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Jailed Ethopian Journalist Eskinder Nega Speaks Out

The piece you’re about to read – by Eskinder Nega, one of Ethiopia’s most courageous independent journalists – underscores the possibility for tyranny when dictators adopt the permissive shield of “anti-terrorism” as cover for repressionBy Charlayne Hunter-Gault, 3 October 2012

Eskinder, who had already been jailed on several occasions for his writing, provides a chilling first-person account of a warning he receives from the federal police commissioner: Stop practicing journalism, or you will be killed.

It is precisely this tyranny against free speech and expression that propelled me twice to Ethiopia to press for a return to constitutionally guaranteed freedoms and sanity. In both trips, my colleagues from the Committee to Protect Journalists and I spoke truth to power – in the first instance, in 2006, to Prime Minister Meles Zenawi himself. Meles surprised us then by granting permission to visit Kality prison, where many journalists were being held, including Eskinder Nega and his then-pregnant wife, Serkalem Fasil.

We spoke with several of the journalists, including Eskinder, in a small room just inside the prison gates. Educated in the United States and speaking fluent English, Eskinder took the lead, providing details of the journalists’ harassment by government officials following their reporting of election irregularities, including close to 200 deaths at the hands of state security forces – information confirmed by a 10-member public inquiry (the judge heading of the inquiry subsequently fled Ethiopia after numerous death threats). We were able to deliver the journalists reading materials, which they had been denied up to that point. It is impossible to describe their gratification. Up to that point, Eskinder had also been denied the chance to visit to his then-pregnant wife, but she was allowed to attend our meeting. As they walked back to their separate prison quarters, Eskinder was able to gently caress her, and her expanded tummy, in a brief but moving exchange.

Within a year, the journalists were released (for the moment), but Eskinder’s newspaper was closed by the government. He then turned to online publishing, where he continued to draw the government’s ire. His latest arrest, in September 2011 – his eighth time in prison – came with the charge of treason after he publicly questioned the arrests of other journalists and iconic Ethiopian actor Debebe Eshetu.

Our investigation, which included visits to Ethiopia by CPJ members, determined that Eskinder’s only “crime” was simply speaking truth to power, including speculating upon whether an Arab Spring-type revolution could ever come to pass in Ethiopia. The prospect of such a revolution might well scare the regime in power, but writing and speaking about the subject –providing the Ethiopian people with information they can use to make intelligent decisions about their lives and their government – cannot be construed as a crime under law.

Today, a new Ethiopian leader has the opportunity to release the remaining journalists and start a new chapter guided by the rule of law. I have often quoted Martin Luther King’s famous line: “ The time is always ripe to do right.” It’s true in Ethiopia, on the one-year anniversary of Eskinder’s arrest, never more than now.

* Charlayne Hunter-Gault is an award-winning journalist with extensive experience covering Africa and is a member of the Boards of the Committee to Protect Journalists and The African Media Initiative.More on Eskinder Nega:

General Tsadekan, the EPRDF and the North African Revolution

Rush, rush, rush. Time is flying. The article has not been finished. Write, edit, delete, write again, revise, it doesn’t have end. Two hours left. The last minutes are for coffee. Alas!

Friday is like that, for me, for the journalist. I have appointment on Friday morning with Ethiopians who reside Washington D.C. via skype. I am rushing to be on time for my appointment. Other Ethiopian Diaspora could meet me anytime.

I log out my email and stand up. It is hard to sign in and out of a simple email window. Fast broadband Internet gave birth to the North African revolution, and now the revolution-phobic EPRDF-led Ethiopian government [Ethiopian People's Revolutionary Democratic Front] is struggling against fast internet access. As the Ethiopian proverb goes, “Clueless dude will marry a pregnant woman”; EPRDF is trying to dry the source of revolution out of frustration, and fast Internet and social media are targets.

She politely says, “one hour and seven minutes”. I feel like I’m waking up from my sleep. I didn’t know that I spent an hour in front of the computer. Time is flying with invisible wings.

I have to leave the Internet café. I don’t even ask for my change. I leave the place. I turn right and walk down the hallway… Now I am leaving the building but should use the stairs to go to the main road. I am walking with my head down.

I hear a voice: “That’s him!”

Two Federal Police and another person in plain clothes are coming towards me. One of the officers has his police radio ready. The other has his his AK-47. He has his sleeves folded up to his big muscles. He holds the gun like a straw. My eyes meet those of this young policeman. He is in his twenties and confused. The shock and confusion on his face are his split-second’s admission that he is not here to arrest a “terrorist.”

“You are wanted!” says the other federal police officer with a commanding voice. This policeman hasn’t folded his shirtsleeves to show off his muscles, but rather is busy with his radio communications. He is trying not to create a confrontation.

“I am ready,” I answer.

I suddenly smile. This will be my eighth time to go to jail. But when I think about my son, my face changes. I feel like I’ve lost my mind. A new situation! A new feeling! I did not have a kid when I was imprisoned the last seven times.

The federal policeman stands behind me and says, “Let’s go!”

The policeman with the gun leads me to their police Land Cruiser, which they’ve parked in the middle of the road. The Land Cruiser doors are opened. He keeps walking fast. People start gathering to see the final unpleasant incident.

We approach the Land Cruiser. The backdoor swings open; there are three more young policemen with AK-47s. All of them are in their early twenties, and ready to snap into action any time.

The Land Cruiser is stopped in the middle of the road. Other cars behind it are stopped now, too. The one-way road is blocked and a traffic jam is fully in progress, the traffic flow halted by the sudden situation. I am the center of attention for the moment.

The policeman (with the radio) opens the passenger-side door and says, “Get in!”

The driver, in a Federal Police uniform, doesn’t bother to look at me. He just wants to leave the place as soon as possible. I sit on the passenger side; the policeman with the radio enters and shares the passenger seat. The passenger- side door is still open as the driver peels out and accelerates away.

The Land Cruiser is speeding to De Gaulle Square. There is a silence in the car. The driver face is stony, frozen. The policeman next to me heralds the news on his police radio that I am under control.

When we reach De Gaulle Square, he suddenly orders the driver to change course: “Mexico square!”

This I didn’t expect; I thought they would take me to my second home – the Central Investigative Office. The driver increases his speed as we pass Jerusalem Building. We leave the old post office behind and start driving to Churchill Avenue, then Theodros Square, Black Lion, National Bank, Wabe Shebele Hotel…and, finally, Mexico Square. The Land Cruiser stops at the other gate of Federal Police Building. What a relief!

Another armed policeman approaches the car; the person next to me opens the window and just says, “Hello.”

The armed policeman goes back and opens the gate. The rush is over. The car moves slowly as we enter the compound.

This is the back side of the Federal Police building – the side guarded by armed policemen. The Land Cruiser parks at the back of the building. The person with radio gets out of the car first.

“Shall I?” I ask, assuming I have to get out of the car.

“Yes,” he says.

He leads us into the building. Two policemen sit at the door, but they are unarmed.

The radioman says, “I’m going to the commissioner,” and takes out his gun.

One of the other policemen receives the radioman’s gun. The other policeman seems still to be trying to figure out who I am.

“The commissioner wants to talk to him,” The radioman says. The doorkeeper policeman nods in approval.

“Let’s go!” he says.

Serious faces befitting the Federal Police predominate as the authorities move through the building, here and there, running up and down. They look busy. Some of them pass me with bemused glances: “Who is this guy?” This is not a building typically visited by “customers.”

Before I get to the commissioner’s office, we meet a civilian guy. He doesn’t salute, but takes us instead to small room with two tables.

“Empty your pockets. You can’t enter with anything in your pockets,” he says. His voice is soft. Neither his face nor his voice fit this place, both better befitting a university lecturer.

I show him what I have: “Its all papers,” I say. He takes them, my articles now in police possession.

“What do you have in your back pockets?” he asks.

“Papers,” I say, handing them over.

“That is it?”

“I have my mobile, bank notes, a pen and coins…”

“Take them out!”

Oww, I also have keys. I forgot them. He receives all my items. “Am I going to jail directly from here?” I ask myself.

“You finished?”

“Yes!”

He checks me: my front, back, shirt pockets all checked carefully. He finds more coins. He takes them. Today’s check-up looks serious.

After checking out my pockets, he says, “I’ve finished!”

The radio policeman leads me to the commissioner’s office. The secretary welcomes us.

She stands and points to the sofa: “Please sit down,” she says.

I sit.

“The commissioner is with another person,” says the radio policeman.

Minutes pass. Officers who come to talk to the commissioner are told, “He is with someone,” and they leave.

The coffee table is full of Federal Police magazines. I find one which was published as a New Year’s “Special Edition.” Inside is an article about; “Democracy and Ethiopia.” I smile and do a quick read.

At some point, the secretary answers her boss’ line. “You can go in now,” she says.

We get up. The policeman with the radio enters the office first. The office is smaller than I’d imagined. I expected a big office. The commissioner sits on a fancy office chair. He’s dressed in civilian clothes, and he looks serious. Another person (I think the commissioner’s legal advisor) sits in front of him, dressed in civilian clothes, too.

“Sit down.” The commissioner points to the leather sofa next to the door. Ahhh! It’s relaxing and luxurious.

The radio policeman leaves after I sit down. The commissioner’s office echoes with silence for a moment.

Suddenly, the commissioner shouts at me: “Do you know why you’re wanted here?”

My eyes move from the commissioner’s to the advisor’s faces. I don’t reply.

There are papers in front of the commissioner’s desk. I see General Tsadekan’s photo and other printouts. Oww, it’s an article of mine published on Ethiomedia’s website last week.

I nod towards the printouts: “I think it is because of my articles.”

The commissioner picks up one of the papers. “You wrote about General Tsadekan and General Tsadekan!” The commissioner is angry. “The general deserves all this attention? Who is he, after all? Our government is investigating your movement. We know your plan. Your plan is to incite the people against the government, like what is happening in Tunisia and Egypt.”

The commissioner keeps talking about the General.

There is another printout on his desk, another one of my articles. The headline is: “BEN ALI’S ‘ADVICE’ TO MELES ZENAWI…”

“You are writing about General Tsadekan to divide the army?” says the police commissioner, picking up my article and at the same time using his left hand to turn the next page.

He starts asking me questions: “What did you say here? Down there: ‘The army is ours, and won’t shoot innocent people?’” he stops reading.

We look at each other. Silent.

“The top Army commanders are getting old? It is that what you said?” He throws the paper on the table. He leans over his desk. Now, he starts talking with emotion.

“What about you? Do you think you are going to live young forever? Do you think you will stay long like a dried beef jerky?” The commissioner speaks out his anger and leans back on his chair, ogling me. Then erupts again:

“What about the current General? [General Samora Yenus] Is he nothing? Is he antics to you?”

“The point of the story is different–” I try to explain, responding for the first time, but he doesn’t allow me to speak.

“I know your point. Listen! Let me tell you what will happen if the Arab Spring comes to Ethiopia as you dream of. We won’t kill citizens. First, we will come to you and your likes. We have already discussed this and decided. We are not going to come your house to detain you. We will come and take a serious action.”

He exhales.

“Are you listening?! We are tired of arresting you. We will take serious measures. Are you listening? We are tired of you! We have already decided!”

His small office seems to tremble with the boom of his voice. I have no doubt that his secretary in the other room could hear every word. His voice was scaring me.

“Make no mistake: Don’t we won’t do it. We will come down on every activist. This is the decision of the government. Now you know: You have to be careful!” the commissioner says, finally, lowering his voice.

I felt uncomfortable on the commissioner’s luxurious sofa in the wake of his terrifying words! These words were not just tossed out lightly by a government official. The commissioner is not a person who minces words. He has the aspect of an old soldier. He looks like a person born to take action, not to talk. His threat is serious.

“I follow the rules and media ethics. I am exercising my rights as guaranteed under the Constitution. I hope it will be my guardian,” I say. However, I know that in Ethiopia, law means the law of party officials. They can do whatever they want.

The deputy commissioner answers now, injecting himself for the first time. He didn’t ask permission from his boss.

“You are talking about law. But take a moment and look: Haven’t you noticed your writings and interviews are making influence upon the situation? You are plotting to create public chaos,” he says, speaking as if in fast-forward.

“I am working carefully under the umbrella of the law–”

The deputy commissioner interrupts me as soon as I start talking:

“Your message has double intents. It looks like you are following the rules, but your messages are a call to violence and riot. Let’s look at your interview with Voice of America the day before yesterday. It has a double meaning. Your message is a call for riot. On our side, we have enough evidence. If it is necessary…” He points a finger to the printouts of my articles arrayed in front of the commissioner.

Read more from Warscapes

[Eskinder Naga remains confined in Kaliti prison - the same prison where he was visited by Charlayne Hunter-Gault and her CPJ colleagues, and where his wife gave birth to their son, Nafkot, during their previous imprisonment. The piece was translated by Eskinder's friend, fellow journalist and editor Dawit Kebede Weyessa, who'd been arrested 18 times before leaving the country. Dawit, now living in the United States, is one of the founders of the Ethiopian Media Forum (EMF) providing daily news, analysis and discussion from Ethiopia and the Horn of Africa.]

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