The honour was formally bestowed on Nega in a ceremony at the 66th World Newspaper Congress, under way in the Italian city of Torino this week, where more than 1,000 media industry representatives have gathered.
Nega is serving an 18-year jail sentence in Addis Ababa’s notorious Kaliti prison, convicted on trumped-up terrorism charges after daring to wonder in print whether the Arab Spring could reach Ethiopia, and for criticising the very anti-terrorism legislation under which he was charged. Arrested in 2011, he was sentenced on 23 January 2012, and denounced as belonging to a terrorist organisation.
Imprisoned at least seven times in the past decade for committing fearless acts of journalism, Nega is a celebrated intellectual and a relentless fighter for freedom of expression. “Eskinder Nega has become an emblem of Ethiopia’s recent struggle for democracy,” World Editors Forum President Erik Bjerager said, delivering the Golden Penduring the opening ceremony of the World Newspaper Congress and the World Editors Forum in Torino. “No stranger to prison, he is also an unforgettable warning to every working Ethiopian journalist and editor that the quest to create a just, free society comes with a heavy price,” Bjerager said.
Nega’s former prisonmate, Swedish journalist Martin Schibbye, accepted the award on the jailed journalist’s behalf, at the invitation of Nega’s family. He painted a dark picture of life inside Kaliti Prison. “The rooms are more like barns with concrete floors, and it is so crowded that you have to sleep on your side,” he said. “Prisoners are packed likes slaves on a slaveship. Once a month an inmate leaves with his feet first.”
But disease and torture are not the hardest part of life inside Kaliti, according to Schibbye. “It (is) the fear of speaking. It’s not the guard towers with machine guns that keep the prison population calm. It is the geography of fear. People who speak politics are taken away. They disappear.” Schibbye is a freelance journalist who was jailed for 14 months in Kaliti Prison, along with his photographer Johan Persson. They were pardoned and released in September 2012.
“In (Kaliti), fearless people like Eskinder Nega helped the whole prison population to keep their dignity. By still writing. Protesting. Not giving up. He helped us all maintain our humanity. But there is one thing I know that even Eskinder fears. That is to be forgotten,” Schibbye says.
“When you’re locked up as a prisoner of conscience, this is the greatest fear, and the support from the outside is what keeps you going. This Golden Pen Award will not set him free tomorrow, but it will ease his day today. He will go with his head high knowing that he is there for a good cause. That the pain and suffering has a meaning.”
WEF President Erik Bjerager told the ceremony that the world needs to watch the creeping threat of anti-terrorism legislation being used to target journalists. “Ethiopia continues to resort to anti-terrorism legislation to silence opposition and shackle the press. Alarmingly, beyond Ethiopia, countless states around the world are misusing anti-terrorism legislation to muzzle journalists, bloggers and freedom of expression advocates,” Bjerager said. “Research suggests that over half of the more than 200 journalists in jail last year were being held on ‘anti-state’ charges. Let me be clear: Journalism is not terrorism. Politicians should not abuse the notion of national security to protect the government, powerful interests or particular ideologies, or to prevent the exposure of wrongdoing or incompetence.”
Schibbye concluded his acceptance speech, reading from a moving letter penned by Nega to his eight-year-old son. It was smuggled out of Kaliti prison: “The pain is almost physical. But in this plight of our family is embedded hope of a long suffering people. There is no greater honour. We must bear any pain, travel any distance, climb any mountain, cross any ocean to complete this journey to freedom. Anything less is impoverishment of our soul. God bless you, my son. You will always be in my prayers.”
Schibbye told a tearful audience: “When I read these words by Eskinder I know that they will never break him. Because he is in peace with himself. He knows that even though he is chained, robbed of his physical freedom, the freedom to talk or to be silent, the freedom to drink or eat, and even to shit. He knows, as do all prisoners of conscience, that you have it in you to keep the most valuable, the freedom that nobody can take from you, the freedom to determine who you want to be. Eskinder is a journalist. And every day he wakes up in the Kaliti prison is just another day at the office.”
Nine more journalists were jailed in the past month in Ethiopia, as the election campaign started ahead of next year’s poll. “The crackdown was a flashing alarm to the world that no one is safe. That there is a hunting season for journalists in Addis Abeba. But despite this difficult situation, there is light,” Schibbye said.
“Eskinder Nega’s courage has turned out to be contagious; a new generation is stepping up. A generation of young cheetahs have been taking enormous risks writing, tweeting and speaking truth to power, demanding the jailed to be released. It is hopeful. It shows that they can jail journalists but they can never succeed in jailing journalism. Words led Eskinder Nega to the Kaliti prison. And in the end it must also be words that set him free,” Schibbye told a clearly emotional audience.
“When I see this Golden Pen of his, I look back, and think of Eskinder who is left behind in the chaos, on the concrete floor, between walls of corrugated steel I feel sick to the stomach. But then I remember his smile and his strength and I think that at the end of the day, it’s not us that are fighting for his freedom – but rather he who is fighting for ours. Ayzoh Eskinder! Ayzoh! (translation: be strong, chin up).”
Note: The Golden Pen of Freedom is an annual award made by WAN-IFRA to recognise the outstanding action, in writing or deed, of an individual, a group or an institution in the cause of press freedom. Established in 1961, the Golden Pen of Freedom is presented annually and is amongst the most prestigious awards of its kind throughout the world. Behind the names of the laureates lie stories of extraordinary personal courage and self-sacrifice, stories of jail, beatings, bombings, censorship, exile and murder. One of the objectives of the Golden Pen is to turn the spotlight of public attention on repressive governments and journalists who fight them. Often, the laureate is still engaged in the struggle for freedom of expression and the Pen has, on several occasions, secured the release of a publisher or journalist from jail or afforded him or her a degree of protection against further persecution.
The Fourth of June when the army that was founded for the people turned on the unarmed citizens of Peking to destroy a peaceful student-led democracy movement. We remember also in Tibet in 1950’s the unarmed monks were shot in cold blood in Lhasa, and since the country occupied and depopulated to this day.
The massacre in the Tiananmen Square started soon after midnight. It was a different army from the unarmed one which had tried to enter the square on Friday night and failed. This one was told to kill, and the soldiers with their AK- 47 automatic rifles and the armored personnel carriers with their machine guns opened fire indiscriminately, in the air, directly at the huge crowds, at small groups, everywhere as we can see in these attached videos.
Lined up in rows across the Avenue of Eternal Peace, they advanced slowly, shooting all the while, then they would halt and kneel and fire directly into the crowd as you can see in the above videos. They did the same at the southern end of the square by Zhengyang Gate. When both ends of the square were cleared, they switched off the lights and encircled the thousands of students who had crowded together on the Revolutionary Heroes’ monument. Dawn broke and riot police moved in with truncheons. Everyone expected the army. But no one expected such ferocity, such armor, such numbers. There were more than 100,000 soldiers. ( watch Video)
Backlash: the army responded with violence to peaceful protests (Corbis)
Many foreign reporters started crying “If this is the People’s Army, God spare China.” They behaved like the Red Guards, with a systematic and frenzied brutality. They were the very institution that was once called out to protect China from the Red Guard excesses. Now they are killing civilians.
June 4th , 1989 all the while the lorries kept rumbling forward, stopping from time to time until the citizens of Peking were pushed back from the northern end of the square by the entrance to the Forbidden City.
A celebrated image of a man trying to stop the tanks entering the square know today as Tank Man
At one stage some students came from side streets, shouting “go home, go home” to stalled lorries outside the leadership compound. They were scattered by militia men with clubs like axe-handles, which cracked a few skulls. It was probably the one occasion during the night when they did not use guns.
Along the tree-lined streets beside the Forbidden City, groups of people were talking softly, scared but curious.. About half an hour later some of the armour returned again from the square, and in a continuing moving circle, they opened fire all around. It was a battlefield. It was a lesson in brute powerThe world was weeping for the people of Peking. One cannot see how they are ever likely to trust their leaders again.
Testimonies by the Journalists present on the Square on the day of the Massacre
The rape of Peking
By Michael Fathers and Andrew Higgins
It was the worst single act of violence against the Chinese people since the Communist Party took power in Peking 40 years ago. Hundreds were dead, many more were wounded and still the People’s Liberation Army continued throughout yesterday and into the early hours of this morning to fire on the capital’s citizens.
Tanks and armoured personnel carriers (APCs) which had blasted their way into Tiananmen Square spread out across the centre of the city, opening fire from time to time with machine guns at groups of people who were on the streets. From 3am onwards, nearly 90 fresh tanks roared in from the city’s eastern suburbs along the main boulevard past Tiananmen Square to reinforce those already in Peking.
The capital had become a city under siege. Fires could be seen burning in the south of Peking early this morning. The chatter of gunfire and the thunder of an electric storm shook the night. The people of Peking, outraged by the bloodletting, continued to challenge the military despite the massive forces arrayed against them. Students, whose seven-week campaign for political change triggered the onslaught, yesterday displayed the grisly evidence of the killing. They paraded corpses of fallen comrades at their universities.
Crushing blow: soldiers in armored vehicles fired on the public in Tienanmen Square (Corbis)
Hong Kong and the Reaction of Madame Thatcher
In Hong Kong more than 200,000 nervous residents appeared at a rally to mourn the dead in Peking and called for a general strike on Wednesday. “What happened in Peking has broken confidence in Hong Kong’s future,” said Elsie Elliott Tu, a member of the Legislative Council. Margaret Thatcher, in a statement from Downing Street, said she had been “appalled by the indiscriminate shooting of unarmed people”. Although she could “understand the deep anxiety” felt in Hong Kong, which reverts to China in 1997, Britain would “continue to stand by its commitment to a secure future” for the colony and was “confident” China would do the same.
Students in Shanghai erected barricades and bus drivers went on strike. Roads leading to Fudan University and Tongji University and those to the waterfront by the Peace Hotel were blocked. The streets of central Peking were covered with bloodstains, rubble and the wreckage of Saturday night’s pitched battle. At the far western end of the Avenue of Eternal Peace, a long line of APCs were gutted and smoking. Several miles in the other direction, the burned body of a soldier was strung up and dangled from an overpass. Headless corpses, crushed by tanks and APCs, were lying on other roads.
State radio, quoting the army newspaper, Liberation Army Daily, said the armed forces had achieved a great victory and crushed counter-revolutionary violence. The official media gave detailed accounts of military casualties, saying 1,000 soldiers had been hurt. It acknowledged only that there had been some civilian casualties. Reports in Peking said the civilian death toll could be as many as 1,400. Across the city, hospitals were overflowing with bodies lying in blood-smeared corridors. Doctors said they were unable to cope with the carnage and many injured were likely to die for lack of attention. In one hospital, a power cut forced surgeons to operate by torchlight to remove bullets.
The state radio unconsciously mimicked the infamous American adage in Vietnam that to save the village you had to destroy it. In explaining the military assault on Peking, the radio said: “It was necessary to undertake that action to save lives and property.”
The troops control Tiananmen Square, the site of the student protest and now the focus of a massive military build-up. More than 100 tanks, dozens of APCs and tens of thousands of troops occupied the square and its surroundings. Throughout the day a helicopter acted as a spotter for the army, taking off and landing in the square repeatedly, and apparently tipping off troops at any sign of a large gathering of civilians.
The square was the army’s, but the battle for the streets had yet to be won. The fight for the hearts and minds of Peking’s citizens seems already lost. Students and an independent and illegal workers’ union have called for a general strike today to express public outrage. However, work already seems to have stopped. Public transport is not operating, many people, frightened and appalled by the violence, have kept away from work.
Activists duck for cover during the Chinese crackdown (Corbis)
New violence seems likely after the capture of an APC by the students and reports that they are building an arsenal of their own from captured weapons. Several university campuses have been surrounded by troops and armoured vehicles. Student leaders urged their colleages to stay indoors, but they seemed to be losing control as anger over the military onslaught on their peaceful movement replaced the carnival mood of previous weeks.
Ordinary citizens taunted the troops with chants of “fascists”, “murderers go home”. Slogans attacking Li Peng, the Prime Minister, had been daubed in blood on buses and walls. “Li Peng, you will never be at peace,” read one message in fresh blood on the side of a booth. Others condemned 84-year-old Deng Xiaoping, China’s paramount leader. According to one report Mr Deng, although in serious condition in hospital, had given the order for the troop advance into the capital, saying that the youth movement had to be suppressed “even if they are protesting out of ignorance”. Acknowledging that many ordinary people had joined the student cause, he is alleged to have said: “In China even one million people is still only a small number.”
The savagery of the army’s action came against a background of political turmoil brought about by the impending succession. How ill Mr Deng is remains unclear, but factions within the party and the military have already begun to stake their claim to lead China when Mr Deng does finally leave the scene. How to handle the students’ Democracy Movement became the focus of the battle for future supremacy. Mr Deng’s once-ordained successor, Zhao Ziyang, the party General Secretary, called for moderation towards the students and has been stripped of his authority, though not yet his title.
Opposing him and, for the moment victorious, is Li Peng. The final outcome is far from certain and he is now not only reviled by Chinese people as a butcher, but totally dependent on the fickle loyalties of the military.