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June 9, 2014

Ethiopian journalist branded a ‘terrorist’ and locked up for 18 years wins 2014 Golden Pen of Freedom

By William Turvill

An Ethiopian journalist branded a "terrorist" and currently serving an 18-year prison sentence has been awarded the 2014 Golden Pen of Freedom.

Eskinder Nega (pictured) has been jailed on at least seven occasions in his country. On the latest occasion, he was locked up for challenging the laws used against him and speculating that the Arab Spring uprisings could be repeated in Ethiopia. He wrote on these subjects despite already having had his journalism 'licence' taken away from him.

According to a fellow Ethiopian prisoner, Nega "could have chosen an easy life… but the love for the truth, for his country, for his fellow human beings, and for Ethiopia, made him into a journalist".

The award, from the World Association of Newspapers and News Publishers (WAN-IFRA), was presented today in Turin, Italy, during the opening ceremonies of the 66th World Newspaper Congress, 21st World Editors Forum and the 24th World Advertising Forum.

Presenting the award, World Editors Forum president Erik Bjerager described Nega as a “tenacious writer who has called only for peaceful change and reconciliation” portrayed by the Ethiopian government as “a rabble-rouser bent on fomenting violent revolution”.

He said: “Without abatement, Ethiopia resorts to anti-terrorism legislation to silence opposition and shackle the press. Alarmingly, beyond Ethiopia, countless states around the world are misapplying legislation designed to protect our societies to journalists, bloggers and freedom of expression advocates. Let me be clear: Journalism is not terrorism.”

In 2004, Nega’s newspapers, Asqual, Satenaw and Menelik, were among 13 titles closed down following the elections in which the ruling EPRDF party claimed a disputed victory.

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Nega and his wife, journalist Serkalem Fasil, were among other journalists, activists and opposition politicians charged with treason. The pair spent 17 months in prison.

Following their release, Nega continued to write, despite having lost his journalism ‘licence’, and was threatened with imprisonment and the death penalty when the Arab Spring began in 2011. Nega stood by his words, and speculated that the uprisings could spread to his country.

Five days before his latest arrest, he wrote a column calling on the government to stops sending dissenters to prison, highlighting the conditions they face.

He returned to Kaliti prison on 14 September 2011.

Swedish journalist Martin Schibbye, another former prisoner of the Ethiopian regime who was jailed alongside Nega for 11 months between 2011 and 2012, accepted the journalist’s award for him.

He said: “We must remember that Eskinder Nega at many points faced a choice. He is intelligent, well educated, he could have chosen an easy life, he could have chosen another profession, but the love for the truth, for his country, for his fellow human beings, and for Ethiopia, made him into journalist.

“He stayed. And he continued to write.

“That decision brought him to the dark cells.

“Not one time. But nine. Nine.

“His stubbornness is demonstrating a brand of moral courage that we need now more than ever. And courage is the only thing he is guilty of.”

More information and full speeches from Bjerager and Schibbye can be found on the WAN-IFRA website.

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