Ethioian journalist Reeyot Alemu currently languishes in jail for her outspoken and critical work. She recently won UNESCO’s Guillermo Cano World Press Freedom Prize. Here Hala Eltom discusses the choice, and questions the impact it may have on Alemu and the Ethiopian media in general in the long term.
Created in 1997, the UNESCO Guillermo Cano World Press Freedom Prize honours a “person, organisation or institution for their contribution towards the defence and/or promotion of press freedom.” This statement is nothing less than the truth about this year’s winner, Reeyot Alemu of Ethiopia.
Despite her absence, the 33-year-old journalist was recognised for “exceptional courage, resistance and commitment to freedom of expression” in San Jose, Costa Rica for the 20th annual World Press Freedom Day under the theme “Safe to Speak.”
Speak, is indeed what Alemu did in Ethiopia, where she openly criticised the current political and social situation in a number of independent publications. After openly criticising the current political and social situation in the country, Alemu is currently sentenced to five years in prison, due to a conviction for “inciting terrorism” under Ethiopia’s anti-terrorism law. Used to set back cases, the anti-terrorism law categorises Alemu’s case and many alike, as only a matter of criminal law.
Still in jail, and in spite of her critical and deteriorating health conditions, Alemu’s words and courage were strongly echoed in a heartwarming letter delivered by Alana Barton of the International Women’s Media Foundation in the award ceremony honouring her. Although the award is a symbol and a celebration of Alemu’s integrous convictions towards her responsibilities as a journalist, a question of importance is how much will the prize contribute towards her freedom? The consequences of offering international recognition to an imprisoned activist, politician or for this matter, a journalist, are always unknown.
According to the 2013 Reporters without Borders press freedom index, Ethiopia is ranked 137th out of 179 countries. The current media landscape and such a ranking indicate that journalists are subjected to interrogation, harassment and even imprisoned as exemplified by Alemu’s case. On one hand, the award could raise awareness to her case at an international level and even pressure the local government for her release or simply, it could potentially aggravate the situation and ultimately cost her an entire life of imprisonment.
Ultimately, it is essential to question the comprehensive impact of this prize: Will it in any way pressure for a new change in media or legislative policies in Ethiopia, or will it solely shed light on Alemu‘s case but simultaneously allow many other cases of journalist impunity to go unnoticed?
Given the current precarious condition of journalism and freedom of the press in Ethiopia, it may be presumed that the Guillermo Cano World Press Freedom Prize has succeeded in acknowledging Alemu’s work and more importantly, her dedication and bravery, but it may not significantly improve the situation of journalism, or have any foreseeable influence on the freedom of the press in Ethiopia.