A jailed Ethiopian journalist will be recognized on May 1 for his fight to advance press freedom in his country – an effort that was elevated by the National Press Club.

The PEN American Center, a literary and human rights organization, will present its top prize, the 2012 PEN/Barbara Goldsmith Freedom to Write Award, to Eskinder Nega at a gala at the American Museum of Natural History in New York.

“The key to him winning that award was the National Press Club helping him,” said Jason McLure, Nega’s friend and colleague. “It shed light on this case.”

In November 2011, McLure contacted his former Bloomberg colleague and past Club president Alan Bjerga about Nega’s ordeal. McLure has spearheaded a campaign to raise awareness about Nega, who remains imprisoned for speaking out against the Ethiopian government and advocating a free press.

In 2009, Ethiopia passed its Anti-Terrorism Proclamation to silence dissent. The law criminalizes any reporting that authorities consider encouragement of rebellion or moral support for causes or groups the government deems “terrorists.”

Once Bjerga learned the details, he urged then-Club President Mark Hamrick to sign a petition condemning the Ethiopian government’s policy and calling on Secretary of State Hilary Clinton to publicly repudiate Ethiopia’s citing terrorism to silence its citizens.

The letter would eventually be published in the New York Review of Books in January 2012, catalyzing more media coverage.

“I think it was a huge factor in getting attention to this case,” McLure said. “Mark’s [Hamrick] signature on the letter really gave Eskinder’s cause a big stamp of legitimacy.”

McLure, a former Club member and now a reporter for Reuters, worked as a stringer for Bloomberg in Ethiopia from 2007 to 2010.

He met Nega and struck up a lasting friendship. McLure learned that Nega had been banned from speaking his mind in the newspapers and was “already a persona non-grata in his own country.”

Nega has been jailed at least seven times over the last two decades. He and his wife, Serkalem Fasil, another Ethiopian journalist and former newspaper publisher, even welcomed a baby boy in June 2006 while both parents were imprisoned on treason charges.

Most recently, on Sept. 14, 2011, Nega was arrested for publishing a column that challenged the government’s statement that a number of journalists it had detained were suspected terrorists.

He’s been jailed ever since in Ethiopia’s capital, Addis Ababa, and is awaiting further sentencing on May 11. He could potentially receive the death penalty.

“His case should put fear in the heart of any freedom-loving individual, because what happened to him could happen in just about any country in the world,” Hamrick wrote in an email. “All too often, we’ve seen people imprisoned, tortured or killed for writing, reporting or simply speaking their minds. There is no more important aspect to the mission of the National Press Club than to draw attention to these kinds of cases and advocate on behalf of the oppressed, who might otherwise be forgotten.”

According to the Committee to Protect Journalists, Ethiopia has forced more journalists into exile in the past 10 years than any other nation in the world.

“Press freedom is a core value of the National Press Club,” said John Donnelly, chairman of the Club’s Press Freedom Committee. “And speaking out about this kind of case is exactly what we’re here for as an organization.”

On April 23, the International Press Institute released a petitition signed by 20 World Press Freedom Heroes -— recognized journalists from all over the globe — calling for the immediate release of Nega and other jailed journalists in Ethiopia.

“People sign petitions all the time and you think, ‘That’s not going to do anything,’” McLure said. “But in this case, I think it’s really helped him.”

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