Imprisoned Ethiopian Journalist Win the 2013 UNESCO-World Press Freedom Prize
By Betre Yacob
Imprisoned Ethiopian journalist Reeyot Alemu has won the 2013 UNESCO-Guillermo Cano World Press Freedom Prize. She is given the prize in recognition of her “exceptional courage, resistance and commitment” to freedom of expression. According to UNESCO’s news report, she was recommended by an independent international jury of 12 most outstanding media professionals.
Reeyot Alemu is one of the very rare outspoken Ethiopian women journalists. She bravely fought falsehoods, brutality, and oppression in Ethiopia, with pen — a power of words. She is currently serving a five-year jail sentence in Kality, a notoriously brutal prison of the authoritarian regime in Ethiopia. She was charged with ‘terrorism offences’ on June 2012, under the vaguely worded and broad-reaching Anti-Terrorism law, passed by the regime in 2009.
According to the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ), all of the charges against Reeyot Alemu were only based on her journalistic activities–emails she had received from pro-opposition discussion groups and reports and photographs she had sent to opposition news sites.
Reeyot Alemu is among a number of journalists who have been prosecuted under the anti-terrorism law in Ethiopia. According to Amnesty International, only during 2011 and 2012, over 100 journalists and political activists were arrested and prosecuted on charges of terrorism and other offenses in the country, for exercising their rights to freedom of expression. The actions that were the basis for such charges and prosecutions included writing articles critical of the government, calling for peaceful protest, and reporting on peaceful protests.
A Woman Born to Stand for the Truth
Born in 1980, Reeyot Alemu studied in Addis Ababa, the capital of Ethiopia. She received her BA in English Language and Theatrical Art from Addis Ababa University in 2005. Willing to risk her freedom and peace of mind, she began writing articles for independent newspapers in 2009, as a freelance writer.
Reeyot Alemu joined the now-defunct most prominent weekly newspaper called Awramba Times in 2010, where she worked as a columnist and wrote critically about the social and political crisis of her country. In 2011, she worked, among other roles, as a columnist for the weekly independent paper Feteh, which was later shuttered by the regime.
In 2010, Reeyot Alemu was able to found her own publishing house and a monthly magazine called “Change” that covered a wide range of political and social issues. However, after operating for a while, both of them were subsequently closed.
On June 21, 2011, Reeyot Alemu was taken from the school she taught, and arrested in Ma-ekelawi, an interrogation center, where dis-speakable torture is a normal practice of police and security officials in attempts to elicit confessions before cases go to trial. It was without charge. Four days before her arrest, she had written a sharp critique against the regime’s illegitimate fundraising methods for a dam project, and had apparently compared the late Libyan dictator Muammar Gaddafi with Ethiopia’s then-Prime Minister Meles Zenawi, who ruled the country for 21 years with a rod of iron.
Judged a “terrorist” by the tyrannical regime’s court, Reeyot Alemu was sentenced to 18 years in prison in January 2012. An appeals court, however, subsequently reduced the sentence to five years and dropped some of the charges.
Reeyot Alemu was offered clemency if she agreed to testify against journalist colleagues, who were arrested with her and accused by the regime of abetting terrorist groups. She, however, refused to do so and was consequently sent to solitary confinement as a punishment.
According to different sources, since her imprisonment in June 2011, the health of Reeyot Alemu has deteriorated. Recently, she has underwent surgery to remove a tumor from her breast. Her families reported that after the surgery she was forced to return to jail with no recovery time, and two days later she was, therefore, bleeding.
In 2012, Reeyot Alemu was the recipient of the prestigious 2012 Courage in Journalism Award that recognizes courageous actions of journalists around the world. She was given the prize for her “refusal to self-censor in a place where that practice is standard, and her unwillingness to apologize for truth-telling, even though contrition could win her freedom.”