Tuesday, June 4, 2013

Voices in Danger: Ethiopian journalist - ‘I suffer but democracy cannot be defeated’


Voices in Danger: Ethiopian journalist - ‘I suffer but democracy cannot be defeated’


An Ethiopian journalist who was jailed for almost two decades after publishing a series of articles calling for democratic reforms has penned a letter from prison in which he attacks the “human rights crisis” unfolding in Ethiopia and describes the personal toll of facing 18 years behind bars.
Eskinder Nega, 45, has become a cause célèbre in the global campaign against suppression of press freedoms. He was sentenced last year under 2009 anti-terrorism laws, which freedom of speech activists, the UN and members of the US Congress and European Parliament say effectively ban independent journalism in Ethiopia. At his trial, Mr Nega admitted he had criticised the government, but said he had only called for peaceful steps towards democratic reforms. Ethiopia is courted by Western governments including by Britain, partly because it is seen as a relatively stable nation in the Horn of Africa. But critics say that behind this reputation lies one of the continent’s most repressive regimes when it comes to free journalism.
A copy of Mr Nega’s letter, smuggled out of his cell in Addis Ababa’s notorious Kaliti Prison, was passed to The Independent for publication as part of its Voices in Danger campaign, aimed at publicising the plight of jailed, attacked or harassed reporters around the world.

Under the headline “I shall persevere”, Mr Nega’s letter is a reaction to a ruling handed down by the Ethiopian Supreme Court on 3 May, which rejected his appeal and upheld his 18-year jail sentence. In it, Mr Nega vows to continue his fight for freedom of speech in Ethiopia. “Individuals can be penalised, made to suffer (oh, how I miss my child) and even killed,” he writes. “But democracy is a destiny of humanity which cannot be averted. It can be delayed but not defeated.”
Mr Nega cites Alexander Solzhenitsyn’s analysis of the Stalinist purges of the 1930s, which “tortured you not to force you to reveal a secret, but to collude with a fiction”.
He writes: “This is also the basic rationale of the unfolding human rights crisis in Ethiopia.”
Mr Nega’s calls for freedom of speech echo those voiced on Sunday, when around 10,000 Ethiopians marched through the capital of Addis Ababa in the first large-scale anti-government protests since the disputed 2005 election, which ended in street violence that killed 200 people.
“We have repeatedly asked the government to release political leaders, journalists and those who asked the government not to intervene in religious affairs,” said Yilekal Getachew, chairman of the Semayawi Party, which organised the protests.
Mr Getachew said the protesters also called for the government to take further steps to address issues such as unemployment, inflation and corruption, and that the march on Sunday represented “the beginning of our struggle”.
Mr Nega is one of three journalists convicted (two are awaiting trial) in the country under laws brought in after it became a key partner of America’s so-called “war on terror”. While the government claims the laws are necessary to maintain stability, critics say they confuse the actions of a free press with terrorism.
According to the Committee to Protect Journalists, Ethiopia has the highest number of exiled journalists in the world.
Against a backdrop of increasing pressure from the authorities, between 2007 and 2012, 49 journalists fled the country. According to the UN, there are currently six journalists in jail in Ethiopia, some without charge.
Ethiopia’s government says all the journalists currently in jail are there due to their terrorist activities. It says Mr Nega is in jail for writing “articles that incited the public to bring the North African and Arab uprisings to Ethiopia.” In contrast, a recent ruling by a panel of five independent United Nations experts said Mr Nega’s imprisonment came “as a result of his peaceful exercise of the right to freedom of expression”.
Throughout his career, Mr Nega has refused to be exiled or silenced, even publishing critical pieces about the government until the days before his trial last year.
He has been imprisoned nine times in the past two decades for his journalism, according to the Committee to Protect Journalists. His wife was also jailed at one stage for her activities as a newspaper publisher. She gave birth to their son in prison.
“I sleep in peace, even if only in the company of lice, behind bars,” he writes in his letter from jail. “The same could not be said of my incarcerators though they sleep in warm beds, next to their wives, in their homes.”
Eskinder Nega’s letter: I will live to see the light  at the end of the tunnel
I shall persevere! ‘So I may do the deed that my own soul has to itself decreed’ – Keats.
Individuals can be penalised, made to suffer (oh, how I miss my child) and even killed. But democracy is a destiny of humanity which can not be averted. It can be delayed but  not defeated.
No less significant, absent trials and tribulations,  democracy would be devoid  of the soul that endows it  with character and vitality. I accept my fate, even embrace  it as serendipitous.
I sleep in peace, even if only in the company of lice, behind bars. The same could not be said of my incarcerators, though – they sleep in warm beds, next to their wives, in their homes.
The government has been able to lie in a court of law effortlessly as a function of the moral paucity of our politics. All the great crimes of history, lest we forget, have their genesis in the moral wilderness of their times. The mundane details of the case offer nothing substantive but what Christopher Hitchens once described as “a vortex of irrationality and nastiness”. Suffice to say that this is Ethiopia’s Dreyfus affair. Only this time, the despondency of withering tyranny, not smutty bigotry, is at play.
Martin Amis wrote, quoting Alexander Solzhenitsyn, that Stalinism (in the 1930s) tortured you not to force you to reveal  a secret, but to collude in  a fiction.
This is also the basic rationale of the unfolding human rights crisis in Ethiopia. And the same 1930s bravado that show-trials can somehow vindicate banal injustice pervades official thinking.
Wont to unlearn from history, we aptly repeat even its most brazen mistakes.
Why should the rest of the world care? Horace said it best: Mutato nomine de te fabula narratur. (Change only the name and this story is also about you). Where ever justice suffers, our common humanity suffers, too.
I will live to see the light at the end of the tunnel. It may or may not be a long wait. Whichever way events may go, I shall persevere!
Liberté, égalité, fraternité. History shall absolve democracy.
Written by Eskinder Nega from Kaliti Prison in Addis Ababa
African giant: Ethiopia profile
Africa’s oldest independent nation is also its second-most populated, and boasts one of the fastest-growing economies on the continent. It has long been seen by the West as a bulwark against radical Islamists in neighbouring Somalia, and is seen as one of the most stable countries in the Horn of Africa.
However, its government, led by the Prime Minister Hailemariam Desalegn, who was sworn in last September following the death of long-term leader Meles Zenawi, is also frequently criticised by human rights groups for cracking down on opposition and the media on the grounds of protecting national security. The country’s 547-seat legislature only has one opposition member.
Anti-terrorism legislation passed in 2009 has meant anyone who is caught publishing information that could induce readers into “acts of terrorism” are liable to jail terms of up to 20 years.
In addition to tightening its grip on the opposition and media, the government has also been accused of meddling in the day-to-day religious affairs of Ethiopians.
Muslims, who comprise about a third of Ethiopia’s 86.5 million people, have staged protests against the government, including mosque sit-ins in 2012, to call for some jailed religious leaders to be freed. The majority of Ethiopia’s population is Christian.
Ethiopia denies interfering in religious affairs, but also says it fears militant Islam is taking root in the country.
http://www.independent.co.uk/