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.