Food or morals? This Brecht quote and dilemma underlies the discussion about the freedom of speech and other human rights: which comes first, the chicken or the egg? Will the respect for human rights increase automatically as a result of a flourishing economy? Or, do human rights such as education, rule of law, and a fair allocation of resources need to be in place first—and then the economic boom will follow suit? This may seem to be an academic question reserved for university seminars, but it isn’t. It is about which policy that paves the way for democratic rule.
The question is somewhat skewed, with regard to some parts of the world that are in and out of the media spotlight: the countries on the horn of Africa, specifically Ethiopia and Eritrea.
In 1993, after the war, when a referendum held by the UN showed that a majority of the people in Eritrea wanted independence, there were high hopes of a development towards democracy in the country. This inspired the writer Dawit Isaak, at that time living in Sweden, to return to his native country to take part in the establishment of a free press. This endeavour came to a tragic end in 2001 when the politicians clamped down on those who had demanded democratic reform and on the journalists who had reported about it. Those who are not yet deceased are still imprisoned—among them Dawit Isaak. Eritrea has, since then, become one of the world’s most isolated countries with a mass-emigration of educated citizens and an economy on the downfall. Reporters Without Borders rank the country as having the worst oppression of the press in the whole world—it has position 180 out of 180 in the Reporters Without Borders index.
It is both remarkable and frightening that the neighbouring country Ethiopia has position 142 out of 180 in the same index. As Reporters Without Borders states, the persecution of journalists and writers intensified during 2014. Before the elections that same year six daily newspapers were closed down, approximately thirty journalists were forced to flee the country, and several bloggers were imprisoned. Unlike Eritrea, Ethiopia accepts a lot of financial aid from the rest of the world and they are welcoming international companies to increase their presence in the country. A large number of international actors are of course accepting this offer—both NGOs and companies—while the suppression of those who are demanding democratic rights is on the increase.
Looking at both of these countries in one sweep it is noticeable that freedom of speech and a democratic development need a third factor in order to materialize—international capital and national independence do not suffice. If only one or two of these factors are in place a country can still suppress its own citizens. From a PEN perspective a country’s development is always about strengthening people’s rights to openly discuss their inner affairs in any language or in any genre. This freedom will always be a value in itself and a fundamental pre-requisite for all kinds of development. This is why people always will claim their right to express themselves and their ideas despite the often harsh consequences they face.
This issue of PEN/Opp is dedicated to narratives from these two countries in East Africa where the freedom of expression is subjected to severe oppression. Take the opportunity to listen to a few courageous voices from inside this repressive realm—they are the ones to decide which path to take towards more freedom and new possibilities.