Imprisoned Ethiopian Journalist Is Honored With PEN Award
As many of his colleagues fled Ethiopia’s crackdown on the news media, Eskinder Nega stayed to write.
A prominent journalist, Mr. Nega challenged the prosecution of fellow reporters and editors under terrorism laws in reports that ran afoul of those very same laws in the eyes of the government. He went on trial for inciting terrorism and could face the death penalty if found guilty in a hearing scheduled for later this month.
Mr. Nega has stood by his writing and maintained his right to publish. His defiant stance in defense of human rights in Ethiopia earned him a prestigious press freedom award from PEN America in what the literary nonprofit organization said was both recognition of his past work and an attempt to pressure the Ethiopian government into halting its prosecution of journalists.
His wife, Serkalem Fasil, a journalist who was jailed alongside her husband in 2005, accepted the award for him in New York on Tuesday night. “To create the country that we want, someone has to sacrifice,” she said in an interview on Wednesday.
Rights advocates argue that the United States has ignored the harsh treatment of journalists in Ethiopia, where counterterrorism is seen as the primary American focus. In its 2010 report on Ethiopia’s human rights situation, the State Department said, “While the constitution and law provide for freedom of speech and of the press, the government did not respect these rights in practice.” Ms. Fasil is to meet with State Department officials later this week.
Mr. Nega is among 11 journalists — including two Swedish reporters — arrested under broad antiterrorism laws that the Ethiopian government, concerned by the Arab Spring protests last year, has increasingly used to quash independent reporting, according to the Committee to Protect Journalists, which is based in New York. About 150 Ethiopian journalists live in exile — more than from any other country in the world, the committee said.
Despite the tightening vise on journalists, Mr. Nega and Ms. Fasil have remained in the capital, Addis Ababa. In 2005, they were jailed together in Kaliti Prison for treason because of their coverage of a disputed parliamentary election. The couple’s son, Mafkot, now 7, was born behind bars.
Ms. Fasil said that her husband was being held in the same prison now and that the guards recognized their son when she brought him to visit. She stopped writing in 2007 upon her release from jail, but Mr. Nega continued.
In 2007, three journalists from The New York Times were detained while reporting on a conflict in the Ogaden region of Ethiopia, the same area where the Swedish reporters were arrested last year. The Times journalists were released after five days. But the Swedish reporters, arrested last year, were convicted of terrorism charges and sentenced to 11 years in prison. The verdict has been harshly criticized by rights groups and the Swedish government.
After protests began sweeping across the Arab world, Ms. Fasil said the police began threatening her husband. She said the police warned that if he continued to cover protests and opposition politics in Ethiopia, he would be violating the law and could face the death penalty. “With that kind of threat, you can’t function as a journalist,” she said.
After spending his high school and college years in the United States, Mr. Nega, 43, returned to Ethiopia in 1991, and since 1993 he has published articles critical of Prime Minister Meles Zenawi’s government. His newspaper was closed in 2007, so he turned to publishing online.
He was arrested in September for posts questioning the arrests of journalists and the actor Debebe Eshetu. “Much has been said about the improbability of journalists as plausible terrorism suspects, but the case of Debebe is really a class unto itself,” he wrote in a post on Sept. 9, days before his arrest.