TIME could not have picked a more appropriate year to honor journalists and the press as its Person of the Year than 2018. The first reason is symbolic as December 10, 2018, marks the 70th anniversary of The Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which included “the right to freedom of opinion and expression” as an inalienable ‘human’ (not ‘democratic’) right.
The second reason is practical as 2018 is also a year when journalism and journalists, which TIME named as “the guardians” of truth, faced a renewed battle from all directions. Fifty-three journalists have been killed in 2018 for or while doing their job. The killing of Jamal Khashoggi hit the headlines more than most, but it was not an exception.
It made the headlines for reasons ranging from the graphic nature of his killing to the profile of the persons involved at both ends. The killing of the four journalists and one admin staff of Capital Gazette at their office in the United States also raised brows as the US is considered the beacon of democracy where such things are not supposed to happen. Otherwise, the killing of journalists is not uncommon.
In fact, in 2018, one journalist died almost every week somewhere in the world. But killing journalists is not the only attack that is directed against the press. Populist politicians with awesome powers – from Trump to Bolsonaro, from Mohammed bin Salman to Sheikh Hasina – have waged even more dangerous propaganda wars against the media frequenting popular terms such as “fake news”, which aim to erode the very element that sets journalism apart from gossip in – trust in its integrity.
And for all these reasons, I am fully behind TIME’s decision to honor Jamal Khashoggi, Maria Ressa, Wa Lone and Kyaw Soe Oo, and The Capital Gazette as Person of the Year 2018. And I believe that recognition by TIME played a big role in getting event organizers to choose journalists to lead the 60-second countdown to midnight on New Year’s Eve at Time Square, New York, an honor bestowed each year upon people and organizations that inspire the world in the concluding year.
I only wish TIME also recognized PM Abiy Ahmed of Ethiopia, who took great personal and political risks when freeing all jailed journalists within days of his appointment as PM of Ethiopia, a country otherwise known as one of the world’s worst jailers of journalists. I wish he was celebrated along with all those heroes and heroines, perhaps as an example of the light that is still flickering in the darkness that has befallen journalism all around the world.
And that light is unique because it comes from the most unexpected of places. PM Abiy Ahmed made Ethiopia a country with no journalist in prison for the first time since 2005, when the country had notoriously jailed 18 journalists at the same time. This is no short of a miracle to anyone, but it particularly means a lot to me as a person who quit journalism too early for fear of having to choose between jail and exile, and as a person who quit teaching journalism for the moral reason of not sending my students to a battlefield I did not have the courage to dare myself.
Under the guardianship of PM Abiy Ahmed, Africa’s youngest leader, journalists in Ethiopia will not have to choose between journalism and jail. Within weeks of his appointment, over 250 websites that were blocked by the previous regime were unblocked. Hundreds of exiled journalists are going back home, some of whom re-establishing their closed media houses. That is what I wished for him to be celebrated for.
In their last-day-of-2018 report, CNN dubbed him the “Prime Minister who captured Africa’s imagination.” BBC called him “leader promising to heal a nation.” Ghanaian journalist Elizabeth Ohene described him as the man doing “the equivalent of making the sun rise from the west”. And Africa Leadership Magazine honored him as African of the Year 2018 with him winning over 85 percent of total votes submitted. More than anything, about four million Ethiopians poured to the streets and squares of Addis Ababa and celebrated his leadership. The man is not short of recognition.
But recognition from TIME would have demonstrated two things. First, it would have sent a message to the rest of the new generation of African leaders that the world also pays attention to the good things they do in their respective countries, not just the errors they make. Second, it would have shown powerful ones like Trump that if they don’t give the leadership normally expected from the greatest offices they sit in, somebody will do it from the humblest of places.Third, it would have demonstrated TIME’s appreciation of the hardships journalists went through to do what they live to do – seek and report the truth, in the most unfriendly circumstance which was the “old” Ethiopia.
Ed.’s Note: Behailu Shiferaw Mihirete (@behailus) is a graduate student of Politics and Communication at the London School of Economics (@MediaLSE). The views expressed in this article do not necessarily reflect the views of The Reporter.