By Abebe Gellaw
On November 7, 2015, journalist Serkalem Fasil posted a Facebook reminder. It was her husband’s birthday. “Four years and two months have passed since we physically separated,” she wrote.
“No matter how long it takes, I will persevere and will never give up hope with the help of Almighty God,’” she promised to her husband. Sentenced to 18 years in jail on trumped-up terrorism charges in Ethiopia, Eskinder Nega cannot read the note from his beloved wife.
The couple have been through hell together that she certainly feels his presence and unbreakable spirit is with her at all times.
When Serkalem met Eskinder nearly two decades ago, she could not have predicted the trials and tribulations awaiting them along their ways.
Eskinder is now serving 18 years behind bars for using pen and paper and sharing powerful stories and his thoughts with his people.
Theirs is a touching story of true love that has endured constant threats, attacks, prison, torture and exile spanning almost two decades. Serkalem leads a challenging life as an exiled “single mom” in Alexandria, Virginia, with their nine-year old son Nafkot, who was condemned to be born in jail
Her husband is languishing in Kaliti jail, which he referred to as “Gulag” in a New York Times op-ed that he penned two years ago. After that article was published and exposed the harsh realities behind bars, he has been banned from having access to his lethal weapons, pen and paper. He is not allowed to read anything–even his Bible, which was confiscated by prison guards.
Charged with treason and “genocide”, Serkalem and Eskinder were among a group of journalists falsely accused of causing turmoil during the 2005 national election. Unprepared to accept any electoral defeats , the late Meles Zenawi declared a state of emergency and took personal control of the armed forces. Security forces massacred hundreds of unarmed peaceful protesters and injured almost 800 others. Scores of opposition leaders, journalists, human rights activists and civic leaders, along with some 30 thousand suspected supporters of opposition parties, were also jailed.
They languished in vermin-ridden jails, where their son Nafkot was born. Serkalem was denied prenatal care in prison under the orders of Meles Zenawi. The couple were released after 18 months behind bars with the condition that they “never write, never publish and never speak out against injustice”.
In many parts of the world, journalism is a very dangerous profession. Whoever chooses to be a journalist ready to take on the challenges of telling truth to power and exposing wrongdoings, corruption, abuse of power or human rights violations knows the exorbitant costs and sacrifices that must be paid at one point or another.
In Ethiopia, journalism is not only dangerous but officially treated as an act of “terrorism”. Most of the “terrorists” convicted and jailed under Proclamation No. 652/2009, or the Anti-Terrorism Proclamation, are journalists and bloggers.
According to the latest CPJ’s data on exiled journalists, Ethiopia is the second top source of exiled journalists in the world after Syria, which took the top spot earlier this year. Fleeing from persecution and torture chambers, hundreds of journalists and writers have left the country and become hapless refugees and asylum seekers.
When Eskinder was denied permission to run his newspaper again, he resorted to publishing a series of hard-hitting blogs and opinion pieces online. In September 2011, he was arrested for the ninth times and charged with terrorism offenses.
The evidence presented in the federal Kangaroo court by the regime’s hack prosecutors was nothing but a collection of online stories and articles he had previously published. The most “damning evidence” the regime presented to prove Eskinder’s guilt was an opinion piece that contended that something like the Arab Spring was inevitable in Ethiopia unless the regime took serious political and economic reform measures. “Those who make peaceful revolution impossible will make violent revolution inevitable,” he warned quoting President John F. Kennedy.
In another op-ed–General Tsadekan, the EPRDF and the North African Revolution, he had revealed prior to his final arrest that he was detained by a group of armed men and taken to the then federal police commissioner Workneh Gebeyehu. The police boss fumed with anger and threatened him that they would no longer waste time to arrest him. “We will come to your house and will take the final action,” he told him.
Nonetheless, Eskinder was arrested again while he was picking up his son from school. His captors were cruelly videotaping his arrest mocking and laughing at the crying boy who begged them in vain to leave his dad alone.
The last decade has been the harshest for Ethiopian journalists. CPJ’s 2015 list of 10 Most Censored Countries ranked the country in fourth place, in league with North Korea, Eritrea, Saudi Arabia and Azerbaijan.
BBC World Service Africa editor Mary Harper recently posed a few questions to “Prime Minister” Hailemariam Desalegn on the disturbing state of journalism in Ethiopia.
“Free media is very essential for the democratic process and development,” Hailemariam said. He seems to have a difficulty of distinguishing between democracy and tyranny.
Hailemariam insisted that the bloggers and reporters arrested and jailed were not real journalists. To him, they are all terrorists. “This has to be very clearly underlined because that shouldn’t be confused with the noble profession journalism and the work that journalists do in this country,” he said.
While Serkalem was trying to figure out a way to celebrate her jailed husband’s birthday, another journalist arrived from Ethiopia on the same day.
Reeyot Alemu spent over four years in jail. She was denied access to medical care despite the pain of a malignancy on her breast. She is another convicted “terrorist” who suffered a lot in solitary confinement until she was suddenly released last July in advance of President Obama’s visit to Ethiopia.
In her Facebook post, Serkalem also expressed her worries about another fiery journalist and her husband’s good friend, Temesgen Desalegn. Temesgen, the former publisher and editor of Feteh newspaper has also been denied access to medical care. He is not even allowed to get painkillers. They want him to bear unbearable pains physical and mental pains like so many others before him. This is how a desperate tyranny defends itself when it feels totally besieged by the brave warriors of truth.
As Eskinder wrote in his Letter from Ethiopia’s Gulag (NY Times, July 24, 2013):
“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. I am confident that America will eventually do the right thing. After all, the new century is the age of democracy primarily because of the United States. Here in the Ethiopian gulag, this alone is reason enough to pay homage to the land of the brave.”
The land of the free and home of brave that has guaranteed us freedom and granted us refuge in these dark hours should also hear the voices from faraway jails. America can exert its leverage, at least to prod and nudge its East African ally, to release the “terrorist” journalists for its own sake.
There is no journalism without those who take risks for the sake enlightening and informing the world.
All the brave journalists that go to war zones, confront powerful tyrannies and expose crimes and atrocities deserve attention. After all, they are the light of the world.
In a lengthy piece, “Letter to My Son”, Eskinder noted that his suffering for the sake of freedom and justice is exalting. But he never denied that the most unbearable pain to him is the physical separation from his beloved wife and son. He wrote movingly:
I miss you and your mother terribly. The pain is almost physical. But in this plight of our family is embedded hope of a long suffering people. There is no greater honor. We must bear any pain, travel any distance, climb any mountain, cross any ocean to complete this journey to freedom. Anything less is impoverishment of our soul. God bless you, my son. You will always be in my prayers.
Locking up, torturing and killing journalists has never been a show of strength and power. It only magnifies the very crimes and wickedness that perpetrators of such acts of terror want to hide from the rest of the world.
Tyrants that terrorize nations don’t seem to pay attention to one important fact. When true journalists suffer, journalism also suffers and feels the pain.
Eskinder is the living defiant embodiment of press freedom. He has been given major international awards and honors including PEN America’s Barbara Goldsmith Freedom to Write Award (2012), Golden Pen of Freedom Award of World Association of Newspapers and News Publishers (2014), PEN Canada’s One Humanity Award (2015). None of these coveted prizes are reserved for criminals, tyrants and terrorists.
Eskinder today is a free man because he has inspired the young bloggers of Zone 9. He has inspired thousands of Ethiopian “citizen journalists” who freely express themselves on social media.
Eskinder is the very face of journalism today. A face bloodied and bludgeoned by the wrath of tyrants but unbowed. A face menaced by 18 years of prison but unafraid.
His life in prison means only one thing. Tyrants can jail the journalists, but never journalism.
Journalism will never die. Journalism has outlived so many tyrannies in recorded history.
We shall never forget Eskinder Nega!