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