This year’s international press freedom award-winners, from Ethiopia, Iran, Russia and Venezuela, “embodied the struggle to report the news without fear of reprisal. Their work defies censorship,” said CPJ executive director Joel Simon.
The journalists won the award for taking extraordinary risks to report the truth at great personal cost. Underscoring the risks, Iranian journalist Mohammad Davari could not be in New York to receive his prize because he was kept in Iran’s notorious Evin prison for compiling testimonies of detainee abuse at a detention center in Iran.
One of the award recipients, Dawit Kebede had himself spent 21 months in Ethiopia’s Kality prison outside the capital Addis Ababa for writing an editorial criticizing the brutal repression of anti-government protests following disputed May 2005 national elections. For that, Kebede was charged with treason and attempted genocide, and thrown in a large cell with 14 other journalists and scores of political dissidents. To regain his freedom, Kebede had to sign a pardon statement accepting full responsibility for the deadly violence, but unlike most of his fellow journalist cellmates who chose exile after prison, he immediately launched a new newspaper, which has become the second largest in Ethiopia and the last independent political news magazine in the country.
Presented the 2010 International Press Freedom Award by Robert Thomson, managing editor of The Wall Street Journal, and speaking before an audience of 900 guests, Kebede said he accepted the prize on behalf of the staff of his Awramba Times newspaper as well as “the scores of Ethiopian journalists who have been jailed or forced into exile and the many others still struggling to make the press freedom promised by our constitution a reality.” In Africa, only Eritrea jails more journalists than Ethiopia, according to CPJ research. Kebede said that although his country receives millions of dollars in U.S. assistance for counterterrorism in the Horn of Africa, journalists in Ethiopia risked up to 25 years in prison for interviewing certain opposition politicians labeled by their government as terrorists. “We cannot even access certain websites because they are blocked. Security officials regularly call our newsroom to question our editorial decisions. I have often wondered how it feels to be a journalist and report without constant fear of arrest. I wonder how it feels to express opinions without being labeled an enemy of the state or hounded like a criminal.”
Kebede said from childhood he always wanted to be a journalist and liked asking questions about things he did not understand. “In journalism school, I had the choice of an easy career in public relations or sports and entertainment reporting. But for me, having my own newspaper was the only way I could express myself.” During his speech, he thanked CPJ for sending representatives to visit his prison in April 2006 and for intervening successfully when the government initially denied him a publishing license in January 2008. “The easiest thing for us would be to print government press releases. I am committed to continue to ask questions. I see this award as a message to those who vilify and persecute us every day that we are not alone. We are a link in a solid chain of committed journalists that spans the globe,” he said.
About the Committee to Protect Journalists: Since 1981, the Committee to Protect Journalists has been an independent, nonpartisan, non-governmental organization dedicated to defending freedom of the press worldwide.