In April 2015 PEN/Opp had texts about Eritrea and Ethiopia, and among the contributors was Reeyot Alemu, the much-appraised Ethiopian journalist, sentenced to fourteen years of imprisonment for “terrorism” due to texts that she had written. Her sentence was later shortened to five years. In an open letter she then described her days in the notorious Kality prison. She finished the letter with the words: “Dear readers, lastly, I wish to see a democratic Ethiopia where justice is served. I promise to do everything I can to achieve this.”
Four years later she is participating in this issue, and, although highly critical of the developments in the country she writes that: “Our struggle has been a fruitful one.”
The events in Ethiopia this past year are such that many people living in totalitarian states would find them hard to even imagine. In less than a year Ethiopia has gone from being one of the world’s most repressive countries to being an open and more democratic one. Since April 2018 when Abiy Ahmed became the new prime minister the country has rapidly moved in a democratic direction. Massive reforms have been implemented, political prisoners have been freed, organisations previously defined as “terrorist” are now seen as legitimate opposition movements, a peace treaty with Eritrea has been signed, blocked home pages and blogs have been unblocked, and hundreds of previously forbidden media are now permitted. In 2018 the Reporters Without Borders’ World Press Freedom Index ranked Ethiopia as low as 150 among the 180 countries; in 2019 the country has climbed to position 110.
The notorious Kality prison, with a name that locally has been synonymous with “being imprisoned for political reasons,” is nowadays emptied of political prisoners.
It is no exaggeration to say that the changes within the country during this past year constitute a historical leap in favour of democracy and the freedom of expression in Ethiopia.
In this country of more than one million inhabitants speaking more than eighty-three languages the silence has been broken. The fear is slowly dissipating—and many Ethiopian writers who have actively fought for their freedom of expression, and who earlier needed to flee the country, are now returning one by one.
It is tempting to linger with these beautiful images of change and hope that are being broadcast. And it is easy to get caught in this wave of “Abiymania.” But we need to remind ourselves that Ethiopia is a democracy in the making. The country is shaped by a long history dominated by conflict and armed resistance, and it still has a long way to go to reach democracy. Ever since the Ethiopian Empire was overthrown in the so-called revolution in 1974, a succession of pseudo–democracies have ruled the country. Each new regime has had politicians who have promised peace and change but who have instead delivered quite the opposite for the country.
Do we dare believe and hope that this time is different?
The question is at the core of this new issue of PEN/Opp. Here we have collected voices, thoughts, and narratives about what is happening in Ethiopia at present, texts by some of the writers, poets, and journalists who for years have been silenced by the regime. What do these overwhelming changes entail for the writers and journalists in the country? What does this newly won freedom of expression actually mean? What are the challenges now? How does one skirt the censorship that has informed the country for so long? How does one free oneself of what the Ethiopian journalist Bisrat Woldemichael calls the “genocide of thought”—the self-censorship that is deeply ingrained in the Ethiopian society?
In PEN/Opp we usually publish texts that, due to censorship, threat, a risk of imprisonment, or at worst death cannot be published within a country. In this current issue we instead want to provide a space for writers whose professional life has been shaped by resistance and severe infringement on their rights of expression, but who now have been given this freedom again. To follow up, to take part in, to monitor the freedom of expression, and to never take it for granted is another role and function of PEN/Opp.
“Our struggle has been a fruitful one” writes Reeyot Alemu, who was imprisoned in the Kality prison alongside the poet Chaala Hailu Abata and the journalists Martin Schibbye and Woubshet Taue Abebe. All are free today. All have contributed to this issue. “There is hope now,” writes Lena Gezawork Grönlund, and it is hope that is central to this issue of PEN/Opp.