Eithiopian Publisher, Free From Jail, Still Faces Charges – By Peggy Simpson
Serkalem Fasil, a 2007 IWMF Courage in Journalism Award winner, has packed a lot into her 27 years. She grew up an avaricious reader and learned the ropes of reporting in secondary school.
She had no role models or mentors, but she was active in an amateur journalists association. There are no journalism schools in Addis Ababa where she grew up, so she took useful courses at the British Council and at university.
She began working for the Amharic weekly, Wenchef, a decade ago, full of optimism about the possibility of a free press in her country. Her optimism didn’t last long. Before she had written many articles, she was summoned to come down to talk to the police because her writing had gotten their attention.
Within a year, she had borrowed money to open her own newspaper. By 2004, she owned and operated three independent weeklies: Menelik, Asqual and Satenaw. Each of the weeklies sold between 15,000 and 80,000 copies, the highest circulation in the country, with sales peaking right before and after the May 2005 presidential elections.
The Ethiopian government owned the printing presses, however, and began delaying and then restricting publication of Fasil’s papers, while at the same time increasing the print run of media companies supportive of the government. In November 2005, as protests about the elections escalated, the government shut down her papers and arrested Fasil, her husband Eskinder Nega and her brother, along with a dozen other editors and reporters and dozens of anti-government activists. According to the Committee to Protect Journalists, up to 190 people were killed in anti-government protests in 2005; CPJ ranks Ethiopia as the third worst country in the world for treatment of journalists, after China and Cuba.
The Federal High Court acquitted Fasil of treason and other charges in April, after she spent 18 months in prison. Although she and her husband were freed; her brother Dawit Fasil remained in jail. He has since been released.
In July, the government appealed her acquittal to the Supreme Court and brought new charges against her. They were similar to the original ones, but this time she was charged as an editor rather than as a publisher, posing a significant new threat. She briefly went to Kenya, but has since returned to Ethiopia because the Supreme Court isn’t scheduled to hear the case until November. If the Supreme Court agrees with the prosecutor, Fasil will be tried again. The implications of the charges are not yet clear.
Fasil will fight hard to avoid returning to prison, where she experienced horrendous conditions.
“There might have been more rats and mice than people,” she said. Someone even smuggled a cat into deal with the rodents, but the cat escaped rather than confront the critters.
Fasil was two months pregnant when she was arrested and although she was not tortured, conditions were primitive to cruel. For the first two months, she was restricted to three 30-minute bathroom visits within a 24-hour period. When she was moved to a second prison, she was kept in a wire-mesh enclosure with 30 other prisoners, including some who were mentally ill, so they could be scrutinized constantly.
In Fasil’s eighth month of pregnancy, her blood pressure spiked to dangerous levels. She was under observation in the prison hospital when her water broke. After a day and a half of labor, she underwent a caesarian operation. Her son weighed only 2.1 kilograms (about 4.5 pounds) as a newborn, and dropped to 1.6 kg within a week. This is half the average birth weight of 8 pounds. A prison hospital nurse rushed the infant to a general hospital where he could be put in an incubator. “But the hospital required the signature of a parent, either the mom or dad,” Fasil said. Prison officials refused to let either Fasil or her husband sign the papers.
The prison nurse did what she could to simulate an incubator with “heavy lights in a separate room,” said Fasil. Prison officials turned down Fasil’s request “for a small private place to nurse this small, premature baby.” Then they told her the crowded prison hospital posed a risk to the newborn, “an environment where everybody breathes on him.” At that point, Fasil’s mother came for him.
Fasil had her infant with her only 15 days, in the prison hospital where she recuperated from the C-section and got treatment for her still-high blood pressure. Fasil and her husband named the baby Nafkot, which “means ‘longing,’ as in a longing to see them.” Today, he is a year old and weighs 7 kilos, or about 15 pounds. He is getting to know his parents, now that they are free.
After her release, Fasil scrambled to recreate the diaries she had kept in prison which were seized upon her release.
She said she learned a lot from the harrowing experiences. Many prison workers were sympathetic to prisoners “but there is fear. And those who helped with medical assistance always paid a high price,” she said. “The Ethiopian government has spies even in prison. So there is a complete denial of freedom of expression.”
“If you are smart, you also learn – to be patient, to get along with even the crazy people who are there. And since there are many people who have varied experiences, you also learn from others. You get to meet and talk to interesting people,” she said.
Always the reporter, she said her papers never had written about prison conditions. Now she hopes to do that, in the future.
“I have no plans to change my profession. I want to write. We’re waiting for government permission for us to exercise our right,” she said.
She has petitioned to get back the equipment confiscated by the government when they closed her papers. For now, she cannot rehire her 15 employees. “It is impossible to think of working in a newspaper right now. There is a lot of fear,” she said.
Under Ethiopian law, to get a newspaper permit, an owner had to deposit 5,000 birr – about $625 – in a bank. She borrowed the money, got the license, and took the money out of the bank to use for startup operations. But she can’t even think of starting her own printing plant because of the formidable costs.
Fasil mourns the absence today of a free media and a free flow of information to the 70 million rank and file Ethiopians. Unlike in such countries as China, where an authoritarian government tries to curb news it doesn’t like but can’t stop millions of ordinary Chinese from logging onto the Internet, newspapers are still the main source of news in Ethiopia.
Fasil said few Ethiopians even know the existence of the Internet “and the number who have Internet access are very few. The only option for Ethiopia to go forward is to have press freedom and for people to have the freedom to start writing, to start venting and expressing themselves again.”
She says there can’t be democracy “where there is restriction of ideas.”
Fasil demurs when asked if she sees herself as courageous. “I haven’t done anything courageous. I’m still young. I dream a lot. I want to accomplish a lot,” she said.
“I’m not familiar with international journalists,” she said, “but journalists who are on death row anywhere in the world or who lost their life in reporting – or Ethiopians who are on death row: they are my heroes.”
Peggy Simpson is a freelance writer based in Washington, D.C.