Befeqadu Hailu (L) and Lemn Sissay (R) at the 2019 PEN Pinter Prize ceremony. Photo credit: George Torode. 

Befeqadu Hailu, the Ethiopian writer, activist, and co-founder of the Amharic-language human rights platform Zone 9 Blogging Collective, has been named the 2019 International Writer of Courage at the PEN Pinter Prize ceremony at the British Library, London. As is the tradition, he was chosen by the recipient of the PEN Pinter Prize, who this year is the British writer and broadcaster Lemn Sissay. Both awards are administered by English PEN. This comes roughly a day ahead of the Ethiopian prime minister Abiy Ahmed being named winner of the 2019 Nobel Peace Prize today.

“It is because of his passion for writing and belief in freedom of expression for Ethiopians that I have chosen Befeqadu Hailu,” Sissay announced to the audience. “He is a novelist and a poet and a blogger. He is a man who stands by his word and whose words stood in the face of prison and arose far far above to declaim in the name of humanity. When I was considering him I spoke to many Ethiopians in Ethiopia about him. He is loved by his people and the younger generation: he is a twenty first century hero. It was obvious that the Writer of Courage had to be him. He is my hero.”

Hailu—Deputy Executive Editor of the Ethiopian newspaper Addis Maleda, columnist for Deutsche Welle Amharic Service, and part-time programme coordinator for the Ethiopian Human Rights Project—co-founded Zone 9, English PEN noted, as “a platform for individuals to speak out against human rights violations taking place in Ethiopia.” The blog’s motto, “We Blog Because We Care,” “underpins Hailu and his co-founder’s aim to create a space for freedom of expression whereby citizens of Ethiopia are supported to help end impunity in the country. As part of this effort they have conducted four major online campaigns which called for the Ethiopian government to respect the constitution.”

Zone 9 comprises nine bloggers: Zelalem Kibret, Tesfalem Waldyes, Asmamaw Hailegiorgis, Mahlet Fantahun, Edom Kassaye, Natnael Feleke, Atnaf Berhane, Abel Wabela, and Hailu. In 2014, they were arrested by the Ethiopian government and faced terrorism charges, a move which prompted backlash online. Hailu has been jailed four times without conviction, including on one occasion for a period of 18 months. For its work, Zone 9 has received a host of international awards, including the Committee to Protect Journalists’s 2015 International Press Freedom Award, the 2015 RSF Award for Citizen Journalists, and the 2015 Hellman/Hammet Human Rights Award, and was a finalist for the 2016 Martin Ennals Award for Human Rights Defenders.

Befeqadu Hailu (L) with Lemn Sissay (R) at the PEN Pinter Prize ceremony. Photo credit: @KatyaTaylor on Twitter.

“I think freedom of writing or freedom of speech is an intermediary path between change and violence,” said Hailu. “Many writers disdain violence. And yet, they write sour truth and encourage audiences to get out of their comfort zone to configure a better world. No war, no force, no campaign has as much power to change the world without claiming lives as writing.”

In their announcement of Sissay as the winner of the 2019 PEN Pinter Prize, the judges—English PEN chair Maureen Freely, The Economist correspondent Fiammetta Rocco, and author Niven Govinden—stated that “in his every work, Lemn Sissay returns to the underworld he inhabited as an unclaimed child. From his sorrows, he forges beautiful words and a thousand reasons to live and love. On the page and on the stage, online or at the Foundling Museum, this is an Orpheus who never stops singing.”

For 2018, the PEN Pinter Prize went to Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, who then chose Saudi Arabian lawyer and activist Waleed Abulkhair as the winner of the International Writer of Courage.

Previous winners of the International Writer of Courage award include Mahvash Sabet (2017), Ahmedur Rashid Chowdhury a.k.a. Tutul (2016), Raif Badawi (2015), Mazen Darwish (2014), Iryna Khalip (2013), Samar Yazbek (2012), Roberto Saviano (2011), Lydia Cacho (2010), and Zarganar (Maung Thura) (2009).

Previous winners of the PEN Pinter Prize include Michael Longley (2017), Margaret Atwood (2016), James Fenton (2015), Salman Rushdie (2014), Tom Stoppard (2013), Carol Ann Duffy (2012), David Hare (2011), Hanif Kureishi (2010), and Tony Harrison (2009).

Brittle Paper congratulates Befeqadu Hailu and Zone 9.