New York City, May 2, 2012—Edward Albee, Margaret Atwood, E.L Doctorow, Zadie Smith, and Kwame Anthony Appiah were among the more than 500 PEN luminaries and supporters who joined last night in honoring Eskinder Nega, one of Ethiopia’s most courageous journalists and free expression advocates, with the 2012 PEN/Barbara Goldsmith Freedom to Write Award at its annual Literary Gala at the Museum of Natural History in New York. Nega is currently in prison and standing trial on manufactured terrorism charges, and could face the death penalty if convicted. In the evening’s most dramatic moment, Nega’s wife Serkalem Fasil, who has been jailed herself for her journalism and who traveled from Addis Ababa and arrived in New York hours before the ceremony, said she was accepting the award on behalf of her husband “at a time when freedom of expression and press freedoms are at the lowest point in Ethiopia.”

Noting that “prison has been Eskinder’s home away from home for the past two decades,” she told the audience, “If Eskinder were standing here, he would accept this award not just as a personal honor, but on behalf of all Ethiopian journalists who toil under withering repression in Ethiopia today, those forced into exile over the years, those in prison with him now, and even those who serve in state media for no other reason than making a living.”

Turkish publisher Ragip Zarakolu, who like Nega has been repeatedly jailed for challenging free expression restrictions in his country—most recently on the pretense of endorsing terrorism—was honored at the event as well. Accepting the Association of American Publisher’s Jeri Laber International Freedom to Publish Award on his behalf, his children Seref and Zerrin Holle read a message from their father dedicating the award to “the many other publishers, editors, writers, and journalists” who remain in prison in Turkey—among them Zarakolu’s oldest son Deniz, with whom he shared a cell for the past several months.

Master of Ceremonies Charlayne Hunter-Gault praised the awardees for “embodying the core values of PEN,” an organization that is celebrating its 90th year of programming in defense of freedom of expression and an open exchange of literature and ideas around the world. Hunter-Gault called it “a disturbing sign of the times” that both of them “stand accused of terrorism for their courageous, and peaceful, advocacy for freedom of expression.”

Eskinder Nega has been publishing articles critical of the government since 1993, when he opened his first newspaper, Ethiopis, which was soon shut down by authorities. He was the general manager of Serkalem Publishing House, which published the newspapers Asqual, Satenaw, and Menelik, all of which are now banned in Ethiopia. He has also been a columnist for the monthly magazine Change and for the U.S.-based news forum EthioMedia, which are also banned. He has been detained at least seven times under Prime Minister Meles Zenawi, including in 2005, when he and his journalist wife Serkalem Fasil were imprisoned for 17 months on treason charges for their critical reporting on the government’s violent crackdown of protests following disputed elections. Their newspapers have been shut down and Nega has been denied a license to practice journalism since 2005, yet he has continued to publish columns critical of the government’s human rights record and calling for an end to political repression and corruption.

Nega was again arrested on September 14, 2011, after he published a column questioning the government’s claim that a number of journalists it had detained were suspected terrorists, and for criticizing the arrest of well-known Ethiopian actor and government critic Debebe Eshetu on terror charges earlier that week. Shortly after his arrest, Nega was charged with affiliation with the banned political party Ginbot 7, which the Ethiopian government considers a terrorist organization. On November 10, Nega was charged and further accused of plotting with and receiving weapons and explosives from neighboring Eritrea to carry out terrorist attacks in Ethiopia. State television portrayed Nega and other political prisoners as “spies for foreign forces.” He is currently being held in Qaliti Prison, and his trial is ongoing.

In a moving tribute film introducing Nega, PEN President Peter Godwin and journalist Jason McLure called Eskinder’s prosecution “a cautionary tale” about the use and spread of antiterrorism laws to prosecute terrorists. “His case really highlights the way that terrorism has come to be used as a catchall for a way to go after your political opponents or people who are critical of you,” McLure said.

PEN has for years been tracking the misuse of anti-terror and national security laws in Turkey to limit dissent—and publisher Ragip Zarakolu is one of those who has frequently been jailed for allegedly supporting terrorism, most recently in October 2011 in a round-up of human rights activists who have been charged with “aiding and abetting an illegal organization.” After more than five months in a high security prison, he was released on April 10, 2012, pending trial, and faces up to 15 years in prison.

Since founding the Belge Publishing House in 1977 with his late wife Ayse Nur, Zarakolu has defied Turkey’s censorship laws by translating and publishing Turkish editions of works by  Armenian, Greek, Kurdish and other writers, dealing with such forbidden subjects as the Armenian genocide and the repression of Turkey’s Kurdish minority. Among the titles published by Belge is the Turkish edition of Black Dog of Fate: An American Son Uncovers His Armenian Past by American poet and academic Peter Balakian, who presented the award at the ceremony.

“His life’s work is an emanation of who he is,” Balakian told the audience. “He is humble about his work, but he is confident about what his work is and means.”

“And yet,” he continued, “He has been rewarded by his government with endless trials, harassment, persecution, and several imprisonments; and his publishing company was bombed and destroyed. Through all of this, Ragip has proceeded with calm, with patience, with perseverance, with grace and dignity, with great courage, and with a love of what he does. He has said, ‘I am not an activist, I’m a publisher.’”

In introducing the evening, Godwin pointed to PEN’s 90th anniversary, but noted that, “With the exception of a few modest celebrations, we are spending this year doing what we always do: working to protect the freedom to write, and the freedom to read what others are writing, anywhere on earth. In today’s interconnected world, more than ever, silencing of a writer anywhere abridges the right of people everywhere to hear their voices.”

Author Barbara Goldsmith picked up the theme at the close of the evening, telling the evening’s honorees, “We will not desert you. We will never desert you. We will not desert you or any of your compatriots who are fighting for freedom of expression.”

PEN American Center is the largest of the 144 centers of PEN International, the world’s oldest human rights organization and the oldest international literary organization. The Freedom to Write Program of PEN American Center works to protect the freedom of the written word wherever it is imperiled. It defends writers and journalists from all over the world who are imprisoned, threatened, persecuted, or attacked in the course of carrying out their profession.

Larry Siems, (212) 334-1660 ext. 105
Sarah Hoffman, (212) 334-1660 ext. 111