Ethiopia: The Dangerous Case of Eskinder Nega-The New Yorker
July 21, 2012
The New Yorker: July 17, 2012
The last time I saw Eskinder Nega was in 2006, on the outskirts of Addis Ababa, and what remains etched in my mind is the image of him gently rubbing his pregnant wife’s stomach during a rare, brief encounter on a dirt path on the way back to their respective prison cells. Both had been arrested and put in Kaliti prison by the Ethiopian authorities for critical reporting of a violent crackdown on protests following disputed parliamentary elections, in which, according to some reports, security forces killed nearly two hundred people. Eskinder and his wife, Serkalem Fasil, a newspaper publisher, were acquitted in 2007, but their publications were banned and the Ethiopian government denied them licenses to launch new newspapers. But Eskinder persevered. He was educated in the United States, at American University in Washington, D.C., where he studied economics and continued to write on American-based Ethiopian diaspora news sites, pursuing what he saw as his duty as a journalist: holding the Ethiopian government accountable to its democratic promise.
The couple’s son, the child who was born in that prison, is now seven years old; if the government has its way, he will be twenty-five years old when his father has his freedom again. Eskinder was arrested last September, a few days after publishing an online article criticizing the government’s misuse of an antiterrorism law to arrest independent journalists and political dissidents. (One of those arrested was the seventy-two-year-old iconic Ethiopian actor Debebe Eshetu.)
And Eskinder is not alone. More than a hundred other Ethiopians, including nine journalists, were charged under the sweeping, not to mention vague—but let’s do mention it—antiterrorism law. The law was passed in 2009, and was “a game changer,” as one journalist told me when I was in Ethiopia recently.
The specific charge against Eskinder was that he conspired with a banned opposition party called Ginbot 7 to overthrow the government. At his trial, government prosecutors showed as evidence a fuzzy video, available on YouTube, of Eskinder at a public town-hall meeting, discussing the potential of an Arab Spring-type uprising in Ethiopia. State television labelled Eskinder and the other journalists as “spies for foreign forces.” There were also allegations that he had accepted a terrorist mission—what the mission involved was never specified.
Even writing about Ginbot 7 and similar groups is apparently considered an offense. Al Jazeera was accused of “direct and indirect assistance to terrorist organizations” after an exclusive report on another organization that the Ethiopian government has formally designated as terrorist: the Ogaden National Liberation Front (O.N.L.F.), a violent separatist group in Somalia. And two Swedish journalists embedded with the O.N.L.F. were also found guilty on the same charge and sentenced to eleven years in the same prison as Eskinder. Five exiled journalists sentenced in absentia with Eskinder received in-absentia prison terms ranging from eight years to life. The leader of the opposition party, currently a professor at Bucknell University, in Pennsylvania, was sentenced to life. Many others have fled the country.
I travelled to Ethiopia recently and, with two colleagues, met with the Minister of Information in my capacity as a board member for the Committee to Protect Journalists, and asked for release of the journalists. We weren’t alone. The U.S. government—which is at the top of the list of international donors that contributed an average of $3.56 billion a year in aid to Ethiopia between 2008 and 2010—according to the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development, condemned the sentences of Eskinder and the others. Victoria Nuland, a State Department spokeswoman, said that the U.S. was “deeply concerned” about Eskinder’s conviction, and that it “raises serious questions and concerns about the intent of the law, and about the sanctity of Ethiopians’ constitutionally guaranteed rights to freedom of the press and freedom of expression.” The statement continued:
The arrest of journalists has a chilling effect on the media and on the right to freedom of expression. We have made clear in our on going human rights dialogue with the Ethiopian government that freedom of expression and freedom of the media are fundamental elements of a democratic society.
While the American government has praised Ethiopia for coöperating in counterterrorism efforts in neighboring Somalia, its individual country reports on human rights found that Ethiopia had arrested “more than 100 persons between March and September  including opposition political figures, activists journalists and bloggers,” and that “the government charged several of those arrested with terrorist or seditious activity but observers found the evidence presented at trials to be either open to interpretation or indicative of acts of a political nature rather than linked to terrorism.” So the U.S. government knows that there’s a problem. There is no way of knowing whether the journalists’ case was taken up quietly at the highest levels when Prime Minister Meles Zenawi visited the United States in May, as one of four African heads of state invited to attend a G-8 Summit on food security. But the United States, in its new Africa strategy announced in June, has made the promotion of democracy a top priority. Here is a great test case.
What is baffling is that the ruling Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front (E.P.R.D.F.) remains the predominant political party by a wide margin. In 2010, it and affiliated parties won five hundred and forty-five of five hundred and forty-seven seats, giving it a fourth consecutive five-year term. Electoral victories like that make one wonder what is really behind the repression. What, too, is to be made of countries like Ethiopia abandoning reform and reversing years of difficult struggle for democratization? Ethiopia’s current rulers were once freedom fighters, not so different from South Africa’s A.N.C. They promised to do things differently and to be accountable to their people. Now, they risk turning into freedom’s enemies, criminalizing peaceful means for Ethiopians to exercise their constitutional rights, such as freedom of expression or freedom of association. Ethiopia has grown a lot in twenty years, but it is on the verge of living out a favorite saying of one of my old journalism professors: we learn from history that we do not learn from history.
While in Ethiopia, I also met with Eskinder’s wife, Serkalem. I had seen her for the first time since our prison meeting when she accepted the PEN American Center Freedom to Write award in New York this past May. She said, with her characteristic intensity, that she had recently visited Eskinder, taking food to him in prison, and told him of our pending visit. His one request, she said, was to assure us that he was in no way associated with any terrorist group. Eskinder plans to appeal his sentence in the coming days.