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Siisay Agena’s letter to the PEN Center USA

November 19, 2010

Members and supporters of PEN CENTER USA:

I am greatly honored and humbled to be selected as the recipient of the 2010 PEN CENTER USA’s “Freedom to Write Award.”

I regret that I am unable to be with you in person and receive this great recognition, but I assure you that as these words are being read on my behalf, I am with you in spirit.

I accept this special award not just for myself, but on behalf of all independent Ethiopian journalists and writers who have been denied the right to write.

Throughout much of the world, the freedom to write as a journalist is recognized as a basic human right.

In Ethiopia, the freedom to write has been shrunk to a license to write given as a privilege by the government. Perhaps not even that. It is a permit that is given and taken at a moment’s notice.

I believe the freedom to write for a journalist is the freedom to write about what is wrong and what is right in his or her society. President John Kennedy was right when he said, the role of the press is to “to inform, to arouse, to reflect, to state our dangers and our opportunities, to indicate our crises and our choices, to lead, mold educate and sometimes even anger public opinion.”

I, and my other colleagues in Ethiopia, have been denied licenses to publish our newspapers for the past three years, even though the Ethiopian Constitution says that in the exercise of press freedom, “censorship in any form is prohibited.”

Could there be a more severe form of press censorship than requiring a license to publish newspapers?

Some people say, “Freedom isn’t free.” In Ethiopia, the freedom to write is not free. It comes at a very high price: loss of peace of mind resulting from a constant campaign of harassment and intimidation; loss of professional practice by being prevented to do what one is trained and passionate to do; and the daily struggle to survive under the cloud of fear and enforced silence.

I believe I speak on behalf of all independent Ethiopian journalists and writers when I say that we use our pens as flashlights to enlighten the people. We use our papers as forums for citizens to exchange ideas and communicate freely.

With the freedom to write comes a solemn responsibility. Journalists who write for the public have a duty to be fair, accurate and ethical in their reporting and analysis.

I, and a number of my colleagues who have published independent newspapers in Ethiopia in the past have tried to live up to these standards. For doing our journalistic duties, we were charged with treason and served nearly two years in prison, and ultimately acquitted. They sued us in civil court and got huge money judgments against us to wipe us out financially.

PEN USA’s gesture in this award means a lot to all independent journalists in Ethiopia. It signifies the solidarity of all those writers and journalists throughout the world, who believe as we do, in the freedom to write.

This award also affirms our basic belief that with a little help from friends like PEN CENTER USA, we can and will continue to struggle for press freedom in Ethiopia, and write about right and wrong in our country.

To those who believe that we do not have the freedom to write, this award should remind them that the freedom to write is a basic human right, not something to be licensed.

I am humbled as I accept this award previously given to individuals who have made greater sacrifices and contributions to press freedom than myself.

I gratefully accept it on behalf of my colleagues who struggle for press freedom in Ethiopia every day, and most importantly, on behalf of the new generation of aspiring young writers and journalists yet to come.

Thank you for honoring me and all independent writers and journalists in Ethiopia with this award.

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