Crying onstage in front of a crowd is not my thing, but a few days ago, as I stood next to Serkalem Fasil, I couldn't hold back my tears. It was a bittersweet moment because Fasil had just received the prestigious PEN/Barbara Goldsmith Freedom to Write Award on behalf of her husband, Eskinder Nega.
He faces life in prison on charges of terrorism and incitement to violent revolt after writing an article discussing the implications of the Arab Spring uprising for democracy in Ethiopia. And Nega is not alone in being on the receiving end of an ongoing government crackdown on independent journalists in Ethiopia, many of whom are also being silenced by arrests and imprisonment. Many have fled the country to keep hope (and themselves) alive.
As the emcee for the evening, I was scheduled to make brief remarks and close the evening, but instead I was moved to ask the indulgence of the audience of some 500 writers, editors and publishers. Then I poured out my heart, so full, since this was the first time I had seen Fasil since 2007, when I visited her in Kality Prison, just outside of Addis Ababa.
Kality is where she and her husband, Nega, were then serving time for what the government called terrorism but which was, in fact, an instance in which independent journalists were doing their job reporting the news as honestly as they could. In this case they were reporting on the government's crackdown on opposition parties in the 2005 parliamentary election in which some 200 opposition supporters were killed, followed by mass arrests of journalists and others not aligned with the government.
Nega was not alone in his criticism of the Ethiopian government. The European Union accused the government of vote rigging, and the Carter Center (on whose board I serve) cited postelection irregularities. I had gone to Addis with two members of the Committee to Protect Journalists, on whose board I also serve, to encourage the government of Prime Minister Meles Zenawi not only to spare the journalists' lives — since the charge of terrorism carried the death penalty — but also to ask for their release altogether.
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:
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.' "
It is time for me to return to Ethiopia and try to see the prime minister, to plead yet again for the journalists' freedom and for their right to free expression. And maybe, just maybe, in the interim, when Prime Minister Zenawi attends a G-8 Summit Food Security at Camp David on May 19, American officials can weigh in, too, on the importance not only of strategic partnerships but also of freedom of speech in a democracy.
Charlayne Hunter-Gault, a regular contributor to The Root, is the author of To the Mountaintop: My Journey Through the Civil Rights Movement, published by Roaring Brook Press and the New York Times Co.