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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.