His wife Serkalem Fasil, who is a journalist and also spent time in jail, received the award on his behalf. In the past decade, more journalists have fled Ethiopia than any other country, press freedom groups say.
“I accept this award on behalf of Eskinder Nega at a time when freedom of expression and press freedom are at the lowest in Ethiopia,” Ms Serkalem said on Tuesday night in a ceremony in New York. “If Eskinder were standing here, he’d accept this award, not just as a personal honour, but on behalf of all Ethiopian journalists who toil under withering conditions today: Those who went into exile over the years… those in prison with whom he now resides,” she said. Mr Eskinder has been in Maekelawi prison in the capital, Addis Ababa, since his arrest in September last year.
He was found guilty in January under Ethiopia’s anti-terrorism laws – which criminalise commentary that is critical of the government – and could face the death penalty when he is sentenced. He had published a column questioning the government’s claim that a number of journalists it had detained were suspected terrorists, and for criticising the arrest of well-known Ethiopian actor and government critic Debebe Eshetu. Mr Eskinder 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”, said Peter Godwin, president of the Pen American Center.
“Yet he did so nonetheless. And indeed he fell victim to exactly the measures he was highlighting,” Zimbabwean-born writer Mr Godwin added. The Pen award is given to writers who have been persecuted or imprisoned for exercising the right to freedom of expression. Mr Eskinder opened his first newspaper in 1993, and has been detained at least seven times by the government of Prime Minister Meles Zenawi. He was stripped of his licence to work as a journalist in 2005, but continued to write for the US-based news forum EthioMedia, which is banned in Ethiopia. He and his wife Ms Serkalem were both jailed in 2005 for criticising the government’s violent crackdown of protests following disputed elections.