Plagiarism is Not Such a Big Moral Deal: A Belated Rebuttal to Abebe Gelawa’s Allegations
By Ambassador Tesfaye Habisso
Tigrai Online 29 January 2015
To mercilessly and viciously attack a person’s name, honor and integrity non-stop for the last four years for no other reason than a silly allegation of plagiarizing some foreigner’s paper [“EPRDF, Tesfaye Habisso and the 99.6 percent plagiarism”, Jun. 7, 2011, by Abebe Gelaw] and to reopen this endless vilification campaign anew via the ETHSAT media nowadays smacks of your hypocrisy in fretting to hide the real motive, intent and agenda of fiercely attacking the very foundations of the current government and party using my name as a scapegoat and a ‘sacrificial lamb’ (‘ahiyan tegen adirgo jibin mewugat’, as your forebears say) as well as openly propagating the Arbegnoch- Ginbot 7 opposition party platform which is bent on ousting the current regime of Ethiopia by military force or by any other means possible. My stance in this regard is very clear and unwavering: If you somehow remove the current rulers and snatch state/political power by force, you will undoubtedly rule by force and eventually you will be removed in a similar way by force of arms by any other group (or groups) that happens to wield more power than yours. Whatever your rhetoric via the ETHSAT and other media channels, you cannot make liberal democracy a reality in Ethiopia in the near future; you cannot possibly copy and paste democracy, development ,Western technology and the rule of law as one would easily copy and paste someone’s ideas or words or works. In fact, there is no guarantee that the outcome won’t be endless chaos, destruction and bloodshed akin to what has been happening in Libya, Somalia and Syria over the last decade or so. I shudder to see such events unfolding in Ethiopia at any time. Whatever the follies and frailties of the current rulers, I do not support another round of civil war and destabilization raking the country again. Democracy through evolutionary means and not through revolutionary methods is the surest path to peace, stability and progress. All other options are destined to fail. Let me now delve into the topical/controversial issue between you and me—plagiarism.
Is plagiarism really such a big moral deal outside of academia, industry and a few other areas of intellectual pursuit? I don’t think so. As Stanley Fish correctly observes,
“If you’re a professional journalist, or an academic historian, or a philosopher, or a social scientist, the game you play for a living is underwritten by the assumed value of originality and failure to properly credit the work of others is a big and obvious no-no. But if you are a musician or a novelist, the boundary lines are less clear (although there certainly are some) and if you’re a politician it may not occur to you, as it did not at one time to Joe Biden, that you’re doing anything wrong when you appropriate the speech of a revered statesman.”[Stanley Fish]
In addition, plagiarism is a curious paradox. Let me explain. Scripts for newscasters are written by accomplished journalists and professionals in the respective areas and handed over to the newscasters who air the news pretending that the scripts are their own and without being obliged to acknowledge the source, and strangely, this is accepted and not dubbed plagiarism at all.
Furthermore, politicians at all levels, bureaucrats (government, church, corporate, and trade union, etc.), famous sports figures, big-name comedians, business executives, or move stars and other celebrities employ the professional services of others (“ghostwriters”) in the respective fields to write them columns, speeches, comedy routines, documents, books or newspapers or sports magazines and
attach their names to them as owners without any uproar of plagiarism. So, if such persons can use ghostwriters to write them anything ranging from speeches to newspapers and books, why can’t Ethiopian government officials (civilian and military), for example, employ the professional services of ghostwriters to earn their diplomas or degrees for the sake of advancing their professional capacity or just to ‘inflate their ego and status’ among their peers? Though I strongly argue that this unethical practice should be discouraged at all levels in our country especially in the universities and other institutions of learning, I only wonder: If presidents and other top-notch politicians and leaders in different fields throughout the world can plagiarize from speechwriters and ghostwriters with impunity, why can’t the Ethiopian officials, cadres and other bureaucrats do the same? How can any journalist or critic have the audacity to target them only as ‘immoral humans’? This is not all. For some academic books and scientific research, the official writers are chosen for their market value, but do relatively little work. The actual writers of such “managed texts” may receive little or no credit” at all. [Coser, Kadushen, and Powell, 1982; Fischer and Lazerson, 1997]
Plagiarism is a ‘sin’ committed by human beings throughout the world since Europeans condemned it as immoral in the 18th century as written literature affirms. Many great men have built their careers on plagiarism (such as Stephen Ambrose, T.S. Elliot, Dr. Marthin King, Jr, Dr. Richard Owen and H.G. Wells) [Jonathan Bailey, Famous Plagiarists: Could it Happen Today?, March 31, 2009]. Several high profile politicians, writers, artists and educators have been found guilty of plagiarism, whether willfully or inadvertently (such as Michael Bolton, Melissa Elias, Barack Obama, Maureen Dowd, Kaavya Viswanthan, Nada Behziz, Jayson Blair, Lloyd Brown, Vladimir Putin, Senator Joseph Biden, John Walsh, Rand Paul, Hassan Rouhani, etc.) [Top 10 Plagiarism Scandals of All Time http://www.onlineclasses.org/resources/top 10 plagiarism-scandals-of...; List of Plagiarism Incidents, Wikipedia]. Even some of the top scientists in history such as Louis Pasteur and Albert Einstein were accused of plagiarism. Louis Pasteur who solved the mysteries of rabies, anthrax, chicken cholera and silkworm diseases, and contributed to the development of modern biology and bio-chemistry was vilified in his early years as a plagiarist and “master of deception”[Louis Pasteur and the Myth of Pasteurization, Wellness Directory of Minnesota: http:/www.accessexcellence.org/AB/BC/Louis Pasteur.html]. Albert Einstein, for long held up as “a rare genius”, was condemned as a plagiarist and that his only ‘brilliance’ was in his ability to PLAGIARIZE and STEAL Other Peoples’ Ideas, Passing Them off AS HIS OWN.[Albert Einstein…was he a thief, a liar and a plagiarist? http://www.biblebelievers.org.au/]. [Also see Albert Einstein: A Jewish Myth, Italian Published E=mc2 Two Years Before Einstein and The Eclipse of 1919 Albert Einstein: Plagiarist of the Century? Nexus Magazine, vol. 1 #1, Dec-Jan. 2004, Albert Einstein: The Incorrigible Plagiarist: The Secret History of the Atomic Bomb, The Manufacture and Sale of Einstein by Christopher Jon Bjerkens]. So, why make all the fuss about this silly concept known as plagiarism? Heed the following quotes: “Talent borrows; genius steals”[Stravinsky]; “Immature poets imitate’; mature poets steal” [T.S.Elliot]. An Amharic azmari also retorts: “Isn’t the stolen that is sweet?”
Whatever the case, you Abebe Gelaw have elevated me, unwittingly of course, to the level of great men and women in history who had truly or allegedly plagiarized others’ ideas, words or works without acknowledging the original owners. As a certain French scholar once said, “The stones that my enemies threw at me are building my statue. Rightly so, I believe. I retired in 2006 and joined the pensioners’ camp, forgotten by the very government that I was part of since the early years of the Transition Period. I compiled the aforementioned three papers five years after my retirement in 2011. Strangely, since recent months I have become a sort of ‘celebrity’, for good or bad, in the ETHSAT media and other news outlets. I know now that I am not forgotten by my old friends (Assefa Chabo’s interview over the ETHSAT channel, for instance) and by my new enemies (Abebe Gelaw & Co.).
Lastly, as a certain Asian scholar states: “human progress was built on the fact that a good thought or idea belongs to everybody. India would never have become an IT superpower without copying. Entire generations of Indians were brought up on the idea that software is free as long as you can copy it. Japan never invented anything beyond the keiretsu; even its famed kaizen and lean production systems—which saved on cost and ensured quality—were invented by Edward Deming and Joseph Juran… Japan’s success till the 1990s was built on copying Western products and miniaturizing and improving tem. China has entire legions of citizens employed in industrial espionage even today…. Businesses have boomed because of plagiarism. Thus plagiarism/intellectual property is the refuge of the rich, while copying is beneficial to the poor..” [R. Jagannathan, “The upside of plagiarism and why copying isn’t going to die”, Nov. 2010].
As mentioned here above, many nations such as India, Japan, South Korea and China could not have reached the present high levels of technological and economic development had it not been for their rampant copying or plagiarizing of Western ideas and technology. These countries were quite wise and far-sighted enough in selecting legions of technically-minded individuals to engage them in industrial espionage from the West. These are facts and not just allegations. Read their history of development and you can easily understand their wisdom.
The Root Cause of Abebe Gelaw’s Allegations and My Belated Self-defense, The Real Story
Some time in 2011, while combing the Internet and perusing old volumes of STRUGGLE, 1968, Voice of the University Students’ Union of Addis Abeba [USUAA ], I came across three interesting papers which I sought to share with Ethiopians at home and abroad. These were: (1) ETHIOPIA AND ETHIOPIANISM, by Abdul-Mejid Hussein, Geography IV; (2) THE QUESTION OF NATIONALITIES IN ETHIOPIA, by Walleligne Mekonen, Arts IV; and (3) THE ETHIOPIAN STUDENT MOVEMENT IN THE STRUGGLE AGAINST IMPERIALISM, by Colin Darch, a South African Scholar. I sent an abridged version of Colin Darch’s essay and the two pieces by the fourth year students of the then Haile Sellassie I University via the Internet to familiar websites that used to publish my on-and-off articles, essays and/or compilations without much ado.
I did not follow up and check whether any of the above essays/articles were published or not on the websites sent to, as it was not my deep and main concern at all. My purpose was simply sharing long-forgotten manuscripts of the 1970s with the general public when the Ethiopian Students of the Haile Sellassie I University were the key players in the nation’s political arena. After some time however, Walleligne Mekonen’s essay on The Question of Nationalities in Ethiopia provoked several negative and positive reactions from those who had read it on some websites. Some of the negative thinkers said the piece was written by Walleligne Mekonen in collaboration with the CIA to weaken Ethiopia; others retorted that Walleligne Mekonen was the enemy of the Amhara People and that he was mainly responsible for the emergence of nationalist politics in Ethiopia since 1991; some others condemned me for spreading this poisonous paper utilizing my own public e-mail address from my alleged base in Lesotho; Canada as others wrongly banished me. In fact, I was living in Addis Abeba at the time. Nothing was mentioned about Abdul-Mejid Hussein’s paper on any of the websites, negative or positive. To my utter dismay, Colin Darch’s paper provoked a cynical and scathing attack by Abebe Gelaw on Ethio-media and other websites accusing me of verbatim-plagiarizing of the author’s paper as the website that received it via my e-mail address in the form of an attachment had published the paper in my name and affixing my photo onto it, inadvertently I believe, and unfortunately and sadly, the real author’s name was missed for reasons beyond my comprehension. Whether the mistake was done by the website managers or else deliberately manipulated and altered by Abebe Gelaw himself to achieve his sinister ends, I cannot tell. I only knew this unfortunate occurrence when Abebe Gelaw’s vicious ‘naming and shaming’ campaign against me appeared on the Ethio-media website and subsequently on the Awramba Times in Addis Abeba. Through e-mail correspondence and tit-for-tat communication we had earlier, I made a futile attempt to explain the case to Abebe Gelaw honestly and candidly before he wrote his damning allegations on Ethio-media but to no avail. Perhaps it was my naivety to have expected scholarly understanding and civilized behavior from a person who had, and still has, an axe to grind against everything I value most, including the right of nations and nationalities in Ethiopia to self-determination, self-rule and shared rule under a genuinely federal democratic republic.
When Abebe Gelaw accused me of plagiarizing or wholly copying and pasting Colin Darch’s paper as well as getting it published on a certain website in my name in 2011 (“EPRDF, Tesfaye Habisso and the 99.6 percent plagiarism”, Ethiomedia, June 7, 2011) and when his damning attacks appeared subsequently on the pages of an Amharic weekly paper Awramba Times some time in 2012 or so, many of my close friends advised me not to respond to ‘this wild and irrational person who claims to be a journalist, a propagandist, an activist, and a politician at the same time obsessed with spreading hateful and destructive ideas’, and thus to “just laugh it off”, remembering his deafening and shocking barks against the late Meles Zenawi at the G-8 meeting on Dec. 25, 2012 in Washington, DC. Their advice was, “why explain to those who hate you because they won’t believe it; why explain to your friends because they won’t need it”; “it is often best not to say anything” (“silence is golden”).
With hindsight it is regrettable to have conceded to my friends’ advice and not to have sent my firm refutations immediately to the media that published Abebe Gelaw’s allegations. Silence may be golden in several cases but silence may also mean acceptance of the offence that one is accused of, as lawyers warn us. Yes, this incomprehensible lapse has caused not only for me but for several family members and friends of mine near and far extreme embarrassment and shame for long, I believe. The blame is solely mine. Though much damage has already been done to my name, honor and integrity, I cannot bear it any longer in utter silence and hence this belated but firm rebuttal in self-defense, I strongly believe, is the right thing to do now. Better late than never! This rebuttal is also necessitated and is timely, too, as the same Abebe Gelaw, along with his hired ‘lieutenants’ such as Tamagn Beyene, Ermias Legesse, Dr. Tadesse Birru, Sisay Agena, etc., has opened a new chapter in the ETHSAT media outlet to demonize me and those who stood behind the current government of Ethiopia since the transitional period (1991-1995). The much-coveted food for their vilification campaign and propaganda against me,
a long-retired public servant, and those active civilian and military officials of the incumbent regime mainly revolve around ‘plagiarism, serial plagiarism, fake and/or unearned diplomas and degrees’ …ad infinitum; that is it. “yemogn zefen mingizem abebaye, yedenqoro leqso meliso melalso”, endilu abew! His strategy copied from his role model Joseph Goebbels, the Nazi Propaganda Minister for Hitler and the Nazi Party, is quite evident: “If you tell a lie big enough and keep repeating it, people will eventually come to believe it…”
Let me firmly reiterate my self-defense in a few words to my friends and foes for the first and last time: The sole purpose and aim of spending my time, energy and money on this unpleasant task of copying others’ intellectual outputs, correcting typological mistakes again and again, and preparing them for the Internet consumption was nothing else than sharing the invaluable pieces with the general public and popularizing these long-lost or buried essays/articles in the greater interest of the “free marketplace of ideas” and “the advancement of knowledge” through the dissemination of valuable information; yes, to dig out a hidden treasure in the sea of darkness for the common good, surely and sincerely speaking not to plagiarize anyone’s ideas, words or works in order to advance my personal reputation or to make any financial or academic gain to my ‘treasury’ as wrongly alleged by Abebe Gelaw. I did not plagiarize Colin Darch’s paper wholly or partially. Full stop!
Think soberly for a moment: If by plagiarism we mean “copying another person’s ideas, words or works and pretend that they are your own” [Oxford Advanced Learner’s Dictionary, 6th edition] “in order to reap financial gain or to advance one’s academic career or to elevate one’s reputation and status”, why would a retired public servant like myself involve himself in such an unethical act when I fully well understand that there is no possibility at all of reaping the said benefits narrated here above? The very fact that I sent the three papers via the Internet without attaching any preconditions therein speaks volumes in this regard. Abebe Gelaw’s allegations of plagiarism were absurd and misguided; his emphasis on the issue via the ETHSAT media these days is misplaced and destructive. As he has an axe to grind and has not been acting out of concern for originality as opposed to plagiarism or democracy as opposed to dictatorship but the snatching of state power at any cost, he will continue playing his destructive role in the years to come. No backsliding, no turning back, I believe.