Eskinder Nega was the editor of the newspapers Asqual, Satnaw, Menlike, and Etopis. He has been given the nickname ‘iron man’ and has been recognized for his passionate writing. He won the International Press Institutes 69th World Press Freedom Hero award and the Pen of Freedom Award, and the Barbara Goldsmith Freedom to Write Award. In the 1980s Eskinder moved to the US and after graduating high school he went to a University where he studied political science and economics. He then came back. He spent six years in prison until he was pardoned recently. Captial’s reporter Tesfaye Getnet talked with Eskinder about his experience and thoughts. Excerpts;
Capital: What is it like to be able to walk freely?
Eskinder Nega: My prison life in Kality falls into two parts. There were the two years I spent with the general population. I lived with many prisoners. I had access to a library and a place of worship. However the bad part about this area was the poor sanitation conditions. The toilets were always dirty, the beds were not clean because the rooms were overcrowded. You had to jump over sleeping prisoners to get to the toilet because there was no space in the cell. The place reminded me of the Gulag prisons in Siberia that was built during Stalin’s time in Russia. Then I was transferred to a dark room for four and half years because of articles I wrote, which were published in the New York Times and Guardian. They asked me to stop writing articles in prison but I refused. When they moved me to the small, dark room I was denied pens paper and books. They would not even let me read the Bible. This was irrational and I will never forget it.
Capital: The government’s point of view seems to be that media outlets have printed fake news or lack ethics and that it leads to unrest. Do you think such claims are true?
Eskinder: What is true journalism? It is a controversial point. I believe that opinion articles are also part of freedom of expression and it is an important part of any country’s media. A Journalist is not an echo of the ruling party as they wish. They would say true journalism is reporting what the government says. Of course getting their perspective is one element of journalism but it is necessary to go beyond that and seek the truth. Reporting should go beyond what political parties say. Writing opinion pieces is part of journalism as well.
Capital: Why do you think the ruling party is opposed to opinions?
Eskinder: Media opinion is not well done in Ethiopia in general. The ruling party does not like civic associations. You can find a report which says Ethiopia is one of the least fertile atmospheres for civic associations which prevents labor unions from forming groups.
Capital: What gave you a passion for writing?
Eskinder: I’ve worked in media for a long time. The more I wrote the more passionate I became about writing. I have a natural gift for writing. I am also passionate about seeing Ethiopia become a democratic country. I am not saying Ethiopia should be like the US but it upsets me to see places like Benin, Botswana and Malawi become more democratic than Ethiopia especially since we have one of the proudest histories of any African country.
Capital: How would you evaluate the Ethiopian media?
Eskinder: Governments have criticized media everywhere including the US and UK, look at Donald Trump. Developmental journalism as it is called does play a positive role by emphasizing the good in the country. However I believe media does need to act as a watchdog and point out other ways of doing things otherwise it is not playing its role.
Capital: What can be done to help journalists conduct better research and find better facts?
Eskinder: Let’s start with me. My choice is to be a journalist but I can’t do that in here because of the system. I just can’t!! The task of a journalist is to chronicle events but the system opposes them. If you do not report things as they want they torture and arrest you.
Here a journalist must do their media work while at the same time trying to advocate for a more open environment. The reason opinion based journalism is flourishing is because of vast oppression. If Ethiopia become more democratic, the country will have best media and become an example for everyone in Africa.
Capital: What do you think about the PM’s resignation?
Eskinder: The Ethiopian political problem will be solved if the current ruling party holds negotiations with legal political parties in here and abroad without any pre conditions. If the PM’s resignation lead us in this way that is fine, in other words we have to see what the next steps will be.
Capital: What are your thoughts about the new state of emergency?
Eskinder: It may handle problems temporarily but like I said there must be negotiations between parties and the government. I agree with the US embassy’s stand on the state of emergency.
Capital: What do you think about the current unrest?
Eskinder: There are two doors, one that will lead us to trouble and one that will take us to peace and stability. I expect the second will come because many people have and are sacrificing to get us there.
We should learn from the example of South Africa about how to handle ethnic clashes. In the late 1980s the world had given up on South Africa. The clashes which had erupted among white and black or other clans and tribes were way worse than what we are experiencing now. The dictatorship actually made tribes more suspicious of one another. Democracy helped alleviate tribalism in fact if we look at other places like Nigeria and Ghana in the 1980s the two major stumbling blocks for democracy were corruption and tribalism. When they increased democracy they decreased tribalism.
Capital: One common criticism is that the other parties are not strong enough to govern what do you think about this?
Eskinder: If you look at the US and Malawi the way the democracy manifests itself is different. People should set up parties because they are going to, for example, come up with different policies on land and investment while still striving for democracy. It shouldn’t be because they can’t get along.
Capital: Why do you think it is so hard for democracy to come to Ethiopia despite its spectacular history?
Eskinder: It is a difficult question to answer. The Czech Republic and the Croatia have more democracy than the Russia and the Japan has more democracy than China and Egypt is older but Tunisia has better democracy than Egypt. We need academic research. We also need thinkers and writers not only in Ethiopia but also Russia, China and Egypt to ponder this question.
Capital: What is your opinion about members of the Diaspora?
Eskinder: They have helped advocate democracy in Ethiopia. They are struggling a lot too. There is an extremist point of view but that happens everywhere even in places like Scandinavian countries.
Capital: What will your next job be?
Eskinder: Soon after I was released from prison I said: ‘Justice for Democracy’. I will strive for democracy and I will continue to write.