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Eskinder Nega Profile

Eskinder Nega Profile

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Leaving was never an option. Even as his colleagues fled Ethiopia’s systematic jailing and constant harassment, journalist Eskinder Nega stayed behind to continue writing. There was simply too much to be done.

“I wouldn’t be comfortable leaving Ethiopia at this time, even for a short time,” Eskinder wrote in a 2011 email to a fellow journalist, responding to an inquiry to attend a training course in a neighbouring country. “We have so far failed to inspire the people to stand up for their rights. We must somehow overcome our failure.”

Over the past decade, Eskinder's commitment to human rights has landed him in jail at least seven times. He is currently being held in Kaliti Prison outside of Addis Ababa, serving an 18 year sentence as a convicted “terrorist” for challenging the very same laws used to imprison him, and for questioning whether the Arab Spring protests could be repeated in Ethiopia.

The government has tried to present Eskinder as a rabble-rouser set on fomenting a violent revolution. However, accounts from other Ethiopian journalists backed by court documents and the hundreds of articles he has written, portray a tenacious writer who has called only for peaceful change and reconciliation during his twenty-year professional career.

“He really believes in the good of all of us,” Ethiopia's former opposition leader Birtukan Mideksa once said of Eskinder. “It is vivid in his personal life and his activism. The love he has for his country, his dedication to seeing people live a dignified life – it’s really huge.”

A free-thinker and relentless fighter for freedom of expression, Eskinder has become an emblem of Ethiopia’s struggle for democracy. No stranger to prison, he is also an unforgettable warning to every working Ethiopian journalist that the quest to create a just, free society comes with a heavy price.

During the 2005 general elections, a glimmer of hope emerged for democracy. For the first time, voters were presented with meaningful choice at the polls, suggesting that the country's political system could evolve from a single-party to a multi-party democracy. However, after the ruling Ethiopian People's Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF) saw just how unpopular they were the authorities clamped down and claimed victory. Violent clashes broke out, the government suppressed all independent voices and closed down thirteen newspapers – none reopened.

Eskinder's newspapers – including Asqual, Satenaw and Menelik – were among them. Scores of opposition leaders, activists and journalists were jailed, while some reports said that police forces killed 193 protesters. Eskinder and his wife Serkalem Fasil, who was also renowned newspaper publisher, were among those charged with treason. The pair spent seventeen months in jail and Eskinder lost his license to practice journalism.

Serkalem was pregnant at the time of her arrest, and while in jail she gave birth to the pair’s son, Nafkot. Arriving prematurely, he was deprived of an incubator, and after waking from the Caesarean procedure Serkalem eventually found him all alone in a bed in a closed room.

“They were so frightened about the baby dying in his mother’s embrace that they took him and put him in a separate room,” said Eskinder in a 2010 interview. “Imagine! In a separate room, in a bed, alone. They shut the door and left.”

After their release, Eskinder and Serkalem, along with their colleague Sisay Agena, tried to reopen their newspapers. The authorities had wiped out the entire independent press in the 2005 post-election unrest, and the government rejected their applications. Serkalem stopped writing, but Eskinder carried on.

At the onset of the Arab uprisings at the beginning of 2011, police intensified their warnings to Eskinder, threatening more jail time and even the death penalty. Eskinder stood by his writing and speculated that what was happening in Egypt, Tunisia and other places could well occur in Ethiopia if the regime didn't reform. If it did, he urged security forces not to open fire on unarmed demonstrators as they had done after the disputed 2005 elections.

“Ethiopia must and should avoid violence. If Ethiopia shuns violence so will most of Sub-Saharan Africa,” he wrote in August 2011. “And only then will the advent of the African Spring be even better news than that of the Arab Spring.”

Five days before his arrest, Eskinder published a column calling for the government to stop the imprisonment of dissenters and highlighted the brutal conditions they faced in prison. The EPRDF had recently invoked a vague terrorist plot to imprison a group of academics, writers, and free-thinkers.

Eskinder spoke out in their defence, saying none of them fitted the profile of a “terrorist.” He referenced the infectious smile of one jailed dissident, 72-year-old actor Debebe Eshetu, and said that “inevitably, freedom would overwhelm his country”. But his words encountered the very same laws that put his colleagues behind bars, and Eskinder returned to the dusty cells of Kaliti on September 14, 2011.

Eskinder and his family could have returned to the United States where he spent part of his childhood and college years. Only once, Eskinder said, when his son suffered a brief facial paralysis, did leaving cross his mind. Instead, his desire to see change come to his country meant the risks were never too much.

Nine months after his arrest, an Ethiopian court convicted him under the country's vague 2009 Anti-Terrorism Proclamation, which has been used to imprison at least 12 journalists since 2011. Specifically, the government accused Eskinder of colluding with the outlawed opposition party Ginbot 7 in an attempt to overthrow the regime – charges he has rejected on numerous occasions.

Berhanu Nega (no relation), the co-founder of Ginbot 7 and elected mayor of Addis Ababa in 2005, says Eskinder was never linked to the group.

"We have stopped being shocked by what the government does, it's so routine," Nega said in a telephone interview. "No one expects the government to say what is truthful. It just does what it needs to do no matter how crazy or bizarre, to stay in power."

The court's key evidence: a poor quality YouTube video of Eskinder speaking in a town hall meeting about the possibility of Arab-spring like protests occurring in Ethiopia.

In his appeal to Ethiopia's Supreme Court in August 2012, Eskinder slammed the trial as unfair and inadequate. Line by line, he took apart the presented evidence, until there was none left. It made no difference, and his appeal was rejected.

If Eskinder sees out his entire sentence, his son, who now lives in the United States with Serkalem, will be 25 years old the next time his father enjoys freedom. Ethiopia's Supreme Court upheld Eskinder's 18-year sentence last year on the eve of World Press Freedom Day, May 2, 2013.

On the final page of his appeal, Eskinder called on the court to “not act as a floor for injustice, oppression [and] repression.”

“I ask to be free.”


Alexandra Waldhorn


WAN-IFRA's picture



2014-04-30 11:26

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