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alemayehu g mariam eskinder nega

Ethiopia: A Special Tribute to My Hero Eskinder Nega

Alemayehu G Mariam

eskiEskinder Invictus! 

On May 1, 2012, Eskinder Nega, Ethiopia’s foremost journalist and political prisoner, will be awarded the “Freedom to Write Award”, the highest honor given out by Pen America, one of the great international free press institutions that has been in continuous operation since 1922. The award honors writers throughout the world who have fought courageously in the face of adversity for the right to freedom of expression. Eskinder will not be able to accept the award in person in N.Y. City because he is jailed by arch dictator Meles Zenawi. The award confirms Eskinder is truly an international hero of press freedom. But he is also the hero of the ordinary African who has been denied human rights and democracy. To his countrymen and women, Eskinder is the symbol of absolute defiance to tyranny, dictatorship and despotism and a candle of press freedom that shall never flame out.

Eskinder Nega: The Heroes’ Hero

Eskinder Nega has been jailed as a “terrorist” by state terrorists since last September. But he is a hero to so many heroes of press freedom throughout the world. Recently, world renowned journalists who have themselves suffered at the hands of dictatorships and others stepped up to demand Eskinder’s release. Among the petitioners include:

Kenneth Best, founder of the Daily Observer (Liberia’s first independent daily); Lydia Cacho, Mexico, one of Mexico’s most famous journalists and noted author; Juan Pablo Cardenas, Chile, chief editor of Análisis during General Pinochet’s regime and professor of journalism at the University of Chile’s School of Journalism; May Chidiac founder and president of the May Chidiac Foundation in Lebanon who nearly lost her life in a car bomb attack in 2005; Sir Harold Evans,  one of Britain’s most respected journalists and editor of The Sunday Times; Akbar Ganji, Iran’s foremost dissident; Amira Hass one of the foremost independent journalists in Israel; Daoud Kuttab,  Founder of AmmanNet in Jordan, the Arab world’s first Internet radio station; Gwen Lister, founder and former editor of The Namibian in Namibia; Raymond Louw veteran champion of press freedom and journalists’ rights in South Africa and Chairman of the South African Press Council. Veran Matic, co-founder of Radio B92 in Serbia, who provided accurate and impartial account of events in Serbia in the 1990s; Adam Michnik, editor in chief of the first independent (and bestselling) Polish daily foremost dissident and Polish human rights advocate; Fred M’membe, editor-in-chief for The Post in Zambia; Nizar Nayouf, chief editor of Syria Truth and Sawt Al Democratiyya; Pap Saine, Gambian publisher and editor Pap Saine and a Reuters correspondent for West and Central Africa; Faraj Sarkohi, a long time Iranian writer and journalist persecuted by both the Shah of Iran and the Islamic Republic of Iran; Nedim Sener investigative journalist with Turkish daily newspaper Posta; Arun Shourie, one of India’s most renowned and controversial journalists and editor of the English-language daily Indian Express; Ricardo Uceda, one of Peru’s most renowned investigative journalists and editor of newsweekly Sí, Ricardo Uceda; Jose Ruben Zamora, founder and former editor-in-chief of the independent daily Siglo Veintiuno….

These journalists in their letter to Zenawi

express[ed] [their] extremely strong condemnation of the Ethiopian government’s decision to jail journalist Eskinder Nega on terrorism charges on September 14, 2011. We believe the government’s decision to arrest him violates the rights of freedom of speech and freedom of the press guaranteed by the Ethiopian Constitution, the United Nations’ International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. The imprisonment of Eskinder Nega and other journalists represents the criminalisation of investigation and criticism, which should be part and parcel of any democratic society.

In September 2011, William Easterly, Professor of Economics, New York University; Mark Hamrick, President, National Press Club, Washington, D.C., Aryeh Neier, President, Open Society Foundations; Kenneth Roth, Executive Director, Human Rights Watch and Joel Simon, Executive Director, Committee to Protect Journalists called for U.S. involvement in securing Eskinder’s release and to “publicly repudiate Ethiopia’s efforts to use terrorism laws to silence political dissent” and “ensure that our more than $600 million in aid to Ethiopia is not used to foster repression.”

What Makes Eskinder a Hero?

There are all sorts of heroes in myth and folklore. Some become heroes for showing moral excellence and martial courage in the face of danger and adversity. Others become heroes by  fighting for honor and  principles. Still others become heroes by slaying their enemies in the battlefield. There are romantic heroes and tragic heroes. There are traditional and modern heroes; and there are unsung heroes. But all heroes share some common virtues in one form another: sacrifice, integrity, courage, determination, conviction, perseverance, and so on.

Eskinder is a hero of a special kind. He is a hero who fights with nothing more than ideas and the truth. He slays falsehoods with the sword of truth. He chases bad ideas with good ones. Armed only with a pen, Eskinder fights despair with hope; fear with courage; anger with reason; arrogance with humility; ignorance with knowledge; intolerance with forbearance; oppression with perseverance; doubt with trust and cruelty with compassion. Above all, Eskinder speaks truth to power and to those who abuse, misuse, overuse and are corrupted by power. Eskinder is the one man who looked straight into the vengeful eyes of the Beast and said: “You can arrest and jail me for the eight time; you  can beat, torture and throw me into solitary confinement; you can persecute and prosecute me; you can starve and deny me medical care in your stinking jail; you can scandalize my name and defame my character; you can even persecute and humiliate my wife and laugh at my child as he cries his eyes out when your goons manhandle me; and you can harass, intimidate and make life hell on earth for me and my family. But I will never, never, never bow down to your tyrannical rule, your corruption, your brutality, your sadistic cruelty and abysmal barbarity! For I am Eskinder Nega. I am the master of my fate and captain of my soul!”

Eskinder Nega: A Hero for All Seasons

Eskinder is a man of courage. Seven months before he was arrested, Eskinder was summoned by Zenawi’s  “police commissioner” and told to shut up or else:

Your writings on the Internet and the interviews with various media outlets were inflammatory. You write about General Tsadkan to undermine the army. But be assured that EPRDF is capable of defending the constitution. If anything happens, we will first come to you.” Eskinder asked, “Are you asking me to stop writing and giving interviews?” “No,” the police commissioner said. “But be warned that you have already crossed the boundary. We have enough to convict you already. I want you to understand that this is a serious warning.” Eskinder kept on writing until the day he was arrested vehicle picking up his son from school. (His official captors videotaped the arrest and laughed as the traumatized child cried out for his daddy.) Today Eskinder is facing “trial” in Zenawi’s kangaroo court even though he was convicted long before he committed the alleged crime.

Eskinder is a man of integrity. When Zenawi came to Columbia University in September 2010 to speak, Eskinder, and his equally extraordinary journalist wife, Serkalem Fasil, wrote a letter to Columbia President Lee C. Bollinger to expose Zenawi’s bottomless capacity for cruelty and inhumanity:

We are banned Ethiopian journalists who were charged with treason by the government of PM Meles Zenawi subsequent to disputed election results in 2005, incarcerated under deplorable circumstances, only to be acquitted sixteen months later; after Serkalem Fasil prematurely gave birth in prison.

Severely underweight at birth because Serkalem’s physical and psychological privation in one of Africa’s worst prisons, an incubator was deemed life-saving to the new-born child by prison doctors; which was, in an act of incomprehensible vindictiveness, denied by the authorities. (The child nevertheless survived miraculously. Thanks to God.)… While we acknowledge his right to express his views, it is an affront to his government’s numerous victims of repression to grant him the privilege to do so on the notable premises of Columbia… Such is the government that PM Meles Zenawi leads.

Eskinder is a man of compassion and empathy. When Birtukan Midekssa, the first woman political party leader in Ethiopian history, was released from prison having served nearly two years (without trial) on the ridiculous charge of “denying a pardon”, Eskinder spoke with her:

‘We are proud of you,’ I told her. ‘You are our hero.’ There was pained expression on her face. Something is visibly bottled up in her, pushing to explode. But there were too many people in her living room for an intimate conversation. She nodded when I finished, her head slightly inclined downwards to avoid eye contact.” Thank you,” she finally said faintly. I could barely hear her. And suddenly I felt guilty. Though I meant what I said, I worried whether I was making things worse by sounding patronizing. This is not what Birtukan needs right now. Sitting next to me is a woman at what is one of her worst moments in her life. A woman suffering profoundly on the inside — exactly what coldhearted aging men, addicted to unaccountable power after two decades at the helm of a nation they have persistently pushed towards dysfunction (so far unsuccessfully), intended in their pitiless drive to destroy their ‘enemies.’” (Ironically, today Eskinder has taken Birtukan’s place in Zenawi’s prison.)

Eskinder is a man of honor and dignity. When “abune” Paulos, the “patriarch” of the Ethiopian Orthodox Tewahedo Church commissioned a grandiose bronze statute of himself to commemorate his 18th year of papacy, Eskinder questioned:

Statuary was rejected by Orthodox Christianity because the dimensional representations were considered to glorify the human flesh rather than the divine spirit. Orthodox iconography, which has a rich history in Ethiopia, was alternatively developed to emphasize the spiritual holiness of figures rather than their humanity. And thus, no statues have ever been built for Abune Selema, who brought Christianity to Ethiopia; Yared, who developed the Church’s sacred gospel music; Lalibela, who built the Church’s greatest relic, the rock-hewn Churches in Lasta; and Abune Tekle-Haymanot, Ethiopia’s greatest native-born Saint. But they have all been amply represented by Ethiopian iconography. Why is Orthodox tradition being uprooted?

Eskinder is a witness for the suffering people of Ethiopia.

The repression is as unrelenting as ever. Food inflation has reached the atrocious 50% mark. Unemployment shows no sign of declining. Small businesses, the backbone of the expanding service sector, are suffering perceptibly. The specter of famine dominates the headlines. Corruption is getting worse. There is growing tension within the ruling party.

Eskinder is a voice of hope.

…Hope not oppression that had made revolutions possible. Neither Egyptians nor Libyans had more reason to rebel in 2011 than they did for decades. Too few were any more capable of imagining life free from the oppressive status-quo. Too many had been co-opted; many more had simply learned how to muddle through. But events in Tunisia changed everything. Change was proved possible… Hope will come to sub-Sahara’s remaining dictatorships, too. The Arab Spring has already brought it to their doorsteps. It will not wait forever to get in. No one knows which sub-Saharan dictatorship will relent first. But that is almost irrelevant. What matters is that its spread will be unavoidable once it begins. The triumph of hope in only one sub-Saharan dictatorship will beget a continent wide African Spring, hopefully all peaceful. And as Egypt, the Arab world’s biggest dictatorship during Mubarak’s reign, was the Arab Spring’s golden prize, so will Ethiopia, sub-Sahara’s biggest dictatorship, be the golden prize for an African Spring. There couldn’t have been an Arab Spring without Egypt. There will be no African Spring without Ethiopia.

Eskinder is a man with a message.

Ethiopia’s Meles Zenawi, who now leads Africa’s largest dictatorship, and who many suspect is calculating as Gaddafi did at first, should take serious note. Killings enraged Libyans as it did Tunisians and Egyptians before them. Inexplicably and suddenly massacre failed to terrorize the young any more. Despite Gadhafi’s assertion that only a drugged youth could have refused to succumb to live bullets, hope is really what had fueled the protests….

Hope is the greatest weapon against tyrants. Keep hope alive in Ethiopia!!!

I wish I had the eloquence of diction to express my deep sense of pride and respect for Eskinder Nega for he represents the quintessentially irrepressible impulse for freedom that inhabits the soul of every human being. On the occasion of the 2012 PEN/Barbara Goldsmith Freedom to Write Award, I rise to salute Eskinder Nega with William Ernest Henley (1875) poem “Invictus” (“unconquered”), a poem which sustained Nelson Mandela’s spirit through the years in Apartheid South Africa’s prisons.

Eskinder Invictus! Eskinder Aybegere!


“Strength does not come from physical capacity. It comes from an indomitable will.” Mahatma Gandhi


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