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Standing with Ethiopia's tenacious blogger, Eskinder Nega

Eskinder Nega (Lennart Kjörling)

It would be hard to find a better symbol of media repression in Africa than Eskinder Nega. The veteran Ethiopian journalist and dissident blogger has been detained at least seven times by Prime Minister Meles Zenawi's government over the past two decades, and was put back in jail on September 14, 2011, after he published a column calling for the government to respect freedom of speech and freedom of assembly and to end torture in prisons.

Eskinder now faces terrorism charges, and if convicted could face the death sentence. He's not alone: Ethiopia currently has seven journalists behind bars. More journalists have fled Ethiopia over the past decade than any other country in the world, according to CPJ.

Eskinder could easily have joined them. In February 2011, he was briefly detained by federal police and warned to stop writing critical stories about Ethiopia's authoritarian regime. The message was clear: it's time to leave. Eskinder spent part of his childhood in the Washington D.C. area, and could have returned to the U.S.

He didn't. Instead he continued to publish online columns demanding an end to corruption and political repression and calling for the security forces not to shoot unarmed demonstrators (as they did in 2005) in the event the Arab Spring spread to Ethiopia. That's landed him back in jail--where he could remain for years in the event he avoids a death sentence.

Since then a group of journalists, authors and rights activists have organized a petition calling for the release of Eskinder and other journalists unjustly detained by Ethiopia's government. Among the signatories are the heads of the U.S. National Press Club, the Open Society Foundations, Human Rights Watch and the Committee to Protect Journalists.

The petitioners also include Maziar Bahari, the Newsweek journalist jailed by the Iranian government for four months in 2009; three former BBC correspondents in Ethiopia; development economist William Easterly; the Christian Science Monitor's Marshall Ingwerson and others.

The campaign also included a letter published in The New York Review of Books, contacts with the U.S. State Department, press releases, and media interviews. Still, making an impact is difficult. Eskinder was just one of 179 journalists jailed worldwide as of December 1, 2011, according to CPJ data. In addition, Ethiopia is viewed as a strategic partner for the West in combating terrorism and instability in East Africa, making Western governments less likely to press Zenawi on human rights abuses.

People have asked me why we should try to help someone who could have saved himself by fleeing the country. It's a good question. I suspect that even if he were to be released tomorrow, Eskinder would stay in Ethiopia and continue writing and publishing online--at the risk of being thrown back in jail.

After all, this is a reporter whose wife, journalist Serkalem Fasil, gave birth while they were both in jail following the 2005 elections. When they were released in 2007, Serkalem and Eskinder were banned from reopening their newspapers. To survive, they rented their house in central Addis Ababa to a team of Chinese telecom workers and moved to a poor neighborhood on the outskirts of the city.

Like many good journalists, Eskinder is stubborn to a fault. Standing for free speech in Ethiopia can seem a Sisyphean task, but if Eskinder is principled enough to risk more years in jail - and possibly the death sentence - it's our obligation to stand with him.

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Comments

Dear Jason,
Well written. Your solidarity is amazing. Our history books will remember you. There is nothing that unifies people of the world than "TRUTH". Your persistence and love of the truth will bear a fruit.

The dictatorial, divisive and ethno-centric regime led by the Prime Minister Meles Zenawi has bent on destroying journalists, opposition political party leaders, supporters, human right activist and others who are unsupportive and critic of his draconian ruling since he ascended on power in 1991. For the past 20+ years hundreds of thousands if not millions opposition sympathizers have been frogmarched to illegal prisons and scored are killed on a broad day light in cold blood. Meles Zenawi is a silent killer.Awake of the 2005 post election violence he has set up a labyrinth security network down to individual household. Our people have been living in complete destitution and abject misery. Accordingly, Meles Zenawi is more a curse than blessing to our beloved country. We are continue of echoing the freedom voice of Eskinder Nega and other political prisoners of conscience. God bless Ethiopia, God bless you the organizers of ''Standing with Ethiopian tenacious blogger-Eskinder Nega''

Solomon Dagnachew January 14, 2012 3:43:53 AM ET

May Ethiopian God bless you Jason and your freinds in idea. Eskinder is our real hero and God is on his side and he will always be on our heart and soul.I wish that i get a knowledge braveness, strength, comitment and heart to serve my beloved people like him.

Jason thank you for taking your time and writing about Eskinder.Jason Did you know that the Ethiopia/TPLF ruling class has Lobbyist in DC?

great piece.

The day the likes of Eskinder Nega print articles void of language that create ethnic tension getting people killed, is the day the silent majority will take Ethiopian press seriously.

Thanks a lot Jason
You are one of the few journalists who dare to call a spade, a spade and put Ethiopia's mini-dictator crimes on spot light rather than focusing only on some personalities. Meles has taken hostage of Ethiopian people for over 20yrs and yet get away with rewards from his western, Chinese & Russian allies with fancy overseas trip and Billions of Aid money to bleed the country to death. Eskinder is one of the few courageous Ethiopian journalist/blogger who has the gut to say ENOUGH to the regime in Ethiopia and that's why he and his many other Ethiopian prisoners are being incarcerated for the crimes they didn't commit. It's very tragic that the majority of mainstream media, human rights and freedom of speech advocates gave/give very little attention and lobbying as far Ethiopians prisoners of conscience are concerned. Please everybody, bear in mind that these Ethiopian prisoners are no less than their counterparts and treat the causes of both groups prisoners equally; at the end of the day both of them are charged with fabricated crimes which in the former group might end up with life imprisonment or death.
Theodros Arega
Stockholm, Sweden

To Expect justice from an Ethno-dictatorial war lord-TPLF is like expecting a bird from snakes yolk .How a minority dictatorial regime of TPLF can bring justice liberty and equaility for the mass ? its expecting the unexpected.racial Aparthied ends in South africa in 1994-While the TPLF ethnic aparthied started in Ethiopia in 1991 .Its up to the Ethiopian people to librate them selves from the Ethnic minority Tigrean War lords brutal 21+ yrs rule .
TPLF is still in power not beacuse they are strong or supported by the people but beacuse the Opposition lacks the visionary selfless and ego free leaderships

selamawit solomon January 26, 2012 6:41:24 PM ET

Eskendet Nega is a real journalist, he is not a member of any terrorist group, the people of Ethiopia need to feel what is happening to him. We need to condemn the injustice detention of Eskinder Nega. Free Esknder Nega, Reyot Alemu, Wubeshet and other political prisoners in Ethiopia.

Eskinder Nega is a true journalist. African dictators especially the likes of Meles Zenawi hates true journalist and that is why Eskinder was put in prison for 7 times. What the world is not seeing is the system of government the dictator Zenawi created in Ethiopia. It is apartheid in Ethiopia.

Journalist hero Eskinder nega.God is always be with you. you are not ONLY inside the prison,You are also in every ethiopian heart except meles and his family .i just want you to tell you one thing "one day is one day" your day will come and i know you are faithfull and strong.God bless you

I pray day and night for your release from the dark prison and back home to your lovely wife and son.Esknider God be with you!

Eskinder will remain our hero forever. He will continue inspiring the new generation of Ethiopian Journalists. His unwavering commitment,courage,insightful analysis, and sense of social responsibility are only part of the wide lessons we can take from his walk as a Distinguished Journalist. May God be with him!!!