Who is restricted by the First Amendment? Differentiating between Propaganda and Journalism By Tibebe Samuel Ferenji

July 8th, 2015 Print Print Email Email

Before I go into the main article, I would like to congratulate members of Zone 9 and the journalists who were “freed” from prison yesterday. Your agony and the sacrifice you made will always will be in our memory and heart. You have shown enormous courage and discipline in face of tyranny and enormous ordeal. We will pray and continue to advocate for those political prisoners who remain in the regimes deplorable dungeons to be free. We demand that the regime in Ethiopia to free all political prisoners.

“Propaganda is the spreading of information in support of a cause. It’s not so important whether the information is true or false or if the cause is just or not — it’s all propaganda.” Propoganda.com

I consider myself a staunch advocate for freedom of expression and the press. I can’t help it but put my “two cents” on the recent controversy involving VOA “journalist” Henok Semaegzer. The controversy is prompted because of the protest against Mr. Semaegzer by Ethiopians who were protesting on July 3, 2015, in front of the White House opposing President Barack Obama’s visit to Ethiopia. Mr. Semaegzer was present at the protest site to report for VOA regarding the protest. Ethiopians who were appalled by his presence expressed their anger and shouted slogans at Mr. Semaegzer to express their frustration about his biased, unbalanced, and in some cases, false reporting about events in Ethiopia. The VOA has been forced to take corrective measures in the reports done by Mr. Semaegzer, as a result of persistent and hard work of journalist Abebe Gelaw.

After the July 3, 2015, incident was widely reported and the video was viewed by many, Ethiopians like Professor Al Mariam, journalist Demes Belete, Blogger Dawit Teshome, and others, including Tadias magazine, condemned the action taken by the protesters against Mr. Semaegzer. Some of these critics have wrongly quoted From the United States Constitution Bill of Rights First Amendment accusing the protesters hypocrisy.
Professor Al Mariam, in his article titled “A Teachable Moment for Ethiopian-Americans on July 4, 2015,” posted on Nazret.com, stated “I reassured myself it was great to live in country where no journalist is beaten, harassed, threatened, intimidated, jailed or otherwise persecuted doing the work of the independent press. I even thought fleetingly about the despicable tabloids who publish trash about celebrities and other public figures in the name of press freedom with impunity.” I have a great deal of respect for Professor Al Mariam; unfortunately, the above statement he made is contrary to the facts on the ground. This is not the first time Journalists, or those who consider themselves journalists have been harassed, beaten, even detained in the United States. As recent as 2015, reporters were harassed, rouged up, and arrested in many occasions in the United States. In 2011, several journalists were roughed up and detained by the NYPD during the Occupy Wall Street Protest.

In 2014 journalist a well-known journalist Rajdeep Sardesai was hackled, harassed and reportedly beaten by those gathered at Madison Square, New York in support of India’s Prime Minister. Moreover, in the April 2015 protest in Baltimore. Maryland journalists were beaten and rouged up by protesters and by the police, and some were also arrested by Baltimore police. This will not be the last time that journalists or those who consider themselves journalists are going to encounter danger in the United States. Unfortunately, this is the fact of life. Although I support anyone who express their displeasure against journalists or anyone else and the institution they represent, I do not condone any violence. Although some reported that Mr. Semaegzer was beaten, I did not witness in the video any beatings; and it is unlikely that anyone would dare to beat anyone in the presence of US law enforcement officials.

With all due respect to the critics of the protesters and those waive the first Amendment rights to condemen them, my take on this issue differs a great deal and I completely disagree with those who are making the issue a press freedom and “First Amendment” issue. In fact, the protesters have exercised their First Amendment Rights in condemning the presence of Mr. Semaegzer during the protest against Mr. Obama’s visit to Ethiopia. For the majority of Ethiopians, Mr. Semaegzer is considered a propagandist instead of a journalist; the fact that he works for the VOA does not make him a journalist. I know many of the VOA journalists personally and have a great deal of respect for the work they do. It is a recent memory that the regime supporters have protested against the VOA and the journalists who works for the VOA. I respect the rights of the regime’s supporters to protest. I strongly believe that the condemnation of the July 3, protesters is uncalled for. First of all, the critics have failed to distinguish between journalism and propaganda. Mr. Semaegzer has lost the respect of many because he has become a propagandist of the regime in Ethiopia instead of a journalist who reports the events objectively and truthfully. Second, even if we considered Mr. Semaegzer as a journalist, neither he nor those in his profession are immune from any protests and the hackle of protesters. Nowhere in the First Amendment do we see a clause that restricts anyone from protesting against journalists or anyone else.

In a book titled “The Element of Journalism,” Bill Kovach and Tom Rosenstiel write “Journalistic truth” is a process that begins with the professional discipline of assembling and verifying facts. Then journalists try to convey a fair and reliable account of their meaning, subject to further investigation.” In this spirit of journalism, Mr. Semaegzer have failed his duty as a journalist and doing the work of a propagandist in guise of journalism. It is because of his failure to be objective and truthful in his reporting that the protesters considered him as part of the regime and protested against him.

In this case, the First Amendment is in the side of the protesters instead of Mr. Semaegzer. The First Amendment does not forbid anyone from protesting against any individuals or institutions for any reason and regardless of their professions. The first Amendment forbids the government from restricting freedom of expression, religion, assembly and other basic rights. The First Amendment does not restrict individuals or groups, it restricts the government from imposing its will. I think the critics have failed to grasp this fact because of their wish to see a healthy political discourse in our community. Let alone propagandists, journalists and the institutions they represent are subject to protest and condemnation. We have seen in many occasions when people organized boycotts against media outlets who abuse and misuse their positions as media. It is important to remember that everyone who holds a microphone is not a journalist. We have seen protests against people like Michael Savage, Rush Limbaugh and other talk show hosts when they offended a particular community. I respect everyone’s right to freely speak and express themselves; however, one must understand speeches and expressions have also costs. The cost could come in form of protests and boycotts.

Any individual or a group of people have the right to protest against anyone. That is our fundamental and basic rights. The notion that the protesters who advocate for free press are wrong to protest against a bias “journalist” is simply wrong. We all need to put in perspective what took place on July 3, 2015 in front of the White House. I believe the critics of the protesters have wrongly invoked the First Amendment. The First amendment does not restrict the protesters from protesting against a journalist; in fact, it is precisely because of the first amendment the protesters expressed themselves in the presence of law enforcement officials. The protesters had the full rights and the protection of the United States Constitution to shout and chant slogan against Mr. Semaegzer or any other journalist for that matter; however, no one has the right to beat anyone. I did not witness any beatings, hence, I don’t see why the protesters are condemned by those who are defenders of the First Amendment when in fact all the protesters did was exercise their God Given Right, protected by the United States Constitution First Amendment.

Having said that, I am very proud of those who raised their voices when they felt that the people that they support have done something wrong. The regime supporters should learn something from this. We should not give unconditional support to anyone even when we believe we have similar objectives. We should speak out when we feel something is wrong and support when we feel the right thing is done. We all should understand the difference between government’s restriction and individual’s rights to protest, and the difference between journalism and propaganda.

  1. Die hard G7
    | #1

    Thank you Tibebe for your timely and objective response to some of articles written against the protesters and in defense of Henock Semaezgi the so called ” VOA Journalist ” for the past several years, Professor Al. Mariam fought and continue to fight the Woyane fascist regime in way no other intellectual. The only person that came close was Professor Getachew Haile. But, professor Al and Demessie failed to see objectively the people’s frustration due to the never ending criminal action preatriated by Tplf fascist Government against the Ethiopian people. Would Professor Al Mariam or Journalist Demessie Belete would write these Articles if one of their brother or sister murdered by this Rogue government and Henock Defend the government by twisting the facts and present it as those who were killed were bank robbers. In addition, both Professor Al and Demssie seems to conclude those who were protesting were at the same level of understanding the constitution the united states as they are.I was not at the demonstration that day, but I think Professor Al went too far appolgizing to Henock in the name of the protesters. This protesters are not mobs with all do respect Professor, I know most of the protesters from the video. Most have been protesting at British embassy all year long to secure Andargache Tsieg’S release. Was the Action of the protester wrong? Yes. Was it understandable. It is perfectly understandable. it is always hard to be reasonable 100% of time. We all have our own short comings.

    Professor Al please keep writing. We are blessed to have you as some one who are their to enlightened as every day.


    thanks again for your timely respone. It seems you took factual examples to argue your case and I am with on this one.


  2. Anonymous
    | #2

    Where does the late Berhanue Zerihun author-cum-journalist fit in this scheme of things between journalism and propaganda? Berhanue had unimpeachable integrity that inspired a whole generation of Addis Zemen readers. So is Tizetta Belachow of VOA, who is professionally intimidating and more importantly, could not easily bought by the tears of Woyane and its cohorts. This is to suggest that any constitutions of USA depends how much money one has and how real Wasp one is. It is illusory not solidified In other words, it is like displaying a carrot before a zebra!

  3. Ittu Aba Farda
    | #3

    This writer is trying to justify the shameful behavior by very few participants in the protest. He mentioned that US journalists were roughed up the NYPD officers during the Occupy Wall Street Protest a few years ago. What about it? And he also mentioned an incidence where an Indian protester was roughed up by the supporters of the Indian PM. Again, what about it? What is the message here? Does that mean it is okay if this VOA reporter was also violated? The video shows where some of these ruffian elements were rushing after him and at one point one of them pushed him. What would have happened if the reporter did not start walking away from them? If he is a membership card holder of TPLF, we should all accept the fact that it is his rights. In the Good’Ole USA you can be a member of a Ku Klux Klan, a Neo-Nazi, White Supremacist, Democratic or a Republican party as long as you behave lawfully.

  4. Belachew
    | #4

    Do you think that humiliating Henok a first amendment Right for the protester.They were saying Leba Leba many times.Also,his badge was lost as a result of this incident.How do you evaluate ESAT?To me both ESAT and woyane media are not following the principles of journalism.Esat hates weyane and the vice versa is true.Both of them are disseminating propaganda.Our problem is we don’t tolerate anybody’s idea-all Ethiopians.I personally disagree with Henok’s treatment.Let him write and say whatever he wants.Disprove his ideas through presentation of evidence and facts.We do not have a problem of defining freedom of speech.Our problem is exercising this right.

  5. Tibebe Samuel Ferenji
    | #5

    Dear Ittu: The example I cited regarding the NYPD’s, Baltimore Police action, and the roughing up of the Journalist from India in New York was in response to Professor Al Mariam’s statement where he said “I reassured myself it was great to live in country where no journalist is beaten, harassed, threatened, intimidated, jailed or otherwise persecuted doing the work of the independent press….” As I have said I I don’t condone violence, and I did not see any violent act by the July 3rd protesters. As you have said people have the right to join any party they want and to make any statements they want. On the other hand, people also have the right to protest on any issue and against anyone as long as their protest is peaceful. Any One can join the Ku klux Klan or any organization, and people have the right to oppose and protest against them. Similarly, Mr. Henok has the right to carry TPLF’s membership card and say anything he wants, even lie; but, his actions would not be without any cost. The protesters have the right to oppose him and they exercised their rights in form of protest.

    To Mr. Belachew: Yes Humiliating Henok or anyone else is a First Amendment Right as long as the humiliation is fact based; otherwise you could be liable for defamation. As I have said before, Mr. Henok has the right to write and say anything he wants; and his unbalanced and bias reporting was proven and the VOA was forced to take corrective action (the credit goes mainly to Abebe Gelaw). However what he says and does has cost. We all have the right to say anything we want to say; and pay the price to what we do and say. I don’t think we have a problem exercising our rights in USA. You have every right to oppose the protesters, and they have the right to protest. That is the beauty of freedom. You have every right to disagree. In Any case, in my article the point I am making is that the First Amendment forbids the government from enacting laws that restricts freedom of expression, and that it is the kind of protest that we are talking about that has the full protection of the First Amendment. With all due respect, our discussion was not about ESAT.

  6. woyane is in crisis -politically and financially?
    | #6

    Dear Itu Aba Fara

    You said that:
    ‘…the video shows where some of these ruffian elements were rushing after him and at one point one of them pushed him…in the Good’Ole USA you can be a member of a Ku Klux Klan, a Neo-Nazi, White Supremacist, Democratic or a Republican party as long as you behave lawfully.

    And the wrirer said that ‘…The protesters had the full rights and the protection of the United States Constitution to shout and chant slogan against Mr. Semaegzer or any other journalist for that matter; however, no one has the right to beat anyone. I did not witness any beatings, hence, I don’t see why the protesters are condemned by those who are defenders of the First Amendment when in fact all the protesters did was exercise their God Given Right, protected by the United States Constitution First Amendment..’

    What the difference bewteen your comments and the writer statments?

    Physically he was not touched but people protested because he misinformed the Ethiopian people and misrepresented events just to support Woyane.

    What is the issue here?

  7. Ittu Aba Farda
    | #7

    To: woyane is in crisis -politically and financially:

    Obbo Ferenji has the same conviction as mine when we both recognize the rights of the individual. I have no problem with the people in the video going into the streets protesting peacefully no matter how raucous they may sound. They were protesting the planned President Obama’s official visit to Ethiopia. That is also their rights that cannot be violated. That is the same right those close 200 peaceful souls who were callously mowed down in the streets of Addis (Finfine) in 2005 had. I hope and pray that someday those who ordered the shooting those demonstrators will be brought to trial in a fair and transparent court during my life. I am not a lawyer but I believe that there are numerous educated lawyers among us who are extremely sad about the massacre just like me. I hope they will file a case at the International Criminal Court during my lifetime. We are extremely grateful and very lucky to live in the USA. The protestors should also feel the same that the descendants of Meles are not in control here to have them mowed down like an invasive plants. But this right comes with responsibilities. If you and I have different views about a hot issue and are emotionally resolute with our convictions, we can argue quietly or shouting at each other our lungs out. But if I start touching you to enforce my views on you, that is where my rights end. It is clear that one of the protestors was chasing after the reporter and at one point he pushed him aside when they come close to a police officer. That is a no a!!! This is not the butcher Mengistu’s or Meles’ street. He was aggressively touched and at one point pushed aside. We need to mature and organizers of such very important protest have a good deal of work to do in educating their supporters. No one will take them seriously if they keep acting fueled by raw emotions. That is our difference. Peaceful protest-Ok. Pushing and laying your hands on the opposite side supporter – No.

  8. Ittu Aba Farda
    | #8

    Obbo Ferenji:

    We have no difference when it comes to the rights of the individual. My problem is one or two of the protesters who bolted toward the journalist. You can see clearly that one of them pushed the reporter aside and just before that he is seen tapping him with the small flag he is holding in his hand. That is a dignified way of making their points across. And that is illegal. Let’s say you and I disagree on a hot topic issue. We can argue as gentlemen or even shout at each other. But I start rushing after you, touching and at one pushing you, then that is not part of my rights. In fact that is illegal and can be deemed as criminal act. Those one or two individuals were lucky that they were not booked for that incidence. We have to mature and present our views in a more well organized way and dignified manner. I see this President to be keen to listen to different and opposing views.

  9. Ittu Aba Farda
    | #9

    Please read “That is not a dignified way of making their points across”.

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