An imprisoned Ethiopian journalist and blogger, who could face the death penalty for advocating peaceful protests in his Horn of Africa homeland, was honored on Tuesday with PEN American Center’s “Freedom to Write” award.
Eskinder Nega was arrested last year under Ethiopia’s sweeping anti-terrorism laws, which PEN says criminalize any reporting deemed to “encourage” or “provide moral support” to groups and causes the government deems “terrorists.”
Nega is still in jail after a judge in Addis Ababa found him guilty on Jan. 23 of terror charges. He could face the death penalty at sentencing.
Ethiopia has arrested close to 200 people, among them journalists and opposition politicians, under last year’s anti-terrorism proclamation.
Nega was honored at PEN’s annual gala dinner on Tuesday at the American Museum of Natural History, with about 500 PEN members and supporters in attendance.
PEN granted him the year’s PEN/Barbara Goldsmith Freedom to Write Award.
Forty-six women and men have received the award since 1987 — 33 of the 37 honorees who were in prison at the time they were honored were subsequently released.
Accepting the award was his wife, Serkalem Fasil, a free-expression advocate in her own right, who served 17 months in prison for treason starting in 2005 and gave birth to their child behind bars. She won the International Women’s Media Foundation Courage in Journalism Award in 2007.
“The Ethiopian writer Eskinder Nega is that bravest and most admirable of writers, one who picked up his pen to write things that he knew would surely put him at grave risk,” PEN president Peter Godwin said. “Yet he did so nonetheless, and indeed he fell victim to exactly the measures he was highlighting, Ethiopia’s draconian ‘anti terrorism’ laws that criminalize critical commentary.”
Nega has been publishing articles critical of the government since 1993, when he opened his first newspaper, Ethiopis, which was soon shut down by the authorities.
He was general manager of Serkalem Publishing House, which published the newspapers Asqual, Satenaw and Menelik, all of which are now banned in Ethiopia.
Nega has also been a columnist for the monthly magazine Change and the US-based news forum EthioMedia, which are also banned in Ethiopia.
He has been detained at least seven times under Ethiopian Prime Minister Meles Zenawi’s rule, including in 2005, when he and his wife Serkalem were imprisoned for 17 months on treason charges for their critical reporting of the government’s violent crackdown of protests following disputed elections, and briefly in February last year for “attempts to incite Egyptian and Tunisian-like protests in Ethiopia” after he published articles on the Arab uprisings.