Diamonds form under high pressure
Swedish journalist Martin Schibbye and photographer Johan Persson were held for one and a half years in Kality prison. Martin is very familiar with the environment described in many of the texts in this issue. Here he describes why solidarity with the imprisoned journalists is a universal imperative—it’s a matter of human dignity.
I wish I did not have to write this.
I wish they had never called me from PEN/Opp informing me about this planned issue on the freedom of speech on Africa’s Horn.
I wish that I would get a call from the capital of Ethiopia, Addis Abeba, where a crackling voice would say “Tafatchi!” “We are free!”
That seventeen colleagues had been freed from prison during the night and that the warrants for the arrest of those still free had been withdrawn.
That call never came.
This morning my colleagues in the Kality prison woke up to the prison guards’ harsh voices shouting: “Kotera, kotera, kotera;” the sound melded with the banging of batons against the corrugated iron. The prisoners filed out two by two—“hulet, hulet”—gathering outside the corrugated iron shacks with their sandals in the mud. When all the hundreds of prisoners had been counted the doors were again shut behind them.
Even though I am free from prison now I will never be free from the sounds.
The first screams were always the worst—that crying out just before the first beating—towards the end the battered prisoner was always silent.
Thinking back on this period there is always one particular prisoner that springs to mind: a young woman who always walked in the sun with her head high. I remember wondering what crime she had committed. Had she killed someone? Stolen something?
Once she nodded at me and then she threw me a matchbox. In it was a minute letter.
With trembling hands I read:
Dear Martin and Johan,
My name is Reeyot Alemu. I worked as an editor at the newspaper Addis Press before this regime had me arrested. Before that I was a columnist at a newspaper called Fith, which means justice. I wrote many columns and articles, which were critical of the government. That is why I am here now. I am glad we met and I would like to meet if they release us.
But if you are released before me, tell the world that I am not a terrorist, but a journalist working for the truth.
I wish you luck. Both of you.
I can still recall the feeling. We found ourselves immersed in something much larger than the life of two journalists who had crossed a border. We had landed in a major siege of the freedom of speech in the country.
The Arab spring turned into an African autumn. In the days to come the sanitary quarters became our university and Reeyot Alemu was our teacher.
We learnt that our cells were called the Sheraton, since even if the cold wooden floors were bad and our fellow prisoners coughed blood, there was a worse place still. A place where prisoners were kept in utter darkness hanging up-side-down with weights fastened to their sexual organs, and beaten until they confessed their supposed crimes.
These cells were called the Hilton.
For humans humour is the ultimate defence.
In another letter Reeyot told us why she once decided to become a journalist.
Several times in her thirty-year-long life she had been faced with choices. She is intelligent, is well educated, and might have chosen an easy life.
But her love of the truth; of Ethiopia; of her fellow human beings; and of journalism made her choose to become a journalist.
She stayed and she wrote.
She showed what journalism ought to be but seldom is allowed to be in the country.
She is paying a price for the benefit of future generations—the highest price of all.
She is paying with her freedom.
Her persistence is evidence of a kind of courage we need now more than ever, and being courageous is all she is guilty of.
Reeyot also gave us something else. She gave us the insight that even if you are bereft of your physical freedom, your right to speak, to eat, and even to use the toilet, within yourself you can still preserve what no one can take away: the right to decide who you want to be.
From that point on each day in prison became just another day at the office. Suffering now had a meaning.
You just needed to get up, take a teaspoon of cement, and start remembering.
When I look back today and bring to mind those who are left in the chaos, on the cement, between the corrugated iron, my stomach contracts.
But then I remember their smiles and strengths and I think that it is actually not we who are fighting for their freedom but the prisoners who are fighting for ours.
With seventeen journalists still in the Kality prison, Ethiopia is today one of the leading countries in the world as concerns the confinement of the press freedom. The suppression of the media has also made it the top country when it comes to forcing journalists into exile.
Also, we mustn’t forget that it is not Ethiopia’s harshness as much as our own passivity that has made journalism such a highly dangerous activity in the country.
I believe that one of the most important things we can do is to learn the names of all these imprisoned people. We need to go from addressing them as “democratic deficiencies,” to calling them by their names.
Government representatives and company people will always say that one should not speak openly, that the freedom of the press must be balanced against other values such as stability, economic growth, and regional balances of power.
But when the free word is fettered there is nothing to be quiet about. In countries where journalists are imprisoned no one is free and those in prison need our words of support now—not at their funerals.
Martin Schibbye, Chief Editor of the Blank Spot Project, author of 438 Days, and founder of the Kality Fund that helps journalist colleagues who are stuck in the chaos of imprisonment.