LETTER: The Case of Eskinder Nega

By William Easterly, Mark Hamrick, Aryeh Neier, Kenneth Roth, and Joel Simon

Published in the New York Review of Books, January 12, 2012 edition

To the Editors:

On September 14, 2011, Eskinder Nega, an Ethiopian journalist and dissident blogger, was arrested by the Ethiopian authorities shortly after publishing an online column calling for an end to torture in Ethiopian prisons, a halt to the imprisonment of dissidents, and respect for freedom of expression. The charges against him are punishable by death, and carry a minimum sentence of fifteen years in prison[1], where both Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch warn that he is at risk of torture.

Previous to his current arrest, Eskinder and his wife Serkalem Fasil, both newspaper publishers, were charged with treason following Ethiopia’s disputed 2005 elections, along with dozens of journalists, human rights activists, and opposition leaders, and spent seventeen months in jail. While in custody, Serkalem gave birth to their first child. Even after they were acquitted by Ethiopia’s Federal High Court, Eskinder and Serkalem were blocked from reopening their newspapers and the government continued to pursue civil charges against them.[2]

Eskinder also was detained earlier this year, after he published an online column asking members of the security services not to shoot unarmed demonstrators—as they did in 2005—in the event that the “Arab Spring” should spread to Ethiopia.[3]

Most of us would have fled into exile after such treatment—as have nearly all of Ethiopia’s significant opposition leaders and independent journalists since 2005. In all, eleven independent journalists and bloggers have been charged with terrorism this year, five of whom are behind bars. Ethiopia tops Iran and Cuba to lead the world in the number of journalists who have been forced into exile over the past decade, according to the Committee to Protect Journalists.[4]

Having spent a large part of his childhood in suburban Washington, D.C., and being in possession of a US residence permit, Eskinder could have easily followed. That he has not is testimony to his commitment to democratic values that Western governments say they hold dear.

America and its Western allies have aligned themselves closely with Ethiopia’s government in the fight against radical Islamists in the Horn of Africa and in efforts to prevent a repeat of the 1984–1985 famine. Worthy as these goals are, we should not allow them to blind us to Prime Minister Meles Zenawi’s increasingly authoritarian bent—as exhibited by his regime’s 99.6 percent election victory in 2010 and most recently the decision to prosecute Eskinder as a terrorist, along with seven other dissidents.[5]

We therefore call on Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and America’s Western allies to publicly repudiate Ethiopia’s efforts to use terrorism laws to silence political dissent. We also urge the US to ensure that our more than $600 million in aid[6] to Ethiopia is not used to foster repression.[7]

William Easterly Professor of Economics Co-Director, Development Research Institute New York University New York City

Mark Hamrick President National Press Club Washington, D.C.

Aryeh Neier President Open Society Foundations New York City

Kenneth Roth Executive Director Human Rights Watch New York City

Joel Simon Executive Director Committee to Protect Journalists New York City

  1. See charging document (Amharic), at www.ethioforum.org/document/Court.pdf.
  2. See also "Ethiopia Reinstates Hefty Fines Against Publishing Houses," Committee to Protect Journalists , March 10, 2010, www.cpj.org/2010/03/ethiopia-reinstates-hefty-fines-against-publishing.php.
  3. See also "Ethiopian Journalist Alleges Detention for Inciting Egypt-Style Protests,"Voice of America , February 17, 2011, www.voanews.com/english/news/africa/east/Ethiopian-Journalist-Alleges-Detention-for-Inciting-Egypt-Style-Protests-116412719.html.
  4. "Journalists in Exile 2011," Committee to Protect Journalists. Available at www.cpj.org/reports/2011/06/journalists-in-exile-2011-iran-cuba-drive-out-crit.php.
  5. "Ethiopia Charges Opposition Figures, Reporter With Terrorism," Voice of America , November 10, 2011, www.voanews.com/english/news/africa/Ethiopia-Charges-Opposition-Figures-Reporter-With-Terrorism-133638658.html.
  6. See US foreign assistance figures at www.foreignassistance.gov/OU.aspx?OUID=171&FY=2012&AgencyID=0&budTab=tab_Bud_Planned.
  7. See Helen Epstein, "Cruel Ethiopia," TheNew York Review , May 13, 2010, www.nybooks.com/articles/archives/2010/may/13/cruel-ethiopia/. See also Human Rights Watch , March 24, 2010, "One Hundred Ways of Putting Pressure: Violations of Freedom and Association in Ethiopia," and October 19, 2010, "Development Without Freedom: How Aid Underwrites Repression in Ethiopia, www.hrw.org/news/2010/10/18/ethiopiadonor-aid-supports-repression.

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PODCAST: Professor Easterly on Development and Individual Freedoms at Columbia Panel

What should we do to end world poverty? Not only do we not know the answer to this question, said Professor Easterly, but this is also the wrong question to ask. He joined Yuval Levin (National Affairs magazine), Meir Kohn (Dartmouth) and James Otteson (Yeshiva University) in a panel discussion on “Seeking the Good Life and Raising Others’ Estates” at the Columbia Tikvah-Hertog Summer Institute on Economics and the Common Good. Listen to the podcast to learn more about answer-finding mechanisms, professional skepticism and M. Night Shyamalan’s aid worker doppelganger. [audio http://dri.as.nyu.edu/docs/IO/20919/Columbia_SeekingTheGoodLife_081011_EXCERPT.mp3]

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PUBLICATIONS: Democratic Accountability in Development: The Double Standard

By William EasterlySocial Research, Vol. 77, No. 4, pp. 1075-1104 Winter 2010

The Development Establishment today tolerates a shocking double standard on democracy for the rich versus democracy for the poor. Despite both the moral and pragmatic argument for democratic rights for all, development policy discussions give little emphasis to rights for the poor. Worse, influential Western policymakers and thought leaders sing praises of autocrats such as Meles Zenawi of Ethiopia, who has strong record of repressing minority groups and political opponents.

Democratic accountability is important to governance, and fundamental in promoting development. To begin with the obvious Civics 101 view, accountability is a crucial mechanism to ensure that government does good and not ill to those affected by its actions. Under democracy, citizens can use many mechanisms -- such as voting, popular protests, and spoken and written criticisms -- to penalize governments that are harming individuals (even if it is only a minority of individuals).

The same mechanisms reward political actors that do good by, for example, supplying public goods. When such mechanisms work, the government is accountable to its citizens. The opposite of accountability is impunity -- the government can do whatever it wants to its citizens without consequences.


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