Ethiopia’s Eskinder Nega Named IPI Press Freedom Hero
Ethiopian journalist and blogger Eskinder Nega, who has been imprisoned since 2011 after criticising his country’s abuse of anti-terror laws to silence the press, has been named the International Press Institute (IPI)’s 69th World Press Freedom Hero.
IPI also announced today the Afghan Journalists Safety Committee as the recipient of the 2017 Free Media Pioneer Award in recognition of the group’s courageous and trailblazing work to prevent, combat and monitor attacks on journalists in one of the world’s most dangerous media environments.
Both awards, which for the past three years have been given in partnership with Copenhagen-based International Media Support (IMS), will be presented during a special ceremony on May 18 in Hamburg, Germany during IPI’s annual World Congress and General Assembly.
Press Freedom Hero
IPI’s World Press Freedom Hero Award honours journalists who have made significant contributions to the promotion of press freedom, particularly in the face of great personal risk.
Nega has spent over 2,000 days behind bars since his arrest on Sept. 14, 2011, when Ethiopian authorities accused him of “leading a plan to throw the country into serious political chaos through a series of terrorist acts” and linked him to a banned opposition group. His jailing came shortly after Nega, a persistent critic of Ethiopia’s former long-time ruler and then-Prime Minister Meles Zenawi, published a column questioning the government’s abuse of anti-terror laws to punish journalistic scrutiny.
Nega’s comments were preceded by a wave of detentions under Ethiopia’s broad 2009 anti-terror law, including those of journalists Woubshet Taye and Reeyot Alemu – the 2013 recipient of the UNESCO-Guillermo Cano World Press Freedom Prize – as well as Swedish correspondents Martin Schibbye and Johan Persson.
An Ethiopian court convicted Nega in June 2012 of “participation in a terrorist organization” and “planning, preparation, conspiracy, incitement and attempt of (a) terrorist act”. He was sentenced to 18 years in prison the following month, a decision the U.N. Working Group on Arbitrary Detention later said violated international law.
IPI Executive Director Barbara Trionfi said the award was a recognition of Nega’s “unflinching dedication to the free exchange of ideas and information and his determination – at the expense of his freedom and separation from his family – not to remain silent in the face of the Ethiopian government’s cynical attempt to use the fight against terrorism to crush legitimate dissent”.
Nega faced frequent official pressure and harassment due to his writing beginning in the early 1990s. In 2005, he and his wife, journalist Serkalem Fasil, were jailed on treason charges for their coverage of a mass government crackdown on popular protests following disputed parliamentary elections won by Zenawi’s Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF). Fasil would later give birth to a son behind bars. Authorities released the couple in April 2007 but shuttered their publishing company and banned Nega from practicing journalism.
Fasil, who now lives in exile in the United States with their son, said of IPI and IMS’ recognition of her husband that it was “absolutely heart-warming to know that all his sacrifices and valuable contribution to press freedom are not wasted in vain, but continue to shine a spotlight [on his plight] on the global stage”.
She added: “Although, it remains a bittersweet moment for me (knowing where he is now), it is important to uphold such recognition for the tremendous impact it’s having to those who aspire to follow in his footsteps. … I truly hope it also expedites his release from imprisonment and brings an end to his suffering.”
IPI and its members have previously called for Nega’s release, including during a November 2013 joint mission to Ethiopia with the World Association of Newspapers and News Publishers (WAN-IFRA). The Ethiopian government on that occasion denied IPI and WAN-IFRA’s requests to visit Nega and other jailed journalists.
The following year, WAN-IFRA honoured Nega with its Golden Pen of Freedom Award. In 2012, he also received the PEN American Center/Barbara Goldsmith Freedom to Write Award.
In early September 2011, commenting on the arrests of Taye and Alemu, and just days before his own detention, Nega wrote to IPI: “Their arrest has more to do with calculated cultivation of fear. Fear is what dictatorships ultimately rely on to survive.”
Free Media Pioneer
The annual Free Media Pioneer Award was established by IPI in 1996 to recognise news or media organisations that have made innovations that have promoted news access or quality, or benefitted journalists and the media community, thereby ensuring freer and more independent media in their country or region.