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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Alex Jones spread lies about the Sandy Hook massacre – grieving parents may see he pays for it

A lawsuit filed by parents of those killed in the 2012 massacre means the Infowars host might finally have to face the consequences of his actions.

It can be easy to think of conspiracy theories and those who spread them as crazy but essentially harmless. Mad ideas, repeated by kooks who are so far removed from reality that their impact on society is minimal.

The experiences of the parents of the 20 six- and seven-year-olds killed in the 2012 Sandy Hook massacre should serve as a reminder that they are anything but.

Following the mass shooting, one of the US’s most deadly, rumours spread online that the whole thing had been staged. As now happens with almost every mass school shooting, social media and forums like 4chan filled with claims that the news footage was faked, that the grieving parents were in fact actors, that their grief was not real.

One of the chief enablers and amplifiers of these theories around Sandy Hook has been Alex Jones, the puffed-up, red-faced ball of rage that runs and hosts the Infowars radio show and web TV channel.

Jones was initially cautious in his approach to Sandy Hook, despite being a regular promoter of other conspiracy theories including 9/11 being an inside job, and more recently the now infamous “Pizzagate” conspiracy, which led to a man discharging an assault rifle in a restaurant that he had become convinced was a cover for a Democrat-linked paedophile ring.

However, in the months and years after the shooting Jones became less and less cautious, raising doubts about the stories told by parents about cradling their dead children, implying and sometimes outright stating that the massacre had never happened and that the parents and authorities were lying.

As an outlet with millions of viewers and listeners, ones already susceptible to conspiracy theorising, his statements can only have encouraged those who harried Sandy Hook parents like Lenny Pozner, who lost his six-year-old son Noah in the shooting.

As Pozner told the Guardian’s Hadley Freeman last year, when he finally began emerging from the “catatonic” state he was left in after the shooting and began posting picture of his son on social media , he was deluged with comments such as “Fake kid”, “Didn’t die” and “Fucking liar”. He has received death threats, and moved many times, not just because it helps him cope with his loss, but because pictures of his home were regularly posted online.

He told Freeman of the inadequacy of government response that “lawmakers don’t know how to deal with this. Police don’t know how to police the internet, they haven’t been trained, they just tell you to turn off the computer. And people who do police the internet, they are looking for credit card scams worth millions of dollars. For 4chan trolls, this is their playground.”

But while the many lone trolls are difficult to pin down, Jones is a public face with a broadcasting infrastructure, so it is perhaps unsurprising that Pozner, along with two other parents of Sandy Hook victims, is suing Jones for defamation, seeking at least $1m in damages.

The bar for defamation in the US is (rightly) high, certainly higher than it is in the UK, because what is defined as “political speech” is protected by the First Amendment to the US constitution.

Pozner and his fellow plaintiffs must prove not only that Jones was not telling the truth, but that he did so either knowing it was false or with a “reckless disregard” for the truth. So while Jones patently spread falsehoods on his shows – and continues to do so – it is far from guaranteed that they will win. Jones, for example, has said he was playing devil’s advocate.

Nevertheless, the case raises a number of intriguing prospects, such as what happens when the claimants ask for disclosure of how Jones verified his wild claims in a bid to prove he took a reckless disregard for the truth. What will Jones do when asked in court to provide evidence of his sources?

There is also the question of how his previous submissions, during a court battle with his ex-wife for custody of their children (a fight Jones lost), that his show was “performance art”. On the one hand, it might provide him with a way of claiming that he was never making any statement designed to be interpreted as fact. On the other, it makes it difficult to argue that he truly believes what he says, which would make it hard to claim he was making his statements in good faith. 

This is not even the first time Jones has been sued over his penchant for spreading untruths. He is facing a number of other defamation suits, including one from a man who Jones claimed had organised protests against white nationalists in Charlottesville.

But the Sandy Hook conspiracy theorising is the most heartbreakingly cruel. The victims are people who lost children in the most horrific way, and who have had their grieving interrupted constantly by strangers on the internet telling them they are making it up.

And there is another aspect to Jones that makes his theorising even more deplorable. As numerous articles and a segment on John Oliver’s Last Week Tonight have explored, Jones makes money selling products that appear to offer solutions to the terrors he conjures up. From water-filters that Jones claims will cut out the kind of pollutants that, he says, turn frogs gay, to the much ridiculed Brain Force dietary supplements, Infowars operates like a crazies-only version of Amazon, slinging products on the back of the fears and anxieties he’s spent the show stoking.

These products are by and large over-priced, and of highly dubious effectiveness. Jones claims that the money is all ploughed back into his own show, which he says costs $45m to $50m a year. But as Oliver pointed out, he’s at least making enough to afford more than a couple of Rolexes.

So whether Jones truly believes the deranged theories he parrots, or is simply using their mass appeal to make a fast buck, he is still making money by preying on the easily persuadable and paranoid, and aggravating the pain suffered by those they target.

If Jones is found guilty, one of the considerations used to decide the scale of damages awarded against him is likely to be the emotional harm caused by his actions. Whatever Jones’s personal relationship with the truth, the pain he has caused to parents is undeniable. By that measure, I hope a judge decides to bankrupt him. I hope Posner and the other parents succeed in suing him into oblivion.

There would be little more fitting, or just, than if it were these bereaved parents who finally put Jones and Infowars out of business.

Jasper Jackson is the New Statesmans digital editor. He was formerly assistant editor of Media Guardian, and editor of TheMediaBriefing.