Eskinder Nega, a journalist and dissident blogger based in Addis Ababa, is one of Ethiopia’s leading advocates for press freedom and freedom of expression. Eskinder, who has been imprisoned since September 14, 2011 on vague terrorism charges following his writings discussing the local implications of the Arab Spring and criticizing Ethiopia’s slide into authorianism,is the 2012 winner of PEN American Center’s Freedom to Write Award. Three members of the U.S. congress, Sen. Patrick Leahy, Sen. Mark Begich and Rep. Ed Royce, along with prominent figures, including William Easterly, Mark Hamrick, Aryeh Neier, and 20 World Press Freedom Heroes of the International Press Institute have called for his release.
Eskinder has been publishing articles critical of the government since 1993, when he opened his first newspaper, Ethiopis, which was soon shut down by authorities. He was a general manager of Serkalem Publishing House, which published the newspapers Asqual, Satenaw, and Menelik, all of which are now banned in Ethiopia. Eskinder has also been a columnist for the monthly magazine Change and for the U.S.-based news forum EthioMedia, which are also banned. He has continued to publicly call for an end to political corruption and repression despite being continuously harassed and denied a license to practice journalism.
Ethiopia is a key Western ally in fighting Islamic extremist groups in Somalia, and thus criticism from the U.S. and Europe of his imprisonment and that of other journalists and dissidents has been muted.
Eskinder Nega’s trial for charges under the 2009 Anti-Terrorism Proclamation, which covers the “planning, preparation, conspiracy, incitement, and attempt” of terrorist acts, began on March 6, 2012. The prosecution’s evidence against Eskinder and the 23 other defendants has consisted of nearly inaudible recordings of telephone conversations and other comments and video of a town hall meeting in which Eskinder discusses the differences between Arab countries and Ethiopia. Eskinder took the stand on March 28 and denied all the charges against him, saying he has never conspired to overthrow the government through violence and admitting only to reporting on the Arab Spring and speculating on whether a similar movement would take place in Ethiopia. Eskinder’s wife, fellow journalist Serkalem Fasil, maintained that Eskinder is “a journalist, not a member of a political party.” On June 27 he was found guilty of terrorism and on July 13 he was sentenced to 18 years.
He is currently being held at Kaliti Prison in Addis Ababa, where political prisoners are housed with criminals. Familiy visits are extremely limited.
Eskinder Nega was arrested under Ethiopia’s sweeping anti-terrorism legislation on September 14, 2011, after he published a column questioning the government’s claim that a number of journalists it had detained were suspected terrorists, and for criticizing the arrest of well-known Ethiopian actor and government critic Debebe Eshetu on terror charges earlier that week. Eskinder was accused of affiliation with the banned political party Ginbot 7, and state television portrayed him and other political prisoners as “spies for foreign forces.”
Eskinder was among 24 defendants charged on November 10, 2011, and that month government spokesman Shimeles Kemal said that Eskinder stood accused of receiving weapons and explosives from neighboring Eritrea in order to carry out terrorist attacks in Ethiopia.
Eskinder had previously been detained at least six times under Prime Minister Meles Zenawi’s government over the past two decades. In February 2011, he was briefly detained for “attempts to incite Egyptian and Tunisian-like protests in Ethiopia.” In 2005, Eskinder and his wife Serkalem Fasil were jailed along with 12 other journalists for treason for reporting on the government’s violent crackdown following disputed parliamentary elections—a crackdown that included firing on protesters and mass closures of media outlets. Fasil gave birth to the couple’s son in prison in 2006. The couple was acquitted and released in 2007, but both were denied a license. Their newspapers were shut down and not allowed to reopen.
Ethiopia’s 2009 anti-terrorism law, which criminalizes any reporting deemed to “encourage” or “provide moral support” to groups and causes which the government considers to be “terrorist,” has been widely criticized both for its vague terms and for its application. As Eskinder Nega himself was insisting at the time he was arrested last year, the law has been used to imprison a number of leading journalists.
Committee to Free Eskinder Nega
PEN/American Center, Eskinder Nega page
Committee to Protect Journalists, Eskinder Nega page
International Press Institute, World Press Freedom Heroes Petition for Eskinder Nega
Freedom Now petition to UN Working Group on Arbitrary Detention.
Dear Prime Minister Hailemariam Desalegn, Minister of Government Communication Affairs Bereket Simon and Minister of Justice Berhan Hailu,
We are writing to express our objection to the Ethiopian government’s decision to jail journalist Eskinder Nega on terrorism charges on Sept. 14, 2011. We believe the government’s decision to arrest and prosecute him violates rights of freedom of speech and freedom of the press guaranteed by the Ethiopian constitution, the United Nations’ International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.
We are particularly concerned by reports from Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International that Eskinder may be subject to torture during his imprisonment.
We urge the Ethiopian government to unconditionally release Eskinder and other journalists unjustly detained; to ensure that he and others are treated humanely; to halt the use of anti-terrorism laws to prosecute journalists; and to fully defend the rights of the press outlined by Ethiopia’s constitution and international agreements.