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Last Updated: 05/10/2013
Reeyot Alemu: Young Hero of Ethiopia Press Freedom
Essate Weldemichael

Reeyot Alemu has recently been awarded by the International Women's Media Foundation and UNESCO for her inspiring commitment to freedom of speech and opinion, even as she faces severe persecution from the Ethiopian government, and continues to be imprisoned.

Reeyot Alemu, 33, is a teacher and a columnist. When she was arrested in June 2011, she was accused of conspiring to commit terrorist acts, money laundering and participation in a terrorist organization. Initially she was sentenced to fourteen years and her sentence was later reduced by the appellate court to five years. Speaking under tyranny is difficult and dangerous. But for Reeyot Alemu, no price is too high to keep her from being the voice for the voiceless. She speaks the truth about the structural power relations that perpetuate inequality, breed injustice and ultimately marginalize the vast majority of Ethiopians. She criticizes the government in her columns even when she is muzzled, gagged, and in prison. She knew the price she would pay for her courage but was ready to accept that price. “Courage is the most important of all the virtues, because without courage you cannot practice any other virtue consistently,” said Maya Angelou. Courage is what Reeyot and others like her have. Courage comes in many forms. A young woman who stands up to tyranny is driven by courage and determination. She speaks about the injustice and oppression despite personal sorrow and hardship, condemnation or official persecution and prosecution.

In 2012, International Women’s Media Foundation (IMWF) awarded Reeyot its prestigious “2012 Courage in Journalism Award”. On May 3, 2013, UNESCO has awarded her the 2013 Guillermo Cano World Press Freedom Prize for her exceptional courage, resistance and commitment to freedom of speech and expression of thought. These awards give her international recognition and validity. Today, I am ecstatically proud to see Reeyot as a recipient of such laudable acknowledgment. While I was at the award ceremony listening to the presenter, I was overjoyed. What can be more inspiring than having my fellow young imprisoned Ethiopian journalist who stands up for the truth and against tyranny and lies, being recognized, honored and celebrated for heroic effort by the world? When history of press freedom in Ethiopia is written, future generation of Ethiopia will see her and take pride in the fact that when the chips were down and the heavy boots of government crushed the people and trampled over their rights, there were few like her who stood for truth.

Reeyot is in a solitary confinement and her health is deteriorating by the day after being diagnosed with breast cancer. It’s truly inspirational to see a young woman who is confined in prison standing up defiantly and fighting for freedom of speech and expression of opinion with a ball point pen and scraps of paper. But I often wonder: What makes individuals like Reeyot do what they do while the rest of us do very little or nothing? Were they born with courage or did they acquire it; and if so how and where? Was courage thrust upon them by circumstances? Why it is a moral imperative for Reeyot and others like her to “dream of things that never were, and ask why not” when many of us “look at things the way they are, and ask why?” Why did Reeyot defiantly declare from prison, “I believe that I must contribute something to bring a better future [in Ethiopia]” while many of us sit comfortably in freedom and are only concerned about contributions to bettering ourselves only? Why is it a moral imperative for Reeyot to pay a price for her courage? I do not know Reeyot personally, but I know and deeply honor the courage of her moral convictions. I want to thank and honor Reeyot for teaching us the real meaning of courage. I thank her for sending a tiny ripple of hope for her generation, for standing against tyrants, impunity and clawing at the mightiest walls of oppression.

Although my experience in the 2013 UNESCO international day of press freedom is humbling and unforgettable in so many ways. It is painful and embarrassing for me to see Reeyot recognized and honored by international human and press rights organizations year after year, while freedom of speech and expression of opinion is still a foreign concept in Ethiopia.

Essate Weldemichael is a student at the University for Peace.