by Betre Yacob
Ethiopian prominent Journalist and blogger Eskinder Naga is one of those who have been arrested, interrogated, and threatened in Ethiopia, for exercising freedom of expression. He is currently serving his jail sentence in Kality, a notoriously brutal prison in Addis Ababa, where dozens of political prisoners are suffering. Judged a “terrorist” by the regime’s kangaroo court, he was sentenced to 18 years in prison in 2012, along with other critical journalists and bloggers.
Ethiopia is one of the leading repressive nations in the world. Particularly, the repression of freedom of expression is the most severe in this poor East African nation more than any other country. According to Amnesty International, during the past three years only, over 100 prominent journalists and influential political activists were prosecuted on fabricated charges of terrorism, and too many others were also subjected to harassment, intimidation, threat, and other violence.
Eskinder Naga, 45, is a brave and most admirable journalist and blogger that the world has ever seen. What makes him exceptional is his commitment to freedom of speech even in the face of grave risks. According to his profile, he has courageously worked as a journalist for more than twenty one years and been jailed 8 times in the past two decades only. Until his last day in freedom, he courageously wrote about the political crisis of his impoverished country Ethiopia, and bravely fought falsehoods, brutality, and oppression with the power of words. Today, this exceptional courage, resistance, and commitment to freedom of expression have made him a glorious hero in Ethiopia and a symbol of press freedom in Africa.
Eskinder served as a vital voice for independent journalism in Ethiopia that hungers for access to free information, and as inspiration for many journalists and human right activists. He found 4 most prominent newspapers which were eventually closed by the Ethiopian regime that continues its tight grip on press freedom. He has also worked as a columnist at different publications, and been a contributor of many Ethiopian online medias and news forums.
Eskinder was arrested on 14 September 2011, just a week after he had posted an article which criticises the anti-terrorism law that had been adapted by the Ethiopian government in 2009 to target perceived opponents, stifle dissent, and silence journalists. He was detained without charge and access to a lawyer. The government announced that he was accused of organizing terrorism nearly two months later. During the trial, the prosecutors claimed that Eskinder had been coordinating different activities of terrorism using his constitutional rights to freedom of expression as a cover. The evidences submitted by the prosecutors were, however, relied on his public writings and other journalistic activities. Based on such evidences, Eskinder was finally said “terrorist”, and sentenced to 18 years in prison on 10 November 2012, under the anti-terrorism law he questioned.
When Eskinder was arrested, he was bringing his 6 years old son from kindergarten. According to his wife Serkalem Fasil, the police stopped them on their way and would not even let Eskinder bring the kid home. She said that they had brutally split the boy from his father. She further said that the police officers had been recording and taking pictures as the boy had been crawling on the ground and crying watching his father who had been thrown around and handcuffed. The Committee to Protect Journalists asserted that the charge against Eskinder was baseless and politically motivated in reprisal for his writings, adding: “his conviction reiterates that Ethiopia will not hesitate to punish a probing press by imprisoning journalists or pushing them into exile in misusing the law to silence critical and independent reportings.”
The saddest reality is that the very harsh sentence handed down to Eskinder Nega was not the end but the beginning. On September 2012, the Federal High Court further ordered the property of Eskinder Nega (which includes a house and car) to be confiscated. But, surprisingly, notwithstanding these all painful punishments, Eskinder continues writing his dissenting views. For instance, in his recent article entitled “From Ethiopia’s Gulag”, which was smuggled from the prison, he criticised the Ethiopian brutal regime and recommended the US government to take appropriate action against it. In this article, he also warned that Ethiopia could be imploded in the near future as the result of the standing political and humanitarian crisis.
Born in 1968 in Addis Ababa, Eskinder had studied high school and college in the United States of America (USA). Upon completing his study, he returned to his home land Ethiopia and began to work as a journalist in 1991, with the objective to hold the Ethiopian government accountable to its democratic promise and promote democracy and freedom.
In 2005, following the controversial election in which government troops brutally killed more than 193 unarmed peaceful protesters and wounded another 763, Eskinder was arrested and charged with serious crimes such as treason and genocide. This was for the 3rd time that he was jailed for practicing journalism, but what makes this one too different was that he was not alone but with his then pregnant wife, Serkalem Fasil, a journalist and newspaper publisher, who later gave birth to a son with no pre-natal care in her very small and crowded cell. Eskinder and his wife were released in 2007, by presidential pardon. Up on his release, Eskinder was banned from publishing his newspaper–named Satenaw, and denied a license to launch a new publication. But, this didn’t stop him from speaking out. He was able to write his dissenting views online, until he got arrested.
Eskinder Nega is the recipient of the PEN/Barbara Goldsmith Freedom to Write Award.