No less than a dozen music concerts were cancelled in Ethiopia and around the world last week, having originally been organised to welcome Ethiopia’s New Year. The cancellations came about in the midst of collective social media campaigns targeting performers who had made preparations to hold these concerts for the holiday.
The decision to cancel these concerts by performers, their agents or organisers was made against the backdrop and during several hundred regrettable fatalities across the country due to popular protests. Indeed, the nation is mourning, and it is offensive for many to see music concerts being held during these trying times.
No less than 250 people have been killed since the beginning of the popular protests in October last year, according to the government’s own admission. Certainly, the number of people who have been killed by regional militias, federal police and the military has risen since the publication of the report by the country’s Human Rights Commission. The Human Rights Watch, a New York based but globally respected watchdog, puts the number at over 400, in its report released in April 2016. Felix Horne, the group’s researcher on the Horn of Africa, said in an article published in August in the Huffington Post that the number of people killed was “at least 500”.
These are men and women, as well as young and old who have left behind families who are still grieving. Mothers, fathers, siblings and children are bracing for the New Year with the loss of their kin still fresh in their memories.
Those who feel that it would be disrespectful to those that have perished, and to those with whom they are survived by, to mark the beginning of the New Year with a festive music concert have a legitimate cause to voice. They have to be heard and respected. Heard they have been, echoed across various social media network platforms; some have hundreds of thousands followers, and called for a mournful holiday.
But whether to heed the call for the forlorn should be left to the conscience of each individual with the desire to hold public events, whether concerts or prayer. Understandably, many of the popular performers have had their messages of condolences, show of solidarity and decision to cancel their planned concerts communicated through their personal social media pages.
Nonetheless, it should be troubling to see many others become the subject of cyber-stalking, threatened with damage to their public standing should they ignore the call and take part in the concerts. Some, however, did only to face the wrath of those active in Internet bullying.
Internet bullying is a well acknowledged vice of the virtual world. Some countries have laws banning the practice and punish the transgressors. It refers to the act of using electronic communications – such as email, text and posts on social media – to torment a victim.
One such victim was the well-known country music performer, Semahegn Belew – fondly known as Semie Balager – who defied the campaign and performed at a private hotel on New Year’ Eve. On Tuesday, September 13, he posted a more defiant message on his Facebook page, showing his resolve that he would not yield to the online campaign by people he claimed are “Smart Alecs” in the Diaspora.
Others have not had the courage of their calling, and thus gave in to threats. In a way, it should not be surprising.
The very survival of a performer in show business is anchored on the popularity of the individual in question. When that popularity is tarnished in one way or another, the foundation of the performer’s marketability goes down the ditch. This will inevitably threaten their very means of livelihood.
Almost all of the relatively big-name performers who cancelled their shows even shunned the media to come forth to put on record the reasons behind their decisions for the cancellations. In private and off the record though, the narrative was dominated by intimidation and bullying so intense that some felt threatened and feared retribution in the long run to their careers if they go ahead and take part in these events.
Although most of the performers were seen as reluctant in showing open solidarity to the boycott of the concerts and announce that they are in a state of mourning, the mere fact that they actually planned and prepared for the concerts was indicative of their prior intention to do their job on these occasions. Some of the known singers have in fact received advances only to cancel a day before the scheduled event at private venues. Others have had their promoters put bill boards across the city and commercials aired on TV, radio and newspapers promoting these concerts up until the last week of last year.
The performers have received phone calls, text messages, and in some cases insults posted on the Facebook pages of the campaigners. Some of them who were thought to have decided to pursue their plans had their photos posted, marked with a red “X”, and were called traitors.
With such threats of squandered reputations looming large if the performers go ahead and play at these concerts, most of them caved in to the pressure and backed out. The bullying denied so many in the industry a rare opportunity to make a substantial portion of their annual incomes.
It would have been understandable had this been a case where the individual performer or organiser had decided on their free will. It would have been worthy of the cause if the instrument was persuasion over stalking. Notwithstanding the difference in emotions, this is the flip side of the argument where several individuals were bullied for their choices and for expressing their opinions.
There is, however, a pattern here which should be all the more unsettling. There is a trend where a mob, largely claiming to be in opposition to the regime in Ethiopia, effectively intimidated performers here and abroad, and owners of small businesses in the Diaspora, from freely making their choices and doing their jobs, without any fear of retributions. It is a case where a restaurant owner in a western capital who took a snap alongside an Ethiopian senior official had to change her number, owing it to cyber-stalking by opponents of the government he represents.
The online bullying sets a dangerous precedent where individual rights are grossly violated and mobs now feel free to impose their convictions on others. Social media activists calling for a ‘black Ethiopian New Year’, while completely free to express their respective views, are in effect imposing theirs on others to a point that people avoid certain events. These campaigns assert dominance to a point where performers, promoters and business owners who have made extensive time and financial investments in organising events feel intimidated with retributions, cowed to be on the wrong side of the mob. It may not be too far before such individuals with such commitments start paying extortions in a bid to buy their silence or win them over.
At the heart of the controversy is the poor level of ability to respect choices made either as individuals or as a group, even in difficult times, regardless of how the choices may make us feel. One of the quintessential elements of a democratic mind set is the capacity to tolerate diverse, and at times directly opposing, views and convictions. This should have been the moral high ground claimed by those in opposition to the government of the day.
Those in direct confrontation to, or subtle opposition of, the ruling EPRDF over its worldview on individual rights and its record on the rule of law are justified in criticising its leaders. It is an incumbent with a dismal record of respecting human rights; exclusive in its style of governance; largely intolerant of organised opposition; and has preferred to rule by law.
The least expected of those who stand opposite to these is to demonstrate that they are inclusive, tolerant and willing to compromise. It is highly hypocritical of those who call for greater freedoms and to the respect of democratic rights to be deeply entrenched in oppressing differing views through intimidation and promoting only their side of the story. It is no less dreadful to see some of them lose the moral compass for justice and goodness.
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