A Freedom to Write Retrospective: Eskinder Nega
Each week leading up to the PEN Literary Gala and the conferrence of the 2014 PEN/Barbara Goldsmith Freedom to Write Award on May 5, PEN will feature the story of a previous winner. The Freedom to Write Award is given each year to an imprisoned writer who has made significant contributions and endured personal sacrifice in the defense of free expression. Although 35 of the 38 writers who were in prison at the time they won the award have been freed, this week’s featured winner, Eskinder Nega, is not yet one of them.
Two years ago, the stunningly beautiful journalist Serkalem Fasil stepped off a flight from Addis Ababa at JFK Airport and walked through the crowds and into the arms of a friend, an exiled Ethiopian publisher who was there to welcome her to PEN. Mere hours later, Serkalem stepped up on stage at the Museum of Natural History and brought the crowd gathered for the annual PEN Literary Gala to tears when she recalled her life with her husband, imprisoned journalist Eskinder Nega, who was being honored with the 2012 PEN/Barbara Goldsmith Freedom to Write Award.
Eskinder, a journalist based in Addis Ababa but raised in the suburbs of Washington, DC, is one of Ethiopia’s leading advocates for press freedom and freedom of expression. Eskinder has been publishing articles critical of the Ethiopian government since 1993, an endeavor that had landed him in prison at least six times before his last arrest.
In a twist worthy of the greatest dystopian novel, on September 14, 2011, Eskinder was arrested under Ethiopia’s sweeping anti-terrorism legislation 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 a well-known Ethiopian actor and government critic on terror charges earlier that week. In Ethiopia, Eskinder found, questioning the use of a certain charge makes you the target of said charge.
He is serving an 18-year prison term in Addis Ababa’s Kaliti Prison.
Serkalem knows what it’s like behind bars, too. In 2005, she was arrested along with Eskinder and imprisoned for 17 months on treason charges for their critical reporting on the government’s violent crackdown of protests following disputed elections. She gave birth to the couple’s son, Nafkot, behind bars.
Noting that “prison has been Eskinder’s home away from home for the past two decades,” she told the rapt audience that May evening two years ago, “If Eskinder were standing here, he would accept this award not just as a personal honor, but on behalf of all Ethiopian journalists who toil under withering repression in Ethiopia today, those forced into exile over the years, those in prison with him now, and even those who serve in state media for no other reason than making a living.”
Last year, like so many of her fellow journalists, Serkalem went into exile in the United States. Her last visit to Eskinder was the last time they spoke.
Dear Eskinder, you may be behind bars, but here at PEN you are certainly not forgotten. We continue to honor you, and we will keep fighting for you until you are reunited with your family and free to speak your mind.
WRITING BY ESKINDER NEGA
Letter from Ethiopia’s Gulag
I Shall Persevere!
Debebe Eshetu’s arrest and New Year
Ethiopia: Time for peaceful change
Gadhafi’s fall and Meles Zenawi
SOS: Dissent and terrorism in Ethiopia
Open letter to Prime Minister Meles Zenawi
LEARN MORE ABOUT ESKINDER NEGA
Read PEN’s letter to Secretary of State John Kerry
Read “Free Eskinder Nega!” by William Easterly, Peter Godwin, Aryeh Neier, Kenneth Roth, and Joel Simon from The New York Review of Books
Read the New York Times‘ profile of Serkalem Fasil