ADDIS ABABA — 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 of 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.
The U.S. State Department released a report last month criticizing Ethiopia’s human rights record. International organizations such as Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch also accuse Ethiopia of using an anti-terrorism proclamation to silence dissident and critical voices. On Thursday, the appeal of prominent journalist Eskinder Nega was denied, meaning he has to serve his 18-year sentence.
The State Minister in Ethiopia’s Prime Minister's office, Getachew Redda, says the international criticism is not based on facts.
"The government feels that this criticism are totally misplaced and mostly made without the proper understanding of the basic tenets of the anti-terror legislation," said Redda. "As a matter of fact, the anti-terror proclamation is copied from some of the advanced legal systems in the world. If you have journalists or opposition members who make it their business to be involved in terrorist activities, simply because they are journalists doesn’t mean that they will be left free to mess with the security of the country.”
Reeyot has served one year and 10 months of her five-year sentence so far. There are six more journalists imprisoned today in Ethiopia.