The New Statesman Christmas campaign 2013: Help get Eskinder Nega home

The 44-year-old journalist was recently imprisoned for eighteen years on "terrorism" charges after criticising the Ethiopian government's use of anti-terror laws to silence free opposition.

Inside the front cover of the programme for Amnesty International’s Media Awards earlier this year was a list that made for sobering reading. Under the headline: "The following journalists have been killed or imprisoned for carrying out their work", a list of over 300 names in tiny print filled four columns of the A4 page.

One of those names was 44-year-old Ethiopian journalist Eskinder Nega. In June last year, Eskinder was convicted of "terrorism", somewhat ironically, after writing articles criticising the government’s use of anti-terror laws to silence its critics, and for speculating on whether the Arab Spring uprisings could be replicated in Ethiopia. His reward for exercising his right to free speech? Eighteen years behind bars.

Eskinder is no stranger to the dirty cells of his Addis Ababa prison block. This is his eighth spell in jail in ten years. Each time he’s been sent down for defending human rights.

And he’s not the only one. Last year Amnesty recorded a number of cases in Ethiopia where journalists and political opposition members were sentenced to lengthy prison terms on terrorism charges after calling for reform, criticising the government, or for links to peaceful protest movements.

To make matters worse, their trials were marred by serious irregularities, including a failure to investigate allegations of torture; denial of, or restrictions on, access to legal advice; and use of confessions extracted under coercion as admissible evidence.

The crackdown on journalists and opposition politicians is part of a wider worrying pattern. According to Amnesty’s 2012 annual report, dissent is not tolerated in any sphere and peaceful protests are suppressed. Arbitrary arrests and detention are common, and torture and other ill-treatment in detention centres is rife. Further, many communities around the country have been forcibly evicted by the authorities to free up land which is then sold to foreign investors.

A few years ago, Eskinder’s wife Serkalem - also a journalist - fell foul of the Ethiopian legal system. She was pregnant in 2005 when she was sentenced to two years in prison, where she was forced to share a small, filthy cell with 70 to 80 prisoners and where she gave birth to their son, Nafkot. Eskinder was also in prison at that time, as was family friend and former opposition leader Birtukan Midetska.

Birtukan told Amnesty that Eskinder is one of the most "virtuous" people she knows in Ethiopia.

"He really believes in the good of all of us," she said. "It’s vivid in his personal life and his activism. The love he has for his country, his dedication to seeing people live a dignified life – it’s really huge."

"He didn’t start his activism with just criticising the government. He always gave them the benefit of the doubt. He was relentlessly committed to expressing his views, his ideas."

It was that commitment that triggered a campaign of harassment including threats, a ban on the newspaper he ran with Serkalem, and his repeated imprisonment. In 2005 when all three were jailed, Eskinder was thrown into solitary confinement for months on end. Somehow he managed to retain his optimism and belief in his cause, said Birtukan.

Amnesty has designated Eskinder a "prisoner of conscience" - as it did with Serkalem and Birtukan when they were in prison - and is calling for his immediate release. His case features prominently in Amnesty’s annual Write for Rights campaign, which the New Statesman will be supporting in the run up to Christmas.

The campaign successfully connects men and women, young and old in the UK with people elsewhere who have been wrongly imprisoned, at risk of harassment and intimidation for carrying out human rights work and to family members seeking justice for their loved ones.

As Amnesty has seen in previous years, not only does sending a letter to the authorities and the people at risk remind the recipients that thousands are aware of their plight and are standing in solidarity with them, it also sends a worrying signal to the authorities who see the number of messages being delivered to these men and women at risk that the world is standing up with them, and for them.

When Birtukan’s case was featured in Write for Rights in 2009 after she received a life sentence for her opposition politics, all the cards and letters were a lifeline.

"In 2009 only my mum and daughter were allowed to visit me," she said. "I was really cut off from the whole world. I didn’t have access to the media. We were not allowed to talk about Amnesty International’s initiatives but my mum mentioned to me that Amnesty people were trying to advocate for me. That was like a silver lining. It gave me hope. It connected me to the real world."

Birtukan was finally released in October 2010.

“The pressure you guys were exerting on the Ethiopian government was instrumental in securing my release,” she said.

It takes just two minutes to do the same for Eskinder. Visit https://www.amnesty.org.uk/eskinder and do so today.

Every week in the run up to Christmas the NS will feature a profile from Amnesty of a figure we particularly urge you to support. You can see all the pieces together here.

Serkalem Fasil and Nega Eskinder with their son Nega Nafkot. Image: Private.
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The problem with grammar schools – and the answer to Labour's troubles

This week's news, from Erdogan the despot, to memories of Disraeli, and coffee and class.

Whom should we be cheering in Turkey? Coups are by their nature ­anti-democratic, whatever the rhetoric of their instigators, but Recep Tayyip Erdogan, the Islamist president, is about as much of a democrat as Vladimir Putin. Once he regained power, he dismissed several thousand judges, putting some under arrest. A large number of journalists were already in prison.

As recently as 1990, nearly half of Turkey’s employed population worked on the land and, even now, the proportion is more than a quarter. Erdogan has ruthlessly exploited the pious, socially conservative instincts of his people, who are rarely more than a generation away from the peasantry (and therefore politically “backward” in the Marxian sense), to win elections and push through economic liberalisation and privatisation. His foreign affairs ministry claims that the aim is to confine the state’s role to health, basic education, social security and defence. That is good enough for most Western governments. Provided he also co-operates in limiting the flow of Middle Eastern migrants into Europe, Erdogan can be as Islamist and authoritarian as he likes.

 

Quick fix for Labour

I have an answer to Labour’s problems. Its MPs should elect their own leader while Jeremy Corbyn continues as party leader. The former, recognised by the Speaker as the leader of the parliamentary opposition, would get the usual state aid for opposition parties. Corbyn would control Labour Party funds and assets.

He and his hardcore supporters should welcome this arrangement. Their aim, they say, is to build a new social movement. Relinquishing the burden of parliamentary leadership would leave them free to get on with this project, whatever it means. Corbyn could go back to what he enjoys most: voting against the Labour front bench. He would no longer have to dress up, bow to the Queen or sing the national anthem. This, I grant you, would not be a satisfactory solution for the long term. But the long term is more or less extinct in British politics. If Labour had peace for a few months, it might be enough. The situation would be resolved either by Corbyn falling under a bus (preferably not one driven by a Labour MP) or the Tory government collapsing in the face of a mass people’s uprising demanding Corbyn’s installation as supreme ruler. Don’t tell me that neither is likely to happen.

 

Divide and rule

The choice of Birmingham as the location to launch Theresa May’s leadership campaign, combined with proposals such as worker representation on company boards, has drawn comparisons between the new Prime Minister and Joseph Chamberlain.

Chamberlain, who as mayor of Birmingham in the mid-1870s tore down slums, brought gas and water supplies under public control and opened libraries, swimming pools and schools, was a screw manufacturer. There was an Edwardian joke – or, if there wasn’t, there ought to have been – that he screwed both major parties. He became a Liberal cabinet minister who split the party over Irish home rule, putting it out of power for most of the next 20 years. He and his followers then allied themselves with the Tories, known at the time as the Unionists. He duly split the Unionists over tariff reform, excluding them from office for a decade after the Liberals won the 1906 election.

Chamberlain was a populist who brilliantly combined patriotic imperialism with domestic radicalism, proposing smallholdings of “three acres and a cow” for every worker. One can see the appeal to some Brexiteers but he was also divisive and volatile, making him an odd role model for a supposedly unifying leader.

 

Mind your grammar

Justine Greening, the new Education Secretary, is the first to be wholly educated at a mainstream state secondary comprehensive. Pro-comprehensive groups were almost lyrical in praise of her appointment. Yet, unlike her predecessor-but-one, Michael Gove, she declines to rule out the ­return of grammar schools.

To understand how iniquitous grammar schools were, you need to have attended one, as I did. Primary-school friendships were ruptured, usually along lines of social class. The grammars were rigidly stratified. I was in the A stream and do not recall any classmates from semi-skilled or unskilled working-class homes. They were in the C stream and left school as early as possible with a few O-levels. No minister who wants a “one-nation Britain” should contemplate bringing back grammar schools.

 

Living history

Simon Heffer’s recent account in the NS of how his father fought in the Battle of the Somme led one letter writer to ask if anyone alive today could have a grandparent born in the 18th century. Another NS reader replied with an example: John Tyler, a US president of the 1840s, born in Virginia in 1790, had two grandsons who are still alive. Here is another possibility. “As Disraeli said to my husband . . .” If you hear a 94-year-old say that, don’t dismiss her as demented. Disraeli died in 1881. A 71-year-old who married a 24-year-old in 1946 (not impossible; the actors Cary Grant and Anthony Quinn both married women 47 years younger) could have spoken to Disraeli as a boy.

The past is not as far away as we think, though many politicians and journalists behave as though anything before 1980 happened on another planet.

 

Milk money

The class system is alive and well in parts of England. On a family weekend walk, we came across a small village with two adjacent pubs – one clearly for the toffs, the other more plebeian. This was most evident when ordering coffee. The downmarket pub told us that it served only UHT milk with its hot drinks. The other was ostentatiously horrified at the suggestion that it might serve any such thing. 

Peter Wilby was editor of the Independent on Sunday from 1995 to 1996 and of the New Statesman from 1998 to 2005. He writes the weekly First Thoughts column for the NS.

This article first appeared in the 21 July 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The English Revolt