Sign up for PM Award Updates!

Day of Imprisoned Writers – ‘Change only the name and this story is also about you.\’

November 15 is the international day of the imprisoned writer. PEN international and PEN networks in many countries have organised events to focus on one of most pernicious forms of censorship – imprisoning writers and journalists. According to PEN, more than 900 writers are in jail for their work, all over the world.
In an interview with Germany’s Radio Deutsche Welle, published on November 15, Sascha Feuchert, vice president of PEN Centre Germany and a representative of the writer-in-prison committee was asked what Germany could do for writers imprisoned in other countries.

He replied, “[w]e can bring these cases to light and keep them in the public eye. We do this on our website, over our social media channels and, of course, in our press releases. When things are made public, it seems that dictators or other unjust regimes are less likely to make these people ‘disappear.’ Publicity is extremely important. In addition, we try to get in contact with the imprisoned colleagues through letters to let them know that they’re not forgotten or alone. Unfortunately, we’re not always successful.”
In a reader-friendly interactive graphic PEN International has called attention to cases of writers and journalists in prisons all over the world, with appeals to the public to write letters for their release. Please click here.
This blog has highlighted the cases of many journalists who have been detained, often under counterterrorism laws, for publicising corruption, malfeasance and abuse by those in power. Some like Rodney Sieh editor of Liberia’s FrontPage Africa and Ethiopia’s Melaku Desmisse, editor of The Reporter, were released. But the regimes that detained them continue in power, which cannot be a comfort for someone who is inspired to expose wrongdoing.
But others remain in jail. Ethiopia Eskinder Nega’s sentence of 18 years in prison was upheld by a higher court in the appeal. Le Quoc Quan and a number of other Vietnamese bloggers are shut in by their government that fear the expression of dissent.
It is a grim, thankless business for organisations like PEN that work for the release or at least more human treatment of writers. As Feuchert says, “[t]he situation has not improved for persecuted writers around the world. But that doesn’t mean we should give up. These are individuals for whom we are fighting.”
Nega wrote a letterfrom prison on May 2, on the eve of Press Freedom Day after his appeal was rejected. Speaking about writers in prison he asks, “Why should the rest of the world care? Horace said it best: mutate nomine detefabula narrator. ‘Change only the name and this story is also about you.’ Whenever justice suffers our common humanity suffers, too.
I will live to see the light at the end of the tunnel. It may or may not be a long wait. Whichever way events may go, I shall persevere!”


Melaku Desmisse, Latest Victim Of Ethiopia’s War On Journalists

 Woubshet’s wife Tesfaye with award (CPJ)

The illegal arrest and release on October 9 of Melaku Desmisse, editor of the Amharic-language publication The Reporter, is the latest in a series of assaults Addis Ababa has carried out against media freedom in Ethiopia. It comes at a time when other Ethiopian journalists including Woubshet Taye, Reeyot Alemu and Eskinder Nega, charged under the country’s counterterrorism laws languish in jail.
Desmisse was illegally arrested near Addis Ababa by police from the Southern Nations, Nationalities and Peoples’ Regional State (SNNPR) and transferred to Awasa, the capita of SNNPR.
Amare Aregawi, editor of The Reporter told the Sudan Tribunethat Desmisse was “illegally transferred” from Addis Ababa to SNNPR. “It was up to the court’s decision to transfer him to a regional state and not of the Police,” the Sudan Tribune quoted Aregawi as saying.

The Paris-based Reporters without Border (RSF), while recording Desmisse’s illegal arrest has not reported his release. RSF said, “The SNNPR police have no jurisdiction in Addis Ababa and it is completely illegal for them to seize a journalist working there. If Desmisse is accused of breaking any law, he should be brought before a federal court in Addis Ababa, which alone has the authority to try him. In the meantime, we call for the immediate release of this journalist, especially as the reason for his arrest remains puzzling.”
Although details are scanty, reports said it appeared that Desmisse was arrested for The Reporter’s story on September 4 that three vice presidents of SNNPR had been dismissed. The story was incorrect. The newspaper however had retraced the story and issued an apology on September 8.
Meanwhile, at a ceremony in Cape Town, South Africa on October 13, Woubshet Taye, deputy editor of the Awramba Times, who is serving a 14-year prison term convicted of terrorism, was lauded for his courage. Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) said Taye was awarded the Press Freedom Award at the CNN MultiChoice African Journalist Awards 2013. Taye’s wife Berhane Tesfaye and young son accepted the award on his behalf.
CPJ said, “[c]hair of the judging panel and editor-in-chief of the South African weekly City Press, Ferial Haffajee said it was disappointing that ‘once again there were too many cases’ for the judges to consider in this category, which recognizes ‘excellence and provides support to African journalists who report at continuing risk to their lives and safety.'”
Taye has served two years of his 14-year sentence that was handed down in 2012. After he was arrested in 2011, the newspaper’s editor fled the country and publication came to a halt. Berhane Tesfaye said that Taye had been moved from Addis Ababa to Ziwaye prison 83 miles away in April this year. She said although she visited him every two weeks, Taye’s father (102) and mother (90) were too old to undertake the journey.
“In September, Woubshet’s application for a presidential pardon was rejected, according to news sources,” CPJ said.
Eskander Nega is another journalist convicted for “planning, preparation, conspiracy, incitement, and attempt” under Ethiopia’s Anti-Terrorism Proclamation. He was found guilty in June 2012 and sentenced to 18 years in prison. In May the Ethiopian Federal Supreme Court upheld the conviction and sentence. Nega has now appealed to the Court of Cassation.
“Eskinder … denied all the charges against him, saying he has never conspired to overthrow the government through violence and admitting only to reporting on the Arab Spring and speculating on whether a similar movement would take place in Ethiopia. Eskinder’s wife, fellow journalist Serkalem Fasil, maintained that Eskinder is ‘a journalist, not a member of a political party,'” says PEN America that has advocated for Nega’s release.
Nega was the general manager of Serkalem Publishing House that published three newspapers, all banned in the country. He was also a columnist for news magazine Change ad the US-based Ethiomedia, which are also banned.

Bradley Manning, Eskinder Nega Victims Of Moral Wilderness Of Their Times

Pfc. Bradley Manning

 Private Bradley Manning, 25, was sentenced today. Thirty-five years in jail. The 1,182 days he has spent in confinement from the time of his arrest will be reduced from his sentence, and 112 more days for abusive behaviour by his tormentors at Quantico. Under the law he will have to spend at least eight years and credited with good behaviour in prison before parole.
Manning was sentenced Wednesday, August 21, by military judge for multiple offences, including under the Espionage Act, for leaking over 700,000 US government documents to the anti-secrecy group Wikileaks. Among the material that came to light was a video of a US military operation in Iraq where an Apache helicopter attack killed civilians including two Reuters journalists.
For someone who faced 90 years behind bars, 35 may be seen almost a relief. And that seemed the tone of Manning’s lawyer David Coombs. “Coombs told a group of supporters gathered outside Manning’s courtroom on Friday that the conditions at Fort Leavenworth [where Manning will be incarcerated] ‘did not look anything like Quantico,’ where Manning spent months in solitary confinement and was forced at times to strip down naked at night,” the HuffingtonPost reported.
Although a relief in some ways there are a couple of issues that need to be seen in the right perspective here.
First is that Manning’s treatment at Quantico was pronounced by Juan Mendez, the UN special rapporteur on torture, “as at the minimum cruel, inhuman ad degrading treatment… If the effects in regards to pain and suffering inflicted on Manning were more severe, they could constitute torture.”
Second, although Fort Leavenworth does “not look anything like Quantico” he is being punished for publicising classified documents that brought to light serious wrongdoing by the US Government. In a statement Paris-based Reporters without Borders (RSF) said, “Following the targeting of Edward Snowden, the disproportionate sentence for Manning hits hard at whistleblowers and shows how vulnerable they are … The Army is sending a clear message to them and to all journalists who dare to report whistleblowers’ disclosures: the United States will strike back severely at anyone who uncovers information of public interest concerning the exercise of official powers.”

Eskinder Nega

Third is the agony of imprisonment. Another whistleblower, the imprisoned Ethiopian journalist Eskinder Nega, gives a powerful account of it in a letter smuggled out of jail. Pen America notes that Nega was arrested under the country’s wide anti-terrorism laws in September 2011 for questioning the Ethiopian government for holding journalists under the same legislation. A week before, he had published a critical account of the arrest of another government critic Debebe Eshetu also on terrorism charges. Nega was detained at least six times before. His wife Serkalem Fasil, who was also imprisoned in 2005, gave birth to their child in jail.
Sentenced for 18 years and after he lost his appeal, in a letterhe wrote titled ‘I Shall Persevere’ he said: “The government has been able to lie in a court of law effortlessly as a function of the moral paucity of our politics. All the great crimes of history, lest we forget, have their genesis in the moral wilderness of their times. The mundane details of the case offer nothing substantive but what Christopher Hitchens once described as ‘a vortex of irrationality and nastiness.'”
Manning at Fort Leavenworth might be more comfortable than Nega who says he sleeps in the “company of lice.” But nothing can take away the fact that both are victims of the “moral wilderness of their times.”