Journalist and blogger Eskinder Nega has been in an Ethiopian prison since Sept. 14, 2011. After being charged with “plotting terrorist acts to create public chaos” he was convicted in June 2012 and sentenced to 18 years. He is currently at Kaliti prison on the outskirts of the capital Addis Ababa. The evidence against Nega was thin, says Rhodes.
“He essentially took part in a panel discussion which discussed the possibility of an Arab Spring occurring in Ethiopia,” Rhodes said in an interview. “He has never ever encouraged any kind of violent insurrection. But discussing this in a public forum was enough for them to arrest him.”
Nega and his wife Serakalem Fasil, also a journalist, are no strangers to prison. Previously, in the unrest after the 2005 elections both Nega and Fasil were arrested and charged with treason for their reporting. They were released in 2007 after being acquitted, but not before they spent 16 months behind bars. Despite being cleared of the charges, they lost their license to publish to publish their newspapers: Asqual, Satenaw and Menelik.
Fasil, who gave birth to a son, Nafkot, in prison, stopped writing. Nega continued his work by writing columns online–work that eventually attracted the attention of the authorities and led to his current imprisonment.
In a letter to his son written from prison in March 2014, Nega wrote: “I have reluctantly become an absent father because I ache for what the French in the late 18th century expressed in three simple words: liberté, egalité, fraternité.”
In 2012, while still in prison, Nega was awarded the PEN/Barbara Goldsmith Freedom to Write award for “courage in the face of threats to free expression.” Fasil flew to New York to accept the award on his behalf.
“If Eskinder were standing here, he'd accept this award, not just as a personal honor, but on behalf of all Ethiopian journalists who toil under withering conditions today: Those who went into exile over the years… those in prison with whom he now resides," she said at the award ceremony.
This is Nega’s eighth time in prison, and reflects his personal decision not to leave the country, as have many other Ethiopian journalists. Raised in the suburbs of Washington, D.C., he has a U.S. residence permit and could have chosen to resettle in overseas.
In an interview with Ron Singer, an American author, Nega admitted that he had been tempted once to leave the country when his son had medical problems. “That was the only time I really thought about leaving,” he said. “But, if anything happens to my child … I believe in forgiving, by the way, that we shouldn’t have any grudge against the EPRDF [the ruling party], despite what it has done. I believe that the best thing for the country is reconciliation.”
In 2013, Fasil left Ethiopia with Nafkot for the U.S. in hopes of giving her son a better life. Nega remains in Kaliti prison. “He is a symbol of press freedom, or the struggle for press freedom within the country of Ethiopia,” says Rhodes. – Lakshna Mehta
Editor's note: Global Journalist's Managing Editor Jason McLure has previously done volunteer advocacy for Eskinder Nega.