It was so strange to see this woman, Reeyot Alemu, onstage accepting an award at the IWMF Courage Awards in New York City last week.
Reeyot won an IWMF courage award in 2012. But at the time, she couldn’t travel to the United States to accept it. She had been imprisoned by the Ethiopian government in 2011, and would not be released until 2015.
I’ve spent the last three years working as a freelance journalist in Ethiopia, so for most of that time, I had no opportunity to speak with Reeyot. I knew her only as one of several journalists in the country who were languishing behind bars.
Media workers have it tough in Ethiopia, Africa’s second most populous country. The security and intelligence agencies have little tolerance for journalists, and the government has used a sweeping anti-terrorism law – enacted in 2009 and much-criticized by human rights advocates – to target and silence its critics.
I wrote about Reeyot for the Committee to Protect Journalists (you can read that story here: https://cpj.org/2015/04/attacks-on-the-press-conflating-terrorism-and-journalism-in-ethiopia.php ) while she was still in prison. And shortly after her release, I called her to get her thoughts on President Obama’s July 2015 visit to Ethiopia.
During his visit, the U.S. president had largely shied away from criticizing Ethiopia’s human rights record. Reeyot told me that Ethiopian officials “just want to pretend in front of Obama and the international community that they are democratic and trying to improve human rights conditions.” (We published that comment here: http://www.nytimes.com/2015/07/28/world/africa/obama-calls-ethiopian-government-democratically-elected.html)
I, too, have found it difficult to do my job in Ethiopia. I was detained multiple times and, in one instance, jailed overnight. But Reeyot, like so many other Ethiopian journalists, has suffered far worse. In total, she spent just over four years behind bars.
Reeyot left for the United States soon after her 2015 release. So although we spoke on the phone, I never got the chance to meet her… until last week.
And these Courage Awards are quite the event. Its purpose is not only to bring media bigwigs together and honor the work of brave female journalists from around the world – this year’s awardees were Stella Paul, Mabel Caceres, Janine di Giovanni, and Diane Rehm – but also to raise money for the IWMF’s Emergency Fund, which helps female journalists in dire straits.
It was great to meet all of these women, but particularly interesting to see Reeyot herself, free after all these years, and taking the stage in New York City.