Fighting for Freedom of Speech in Ethiopia

Charlayne Hunter-Gault relates the travails of married journalists Serkalem Fasil and Eskinder Nega.

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Then Fasil saw Nega, whom she had not seen since their imprisonment, other than in the room where we had just met. And as I later recalled:

It was a moment too tender to describe as he reached for her tiny, but expanding tummy, and I quickly turned away to give them an all too fleeting moment, soon interrupted by a guard calling to Eskinder.

Serkalem was silent as we walked on, past children in rags playing on the enclosed dark and dusty prison yard in the women's area. Soon, we entered a long, dark rectangular room, sparse and stark, with rows of bunk beds and little else.

There were 60 women in the room, in addition to the rats that crawled over their beds at night.

Fasil walked slowly to the very end of the room where she introduced me to several of the prisoners. They promised me they would take care of her. That included sharing the cooked beans, rice and potatoes they had in pots under their bed -- for who knows long -- brought by family members to make up for the paltry meals served in the prison.

Despite the caring sentiments of the other prisoners, Fasil rarely had the kind of nutritious food she needed in her condition. Five months into her pregnancy, she had not seen a doctor, and later, her baby was born prematurely and severely underweight.

On this occasion, as I was leaving, I fought back the tears that five years later I would shed at the PEN dinner. But I determined to do all I could to get her and her husband and the others out of that prison.

They served a year and six months before they were released. But despite the ever-present threat of still another imprisonment, they continued to speak truth to power, insisting that, in Fasil's words last week, "to create the country we want, someone has to sacrifice."

And so it is that Nega is back in prison, his newspaper shut down since 2007, except for a presence online, and facing the death penalty. A newspaper editor who printed his verbatim statement in court, questioning the independence of the judiciary and fairness of the proceeding, was given a suspended four-month sentence and fined the equivalent of $113. And it has fallen to Fasil to use her words now to keep Nega's message and hope alive.

As a mother, I was keen to know about their son. Fasil told me through an interpreter that today he is strong. I asked his name, and she told me with the kind of smile that brings more moisture back to my eyes, "His name is Nafkot, which means 'longing.' "

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