Serkalem Fasil

journalist & publisher, Ethiopia.

Ethiopian journalist and former publisher Serkalem Fasil, who was arrested in November 2005 and charged with treason and outrages against the constitution, could have faced lifetime imprisonment or the death penalty.

Her arrest came after her newspapers published articles critical of the Ethiopian government’s conduct in the May 2005 parliamentary elections. On the day of her arrest, Fasil, who was pregnant, was severely beaten by police.

Fasil, then 27, was one of 14 editors and reporters of independent and privately-owned newspapers who were arrested and similarly charged.

Following demonstrations in June and November 2005 protesting against alleged election fraud, the Ethiopian government conducted mass arrests of journalists and opposition party members. More than 80 opposition supporters were killed by security forces.

In June 2006, while still being held at Kaliti prison in Addis Ababa, Fasil gave birth to a son, Nafkot, who was premature and underweight due to inhumane conditions and lack of proper medical attention. She was forced to care for him in a cell infested with rats, cockroaches and fleas.

Fasil’s husband and co-publisher of Satenaw, Eskinder Nega, was also arrested in November 2005. He was moved from Kaliti prison to Karchele prison in August 2006 and was not allowed to see his son.

Fasil was released from prison in April; Ethiopia’s High Court tossed out the genocide charges against her, rejecting the government’s claim that press coverage had harmed the Tigrayan ethnic group. But in July, the government appealed her acquittal to the Supreme Court and brought new charges against her. This time she was charged as an editor rather than as a publisher, posing a significant new threat. She briefly went to Kenya but has since returned to Ethiopia because the Supreme Court isn’t scheduled to hear the case until November. If the Supreme Court agrees with the prosecutor, Fasil will be tried again. The implications of the charges are not yet clear.

Prior to her arrest, Fasil wrote for and was the publisher of three weekly newspapers: Asqual, Menelik and Satenaw, which were shut down at the time of her arrest. Only a few independent newspapers in Ethiopia continue to publish, practicing self-censorship and avoiding strong criticism of the government.

Fasil began her career in journalism as a reporter at Wenchef newspaper in 1997. By 1998, she had established her own publishing house and founded Menelik newspaper. In 2001, Fasil began a second newspaper, Asqual; in the same year, she became deputy editor of Menelik, a position she held until her arrest. Fasil started a third newspaper, Satenaw, in 2004, and in 2005 was named chairwoman of Satenaw’s editorial board.

Serkalem Fasil is the first Courage in Journalism Award winner from Ethiopia, followed by Reeyot Alemu (2012).

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