“Eskinder Nega’s courage made him a familiar name, a symbol of resistance for many Ethiopians,” exiled Ethiopian journalist and human rights activist Mesfin Negash told attendees of the International Press Institute (IPI)’s 2017 World Congress in Hamburg on Thursday as he accepted IPI’s 2017 World Press Freedom Hero award on behalf of Nega, who remains in prison in Ethiopia.

“He inspired many young journalists and bloggers.”

Negash, program director of the Stockholm-based human rights organisation Civil Rights Defenders, was speaking to an audience of approximately 300 leading journalists and others who gathered on the World Congress’s first day to honour IPI’s 69th World Press Freedom Hero and its 2017 Free Media Pioneer at a special awards ceremony at Hamburg’s historic City Hall.

Both awards were given in partnership with Copenhagen-based International Media Support (IMS).

Nega – a journalist and blogger, and a persistent critic of then-Prime Minister Meles Zenawi – has spent 2,073 days behind bars since he was arrested on Sept. 14, 2011, former IPI Executive Board Vice Chair Simon Li noted while introducing Negash.

Convicted in June 2012 of “participation in a terrorist organisation” and “planning, preparation, conspiracy, incitement and attempt of a terrorist act”, Nega was sentenced to 18 years in prison, a decision the U.N. Working Group on Arbitrary Detention later said violated international law.

“Nega’s specific act was writing a column questioning the government’s use of an anti-terrorism law to punish journalistic scrutiny,” Li said.

Since the early 1990s, Nega faced frequent official pressure and harassment due to his writing. In 2005, he and his wife, journalist Serkalem Fasil, were jailed on treason charges for their coverage of a mass government crackdown on popular protests following disputed parliamentary elections. Serkalem Fasil later give birth to a son behind bars. Authorities released the couple in April 2007, but closed down their publishing company and banned Nega from practicing journalism.

On hearing of IPI’s award, Fasil, who now lives in the United States and was unable to attend the ceremony, said the news was “bittersweet.”

Li told attendees: “Serkalem Fasil said ‘it was absolutely heart-warming to know that all [Nega’s] sacrifices and valuable contributions to press freedom are not in vain, but continue to shine a spotlight on his plight on the global stage. It is important to uphold such recognition for the tremendous impact it’s having on those who aspire to follow in his footsteps.’ ”

Negash said the award “sends an unmistakable message both for victims of the injustice and the perpetrators,” adding: “This is the best way to groom, protect and encourage young journalists, bloggers and dissenters who dare to speak the truth.”

He added: “Had Eskinder been here to accept this award, he would have spent much of the time talking about other journalists in prison and exile. More importantly, he would have dedicated it to his fellow journalists across Africa and beyond. I will do the same on his behalf today.”

Free Media Pioneer

Najib Sharifi (r), of the Afghan Journalists Safety Committee (AJSC), accepts the 2017 Free Media Pioneer Award from International Media Support (IMS) Head of Rapid Response Andreas Sugar during the IPI World Congress in Hamburg, Germany on May 18, 2017. Photo: ©Bildwerk/Bengt Lange/IPI 2017

IPI and IMS also recognised the Afghan Journalists Safety Committee (AJSC), which they jointly presented with IPI’s Free Media Pioneer Award, for its significant achievements in fostering support and solidarity for Afghanistan’s media community in the face of extreme repression and violence.

“AJSC’s defiance and determination are helping to ensure that the people of Afghanistan can realise their right to inform and be informed,” Andreas Sugar of IMS said. “With their range of activities, they offer not only hope, but also a model for other societies wracked by conflict.”

Founded in 2009, AJSC is a countrywide safety mechanism covering all 34 Afghan provinces that monitors incidents and provides media professionals with advice and practical safety measures. Over the past eight years, it has assisted in more than 400 cases of intimidation and violence against journalists, and it has provided training to more than 600 journalists across Afghanistan.

In remarks accepting the award, AJSC director Najib Sharifi said: “Our fight is not for a sector or a cause, it is for the truth, it is for a vision that we have for Afghanistan – a vision of a peaceful, stable, prosperous and democratic country where a free media can speak truth to power and where no tyrant regime can emerge again.”

Sharifi noted that the organisation has “adopted a holistic approach to the issue of safety – one that works on both prevention and is able to act rapidly in response to emergencies.”

He added: “Our mechanism of local safety focal points covers all of Afghanistan’s provinces and has inspired countries such as Pakistan, Somalia, Iraq and Yemen to establish their own local safety programs.”

Sharifi also spoke about efforts to improve the situation of women journalist in Afghanistan.

“We work to enhance women’s presence and leadership in the media sector and run campaigns against sexual harassment to ensure female journalists feel safe and protected in their working environment,” he said.

Commenting on AJSC’s recognition as a Free Media Pioneer, Sharifi noted that he and his colleagues gathered recently in Kabul “to celebrate this magnificent recognition of our work”.

He recounted: “We chatted in high spirits and saluted to freedom of expression and our commitment to media safety. We also talked about our future activities in this warzone that is Afghanistan. Despite the challenges – the show must go on!”