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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But in the short term, we wanted at least permission to visit them and take reading materials, which up to that point they had been denied. We got that permission, and when we arrived at the prison, we were escorted into a tiny, dusty room, where the guards soon produced several prisoners, including Nega and Fasil. A few years later, when I was asked to accept another press-freedom award from the International Women’s Media Foundation on Fasil’s behalf, I wrote about my first impressions of her that day in 2007:

She was such a tiny little thing, her head gracefully covered with a scarf, at that point her pregnancy barely showing because of the full, floor-length dress she was wearing. At first she seemed a little reserved, if not perplexed. At the same time, she had an air of calm about her and moved with a slow grace so at odds with her wretched surroundings.

But in no time, my two colleagues and I had established a rapport, and while Serkalem spoke mostly in Amharic, Ethiopia’s native tongue, as her words came pouring out, the fragility disappeared and before my eyes, she was transformed into a woman determined to stand by her principles and to stand up for what she believed: that if she were guilty of anything, it was of standing for the freedom for her colleagues to speak truth to power. She didn’t believe she belonged in prison, but she was prepared to stay and fight, as long as it took, as much as it might take out of her and her unborn child.

I wanted to see where Fasil was usually confined, but I was told by the guard that it was off-limits — a prohibition that I could not accept. I had no intention of coming that far and not seeing the conditions in which she, especially, was being kept. And so I just started walking alongside Fasil down a rocky, dusty path, talking to her in words that I knew she couldn’t understand but that she pretended to, instinctively aware of what I was attempting.

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: