Ethiopian security forces arrested Eskinder Nega, a prominent online columnist, former publisher, and editor of now-shuttered newspapers, on vague accusations of involvement in a terrorism plot. The arrest came five days after Eskinder published a column in the U.S.-based news website EthioMedia that criticized the government for misusing the country’s sweeping anti-terrorism law to jail prominent journalists and dissident intellectuals.
CPJ believes the charges are part of a pattern of government persecution of Eskinder in reprisal for his coverage. In 2011, police detained Eskinder and threatened him in connection with his online columns that drew comparisons between the Egyptian uprising and Ethiopia’s 2005 pro-democracy protests, according to news reports. His coverage of the Ethiopian government’s repression of the 2005 protests landed him in jail for 17 months on anti-state charges at the time. After his release in 2007, authorities banned his newspapers and denied him licenses to start new ones. He was first arrested in September 1993 in connection with his articles in the Amharic weekly Ethiopia, one of the country’s first independent newspapers, about the government’s crackdown on dissent in Western Ethiopia, according to CPJ research.
Shortly after Eskinder’s 2011 arrest, state television portrayed the journalist as a spy for “foreign forces” and accused him of having links with the banned opposition movement Ginbot 7, which the Ethiopian government designated a terrorist entity. In an interview with Agence France-Presse, government spokesperson Shimelis Kemal accused the detainee of plotting “a series of terrorist acts that would likely wreak havoc.” Eskinder consistently proclaimed his innocence, but was convicted on the basis of a video of a public town hall meeting in which he discussed the possibility of a popular uprising in Ethiopia if the ruling party did not deliver democratic reform, according to reports.
In July 2012, a federal high court judge in Addis Ababa sentenced Eskinder to 18 years in prison, according to local journalists and news reports. Five exiled journalists were convicted in absentia at the same time.
Also in 2012, a U.N. panel found that Eskinder’s imprisonment was “a result of his peaceful exercise of the right to freedom of expression,” according to a report published in April 2013.
In May 2013, Ethiopia’s Supreme Court rejected an appeal and upheld the sentence.
In January 2014, the World Association of Newspapers and News Publishers awarded him its annual Golden Pen of Freedom award.
An open letter, said to have been written by the journalist, was published on blogs in February 2016. Ethiopian Satellite TV, an independent station run by Ethiopians in exile, cited a recently released inmate saying Eskinder had been subjected to psychological harassment, including the confiscation of his Bible and notebooks.
Authorities are holding Eskinder at Kality Prison in Addis Ababa. Soleyana Gebremichael, the coordinator of the Ethiopia Human Rights Project, told CPJ that access to Eskinder is restricted to a few people. Eskinder has been denied access to reading material since 2014, and only two family members have been allowed to see him for short visits, Mesfin Negash, an Ethiopian journalists based in Sweden, told CPJ. Mesfin said he had been in contact with Eskinder’s family in November 2017.
In April 2017, the International Press Institute named Eskinder the “69th World Press Freedom Hero” in recognition of his “unflinching dedication to the free exchange of ideas.” His wife, Serkalem Fasil, told the institute that the award was “bittersweet,” but said that she hoped it “expedites his release from imprisonment.”
CPJ called and emailed Ethiopia Information Minister Negeri Lencho and called government spokesperson Mohamed Seid on multiple occasions in September and October 2017 for comment on this and other cases of imprisoned journalists. The minister and spokesperson did not answer nor reply to text messages.