepressible impulses to help create a better world, a more just, equal and compassionate society. They are deeply concerned about their fellow human beings and the human condition. They are outraged and disgusted by injustice, abuse of power and arbitrariness because it offends their basic sense of morality. Citizens like Reeyot are neither bound nor motivated by personal gain. They do not seek the approval of others. They reject herd mentality and groupthink. They know there is a personal price to be paid for their courage and are willing to pay it come what may. They know the price for their courage is the price of their soul. Such is the life story of heroes and heroines!
Reeyot can walk out of that ‘barbaric’ prison at any time. All she has to do is get down on her knees, bow down her head and beg to be ‘pardoned’. But Reeyot does not want a pardon because she has done nothing wrong for which she needs to be pardoned. Following her sentence in the kangaroo court, Reeyot’s father, responding to a reporter’s question on whether he would advise his daughter to apologize and beg for a pardon, replied:
‘This is perhaps one of the most difficult questions a parent can face. As any one of us who are parents would readily admit, there is an innate biological chord that attaches us to our kids. We wish nothing but the best for them. We try as much as humanly possible to keep them from harm…. Whether or not to beg for clemency is her right and her decision. I would honour and respect whatever decision she makes… To answer your specific question regarding my position on the issue by the fact of being her father, I would rather have her not plead for clemency, for she has not committed any crime.’
Robert F. Kennedy once said, ‘moral courage is … the one essential, vital quality for those who seek to change a world that yields most painfully to change. Each time a person stands up for an idea, or acts to improve the lot of others, or strikes out against injustice, (s)he sends forth a tiny ripple of hope, and crossing each other from a million different centers of energy and daring, those ripples build a current that can sweep down the mightiest walls of oppression and resistance.’ Because our sister Reeyot stood up and exposed the injustices of Ethiopia's tyrants, she has sent a tiny ripple of hope to 90 million of her compatriots.
I want to thank and honour Reeyot for teaching us the real meaning of courage. I thank her for sending a tiny ripple of hope to her generation (though I strongly doubt my generation could feel the tiny ripples); for standing up against tyrants and clawing at the mightiest walls of oppression with a ballpoint pen and scraps of paper. Reeyot and so many others languish in prison while the rest of us close our eyes, seal our lips and plug our ears so we hear no evil, see no evil and speak no evil about evil. I believe we all have three choices in the face of the evil of tyranny. We can evade and avoid it behind a badge of shame. We can pretend there is no evil behind a badge of indifference. Or we can, like Reeyot, face evil wearing the red badge of courage and become the voice for the voiceless. If we can't be a voice for the voiceless, could we at least be a voice for those imprisoned voices of the voiceless?
POSTSCRIPT: It is painful and embarrasing for me to see many Ethiopian heroes and heroines like Reeyot, Serkalem, Eskinder Nega, Woubshet Taye, Dawit Kebede and others recognized, honoured and celebrated by international human and press rights organizations year after year while we seem oblivious of their extraordinary plight and personal sacrifices. Why can't we honolur them? Celebrate them? Pay tribute to them? If we don't show love, honour and respect to Reeyots, Serkalems, Eskinders and ..., why should others?
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* Alemayehu G Mariam is professor of political science at California State University, San Bernardino.