Jailed Ethiopian journalist wins press freedom award

The Vienna-based International Press Institutes (IPI) has announced today that jailed Ethiopian journalist and blogger Eskender Nega is the recipient of 2017’s ‘Press Freedom Hero Award’ given to journalists who have made significant contribution to the promotion of press freedom in the face of great personal risk.

Eskender is serving an 18 year old prison sentence under Ethiopia’s anti-terrorism proclamation. The award will be presented in early May in the Austrian capital.

Prior to his arrested, Eskender was a critic of Ethiopia’s anti-terrorism proclamation, passed into law in 2009. He portrayed it in his columns as a government instrument to suppress dissent. He was particularly critical of the government’s decision to detain two Swedish journalists – Martin Shebye and Johan Person – as well Ethiopian journalists Rayot Alemu and Wubshet Taye. He argued their arrest was a “calculated cultivation of fear.”

Schebyye and Persson, who were arrested as they travelled with insurgents in the Ogaden area of eastern Ethiopia, were sentenced to 11 years in prison but were later released in clemency. Wubshet is still serving his 14 years sentence. He was charged for inciting violence in his writings and working inconspicuously with an outlawed rebel group, Ginbot 7, which operates from Ethiopia’s northern neighbor and arch-enemy Eritrea.

A veteran of Ethiopian independent media, Eskender was jailed previously following the highly contested and bloody 2005 election with his wife and fellow journalist Serkalem Fasil who was pregnant at the time. Their son Nafkot was born in prison.

The 48-year old Eskender is jailed in Kality prison at the eastern outskirts of the capital Addis Ababa, allegedly with no access to family or lawyers. He is also allegedly prohibited from receiving books, newspapers or even notebooks, according to Wazema, a US and Europe based radio founded by exiled Ethiopian journalists.

Announcing the award, Barbara Trionfi, director of the International Press Institute praised Eskender’s courage to speak truth to power without fear. She said the institute decided to honor him for his conviction in challenging the government’s abuse of the anti-terrorism law into repressing dissent voices.

His wife Serkalem, now exiled in the US says “I am happy that the high price he is paying for freedom of speech is getting global attention. The sacrifice was not in vain.”

Since his imprisonment, Eskender won several awards from various global institutions including from Pen America, Human Rights Watch and Pen Canada.

In 2012, commemorating his first year anniversary in prison, the IPI penned an open letter to the then acting Prime Minister Hailemariam Desalegn asking that “Ethiopia should cease the harassment of its critical journalists and free Eskender Nega and his colleague.”