Eskinder Nega message from prison

by Eskinder Nega
ADDIS ABABA, Ethiopia 

This article, originally published in the print edition of the New York Times, July 24, 2013, is a plea by jailed journalist Eskinder Nega, for the United States to exert its influence to improve conditions in Ethiopia.

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I am jailed, with around 200 other inmates, in a wide hall that looks like a warehouse. For all of us, there are only three toilets. Most of the inmates sleep on the floor, which has never been swept. About 1,000 prisoners share the small open space here at Kaliti Prison. One can guess our fate if a communicable disease breaks out.

I was arrested in September 2011 and detained for nine months before I was found guilty in June 2012 under Ethiopia’s overly broad Anti-Terrorism Proclamation, which ostensibly covers the “planning, preparation, conspiracy, incitement and attempt” of terrorist acts. In reality, the law has been used as a pretext to detain journalists who criticize the government. Last July, I was sentenced to 18 years in prison.

I’ve never conspired to overthrow the government; all I did was report on the Arab Spring and suggest that something similar might happen in Ethiopia if the authoritarian regime didn’t reform. The state’s main evidence against me was a YouTube video of me, saying this at a public meeting. I also dared to question the government’s ludicrous claim that jailed journalists were terrorists.

Under the previous regime of Prime Minister Meles Zenawi, I was detained. So was my wife, Serkalem Fasil. She gave birth to our son in prison in 2005. (She was released in 2007.) Our newspapers were shut down under laws that claim to fight terrorism but really just muzzle the press.

We need the United States to speak out. In the long march of history, at least two poles of attraction and antagonism have been the norm in world politics. Rarely has only one nation carried the burden of leadership. The unipolar world of the 21st century, dominated for the past two decades by the United States, is a historical anomaly. And given America’s role, it bears a responsibility to defend democracy and speak out against those nations that trample it.

… not much has changed since our last dictator, Mr. Meles, died last August. There have been no major policy changes. The draconian press and antiterrorism laws are still there. There has been no improvement when it comes to press freedom.

With a population fast approaching 100 million, Ethiopia, unlike Somalia, is simply too big to ignore or contain with America’s regional proxies.

As Ethiopia goes, so goes the whole Horn of Africa — a region where instability can have major security and humanitarian implications for the United States and Europe. Al Qaeda has a presence here, and hundreds of millions of aid dollars flow into the region while millions of emigrants flow out.

In other words, Ethiopia must not be allowed to implode. And it would be irresponsible for the world’s lone superpower to stand by and do nothing.

… tyranny is increasingly unsustainable in this post-cold-war era. It is doomed to failure. But it must be prodded to exit the stage with a whimper — not the bang that extremists long for.

I am confident that America will eventually do the right thing. After all, the new century is the age of democracy primarily because of the United States.

Here in the Ethiopian gulag, this alone is reason enough to pay homage to the land of the brave.


– Eskinder Nega, Addis Ababa, Ethiopia

Eskinder Nega, an Ethiopian journalist and the recipient of the 2012 PEN/Barbara Goldsmith Freedom to Write Award, has been imprisoned since September 2011.Amnesty International believes Eskinder Nega is a prisoner of conscience detailed solely for his peaceful and legitimate activities as a journalist. Join our call for his immediate release.

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Full version of this editorial by Eskinder Nega originally printed in the NY Times, July 24, 2013