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.