Ethiopian journalist Eskinder Nega, freed from prison earlier this year, expressed cautious optimism for reform in his country at a news conference June 20 co-sponsored by the National Press Club Journalism Institute and the Freedom of the Press Team.
Nega noted that Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed, who took office in April, promises change, but has not said what kind of change. According to AlJazeera.com, Ahmed replaced his predecessor, Hailemariam Desalegn, and freed, or slated for freedom, 1,000 prisoners after widespread anti-government protests.
Nega reminded his audience that Ahmed was chosen by the same controlling political party and government structure as his predecessor. Intra-party strife may limit Ahmed’s actions, Nega indicated.
The journalist said he will return to Ethiopia and work to publish and to develop television journalism. If Ahmed creates a “small space,” the formerly vibrant Ethiopian journalism can return, he said.
The goal is “To tell the truth, no matter the consequences,” he said.
Nega said he aspires to create a “mainstream media” in Ethiopia similar to that in the United States. He named The New York Times as his ideal. Even if the ideal is not always met, the intention to do it and “to do the best you can with what you have,” is what matters, he said.
The journalist mentioned two ways the international community has assisted and can still assist reform. Asked if efforts in 2012 by the National Press Club and other journalists’ organizations on his behalf when he was on trial and potentially facing a death sentence made a difference, he said it did.
Unlike previous times he was arrested, he was not tortured during his most recent incarceration, he said. “Name recognition makes a difference,” he declared.
Nega said he has been arrested nine times, sometimes only overnight, but he most recently served seven years of an 18 year sentence.
He believes that passage of a resolution now in the U.S. Congress calling for human rights reform in Ethiopia would help Ahmed to institute reforms. The measure has passed the House and is pending in the Senate.
Reflecting on his prison experience, he said, “I don’t let what happened to me define me.” He added, “I choose not to seek vengeance and I choose to forgive them.”
“If you hate, you are a prisoner,” he said.
His model of national response is the process used in South Africa in which, as he described it, perpetrators of cruelty acknowledged their crimes and apologized to victims who forgive them. Failure to apologize leads to prosecution, he said.
Asked if he accepted the idea that populations in countries under autocratic governments would accept such governments if their countries were to experience economic development, he vehemently disagreed. The Ethiopian economy is one of the fastest growing in the world, he noted, yet it experienced “revolution.”
Moreover, he said, all populations seek freedom even if they have prosperity. He said he is confidently optimistic that democracy will eventually prevail across the globe.
“The end point is that all people demand freedom,” he said.