Writer, journalist, blogger, and free speech activist Eskinder Nega, the 2012 recipient of PEN American Center’s Freedom to Write Award, lived in Washington, D.C., before returning to his native Ethiopia to start one of the country’s first-ever independent newspapers. On Friday, Eskinder was back in D.C.–not physically, but as the subject of a candlelight vigil at the African American Civil War Memorial that commemorated the first anniversary of the blogger’s arrest and sent the message that those jailed for peacefully exercising their right to freedom of speech are never forgotten.
This is Eskinder’s ninth imprisonment in 21 years while reporting the news in Ethiopia, according to the Committee to Protect Journalists. The most recent charges against him include involvement in “terrorism”–a grave charge that prosecutors backed with a YouTube video of a public meeting where he had discussed the implications of the Arab Spring in Ethiopia. The government charged him under the country’s anti-terrorism law–the same legislation he had criticized in a column five days before his arrest. In the column, Eskinder had expressed his indignation at the imprisonment of 73-year-old actor Debebe Eshetu on terrorism charges and noted that dozens of political dissidents and a handful of independent journalists jailed with him did not fit the profile of terrorists.
There was much public condemnation, both from Washington and abroad, after Eskinder was convicted of involvement in terrorism in July and sentenced to 18 years in prison. Prominent voices increasingly questioned whether the U.S. privileged its strategic security relationship with Ethiopia at the expense of human rights.
We at Amnesty International’s Young Professionals for Human Rights in Ethiopia decided that this event, unlike previous vigils and protests, would occur neither in front of the symbols of the U.S. government nor around the Ethiopian Embassy in D.C., but instead on U Street, where hundreds of Ethiopians, and Americans of Ethiopian origin, sprawl at any given time. Our motto: Take the event to the people!
Eskinder’s aunt, who lives in the D.C. area, surprised us by appearing at the vigil, where she expressed her desire to see him out of prison. Maran Turner, executive director of Freedom Now, an organization serving as Eskinder’s international pro bono legal counsel, spoke on the case that her organization had filed with the United Nations Human Right Council. We also thanked Jason McLure, a former Bloomberg News correspondent in Ethiopia and the founder of FreeEskinderNega.com, for his campaign that unreservedly calls for the blogger’s release from jail.
Eskinder’s case is symbolic of a wider crackdown on dissent that began in Ethiopia in the months following the Arab Spring, perhaps to pre-empt the possibility of organized anti-government protests like those in Egypt. Today, six journalists and dozens of political dissidents remain in prison in the country, most of them on terrorism and anti-state charges. Yet the most egregious weapon used by the Ethiopian government against critics has been the 2009 anti-terrorism law.
The terrorism law contains provisions so vaguely worded that they criminalize what are natural rights unequivocally enshrined in the constitution of Ethiopia. Some of the attendants at the vigil suggested that maybe our efforts would be better directed toward a complete repeal or partial amendment of the law so that it could be used only to prosecute genuine acts of terrorism. But we all agreed that Eskinder and other jailed political prisoners give a human face to the total injustice and unfairness of the law.
Mahlet Solomon, one of the organizers, told the group, “Dissent is not terrorism, and Eskinder’s case is the true face of the violation of freedom of expression in Ethiopia. Remembering Eskinder is remembering the afflictions of all those who have criticized these violations and were persecuted.”
This was the second event that we have organized around Eskinder and the issue of free speech. At the first event, in August, we discussed freedom of expression in the age of the Internet and social media. We plan to organize more events, sensitize more people to the cause, and campaign for free speech. Some dare us to “fight like man,” an open invitation to violent confrontation of the oppressive regime, but we at the group say, “We fight like a civilized man and woman with our pens and notebook, with our keyboards and with our arts.”
The following words, written by Eskinder Nega and read aloud at the event by Jason McLure, never fail to remind us of the imprisoned blogger’s unwavering optimism.
Freedom is partial to no race. Freedom has no religion. Freedom favors no ethnicity. Freedom discriminates not between rich and poor countries. Inevitably, freedom will overwhelm Ethiopia.