Ethiopian winner of press freedom prize suffering in prison

UNESCO awarded Reeyot the 2013 World Press Freedom Prize for her exceptional courage, resistance and commitment to freedom of expression.
UNESCO awarded Reeyot the 2013 World Press Freedom Prize for her exceptional courage, resistance and commitment to freedom of expression.

The family of Reeyot Alemu, this year’s winner of the World Press Freedom Prize, says her situation in an Ethiopian prison is worsening by the day. Reeyot Alemu and Eskinder Nega are two of the best-known Ethiopian journalists imprisoned on charges of terrorism. UNESCO awarded Reeyot the 2013 World Press Freedom Prize for her exceptional courage, resistance and commitment to freedom of expression. But Reeyot’s family and friends say she and her relatives are suffering.

Reeyot’s father and lawyer Alemu Gobebo says that Reeyot feels honored to win the prize.  “As you know it is a prestigious prize,” said Gobebo. “She was very glad, she was telling me that it is the international organization which is awarding me for my beliefs and fighting for freedom of speech and expression of thought. For that matter, this prize is good for her.” Reeyot, 33, was sentenced to 14 years in prison after being found guilty of conspiring to commit terrorist acts, money laundering and participation in a terrorist organization. Her sentence was reduced to five years after she appealed her conviction and two charges were dropped.

Reeyot is imprisoned just outside the capital, Addis Ababa. On weekdays Reeyot’s family can visit her for 10 minutes. On the weekends they get to spend half an hour with her. The imprisonment has had negative consequences for the whole family, says Reeyot’s sister Eskeder Alemu. “Reeyot is the breadwinner of our family, so it has affected our family by losing her,” she said. “And I stopped a job because somebody came to my office and told my bosses. They said she’s Reeyot’s sister, she is a terrorist sister so you have to fire her. Then they fired me.”

Reeyot’s health is deteriorating, and she is suffering from a breast tumor, sinusitis and gastritis. Journalist Anania Sorri is a close friend of Reeyot who has been harassed himself many times for writing critical stories about the government’s developmental state. He says that Reeyot is denied proper medical treatment while also being threatened with solitary confinement: “It is a current threatening instrument for the prison officials, they say that she has been violating some disciplinary kind of activities in the prison and that she has been releasing some kind of information about the prison situation to the foreign media,” said Sorri.

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