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Eskinder Nega: No good criticism goes unpunished

A fearless journalist and democracy campaigner, Eskinder Nega believed tyranny was doomed to failure in Ethiopia. His government ensured he paid a dear price for expressing that belief.


Tyranny is increasingly unsustainable in this post-cold-war era. It is doomed to failure. But it must be prodded to exit the stage with a whimper - not the bang that extremists long for.

Letter by Eskinder Nega published in the New York Times, 2013

In a 2012 interview, exiled Ethiopian satirist Abebe Tolla (better known as Abé Tokichaw) said: "Whenever anyone is arrested under anti-terrorism law now, people [automatically] ask: 'Was he/she a journalist?'" Tolla was talking about the state of the media in Ethiopia, a country which, in recent years, has seen one of the harshest, but least talked about, crackdowns on free expression in the world. Its over-zealous use of anti-terror legislation to silence dissenting journalists, and its almost carefree use of lethal violence to suppress peaceful protest have been widely condemned by human rights groups. Between 2010 and 2015, at least 60 Ethiopian journalists were forced into exile; many of the country's most famous bloggers and journalists have been jailed.

The award-winning journalist, Eskinder Nega, is a victim of this crackdown; he is currently serving an 18-year prison sentence on trumped-up terrorism charges.

For decades, Nega, 46, has been an outspoken critic of the Ethiopian government and a leading advocate for freedom of the press. Based in Addis Ababa, he launched his first newspaper, Ethiopis, in 1993, using its pages to take to task Ethiopia's autocratic (and now late) Prime Minister, Meles Zenawi. Nega was also the general manager of Serkalem Publishing House, which published the newspapers AsqualSatenaw, and Menelik. All of these - and Ethiopis - were shut down and banned by the government.

Before he began his prison sentence in 2012, Nega had been frequently harassed and detained by the Ethiopian authorities. In 2005, he and his wife Serkalem Fasil were jailed on treason charges alongside 12 other journalists following their reports of the government's violent crackdown on opposition activists (Fasil actually gave birth to their son in jail in 2006). Nega was detained on similar charges again in February 2011, when he was accused of "attempts to incite Egyptian and Tunisian-like protests in Ethiopia."

Nega's writing style is direct, provocative and fearless, as can be seen in the following extract from his March 2011 article, Open Letter to PM Meles Zenawi:

"[We are] a nation outraged by high soaring inflation; a public scandalized by unprecedented corruption, rampant unemployment, political oppression, chronic shortage of land in rural areas. In sum, the nation is desperate for change. You have essentially wasted the two decades with which you were blessed to effect change. In place of pragmatism dogma has prevailed; in place of transparency secrecy has taken root; in place of democracy oppression has intensified; and in place of merit patronage has been rewarded. Ato Meles Zenawi: the people want - no, need - you to leave office."

This kind of forthright criticism does not go unpunished in Ethiopia. It was followed by articles in which Nega questioned government claims that a number of detained journalists were "terrorists," and criticised the arrest of the Ethiopian actor and activist, Debebe Eshetu.

Nega was arrested on 14 September 2011, following the publication of the article about Eshetu. The state media went into overdrive in an effort to discredit him, accusing Nega of being connected to a banned political group, Ginbot 7, and of being a "spy for foreign forces." He was charged - alongside 23 other defendants - of receiving weapons from Eritrea with the intention of carrying out acts of terrorism in Ethiopia. This bizarre, baseless charge was roundly condemned by human rights groups.

The trial began on 6 March 6 2012. The evidence against Nega and his co-defendants consisted of scratchy recordings of telephone conversations and video of a meeting at which Nega had talked about the differences between Arab countries and Ethiopia. Nega denied all the charges against him, declaring that he had never plotted against the government, and admitting only that he had speculated on the possibility of a movement similar to the Arab Spring occurring in Ethiopia.

Fair trials are the exception in Ethiopia, especially when the defendant has already been dubbed an enemy of the state. On 27 June 2012, Nega was convicted on all charges against him. On 13 July, he was handed an eighteen-year prison sentence and was sent to Kaliti Prison, Addis Ababa, where political prisoners are housed alongside criminals. The conditions in which Nega is being held are exceptionally poor, as he summarised in a letter published by the New York Times:

"I AM jailed, with around 200 other inmates, in a wide hall that looks like a warehouse. For all of us, there are only three toilets. Most of the inmates sleep on the floor, which has never been swept. About 1,000 prisoners share the small open space here....One can guess our fate if a communicable disease breaks out."

Nega received the PEN/Barbara Goldsmith Freedom to Write Award in 2012.


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