Last Friday, May 3, was World Press Freedom Day. Perhaps you may have missed it? On one hand, the Press Freedom Day parades, or sales, are far and few between. On the other hand, even the press doesn’t seem to care much about its colleagues’ freedom and well-being. Take the case of Ethiopian journalist, Reeyot Alemu. On Friday, Alemu was awarded, in absentia, the UNESCO Guillermo Cano World Press Freedom Prize 2013. Due to prior commitments and scheduling conflicts, Alemu couldn’t attend. Reeyot Alemu is a guest of the Ethiopian government, which convicted her, two years ago, of terrorism. The terrorism of writing, of critique, and of asking questions and seeking the truth: it’s the holy trinity of the barrel of the pen.
Alemu is an editor and columnist at Feteh, an independent weekly in Ethiopia, that was shut down by the government in 2012. Alemu reported critically on the fundraising methods used for a big dam project. Perhaps it was her scathing analysis, perhaps it was her comparison of Ethiopia’s Meles Zenawi to Muammar Gaddafi, and perhaps it was none of these that landed her in jail. She was already a marked woman. Alemu knew this and kept on writing.
In June 2011 she was arrested. In January 2012, Alemu was sentenced to 14 years, and sent to the notorious Kaliti Prison, the ‘Robben Island’ of Ethiopia. Since then, Alemu has faced constant intimidation, threats of solitary confinement, and deteriorating health. In August 2012, two charges were dropped, and her sentence was ‘reduced’ to five years. The intimidation and threats continued, as did the deterioration of her health. In January 2013, her final appeal was denied.
In 2012, International Women’s Media Foundation gave Reeyot Alemu the Courage in Journalism Award. At the ceremony, via a smuggled, handwritten note, Alemu explained:
I believe that I must contribute something to bring a better future… I knew that I would pay the price for my courage and I was ready to accept that price. Because journalism is a profession that I am willing to devote myself to. I know for EPRDF, journalists must be only propaganda machines for the ruling party. But for me, journalists are the voices of the voiceless. That’s why I wrote many articles which reveal the truth of the oppressed ones.
In the award ceremony this Friday, Reeyot Alemu again asked, again via note: “Who will expose the unpleasant truths of those in power if not journalists?”
So, where have the journalists been in the case of Reeyot Alemu? Largely absent. Bloggers, such as Rosebell Kagumire, have written. Journalist advocacy organizations, such as the Committee to Protect Journalists, and Africa-focused venues, most notably Pambazuka, have followed the case, off and on. Outside of the usual suspects, the mainstream press has been remarkably silent about one of their own. The Daily Beast had a moving piece; Women’s Wear Daily covered Alemu’s ‘fearlessness’ in the context of last year’s IWMF awards. The Guardian reprinted a piece from The Bureau of Investigative Journalism, and even that was a more general piece that only referenced Alemu in passing.
What is the threshold here for ‘news’? What exactly is all the news that’s fit to print, or read? Clearly international recognition counts for nothing. Clearly courage means nothing. And meanwhile Reeyot Alemu sits in the terrible conditions of Kaliti Prison, while the rest of the world, that trusts the news media to report on ‘far-off places’, goes on about its business, listening distractedly to “Freedom’s just another word…”