The 31-year-old journalist is jailed in the notoriously brutal, rodent-infested Kaliti prison in Addis Ababa, the capital of Ethiopia. She’s two years into a five-year sentence for daring to write about poverty, opposition politics and gender equality.
The dinner she missed Monday was the annual awards ceremony, at the Beverly Hills Hotel, for the International Women’s Media Foundation, which celebrates courageous women journalists.
This year’s honorees included Alemu, whose detention will be reviewed next week by Ethiopia’s highest court, organizers said. There’s only modest reason to be hopeful, although the attention of the award could put pressure on the regime.
Even from prison, Alemu declined to be silent.
“Shooting the people who march through the streets demanding freedom and democracy; jailing the opposition party leaders and journalists… preventing freedom of speech, association and the press; corruption and domination of one tribe are some of the bad doings of our government,” she wrote in accepting one of three courage awards.
"I know that I would pay the price for my courage and I was ready to accept that price,” she wrote.
Another honoree, Khadija Ismayilova of Azerbaijan, was jolted into serious journalism by the death of investigative reporter Elmar Huseynov.
“He was shot — five bullets in the mouth,” Ismayilova said. “Shot dead in front of his door.”
Another colleague survived having his legs run over by a car and then being left for dead, simply for asking how a charity controlled by the president’s wife was funded. She decided that a pervasive silence of self-censorship about corruption had to be broken.
Ismayilova, 36, works for Radio Free Europe, which, as a foreign-based operation, may offer some protection from outright brutality. It didn’t stop powerful forces from installing hidden video equipment in her bedroom.
Blackmailers threatened to post intimate footage of her and her boyfriend unless she backed off.
“I was surprised with my reaction,” she said. “I discovered that anger is bigger than fear.”
She continued her work, and the video was posted online — instantly making her a target for harm in the socially conservative Muslim country.
She kept working, and soon aired a story about how the president’s family benefited financially from an expensive vanity project — building the world’s tallest flagpole. Within six months, another regional autocrat built a pole two meters higher.
“I’m not chasing them,” she said of President Ilham Aliyev and his family, who’ve become the focus of her repeated reports on corruption. “Just whatever you did, their names pop out.”
She added: “I had like bodyguards for a couple of months, but I don’t need it. It doesn’t prevent anything. They are much more powerful than I am and they can do whatever they want. They can kill me if they want.
“So it doesn’t make sense to think about it. I do what I want to do…I will do my work.”
The third honoree, Asmaa al-Ghoul, a journalist/blogger from Gaza, gained widespread attention in 2007 when she published a critical letter to her uncle, a military leader of Hamas, the faction which controls Gaza. It was titled “Dear Uncle, Is This the Homeland We Want?”
The letter criticized him for forcing Islamic views on the population and using the family home to interrogate and beat members of the rival political group Fatah.
She’s been arrested and beaten twice by Hamas — once when she was writing about the Arab spring, and again about her desire for an independent Palestine under a united government.
In an interview, al-Ghoul said that Gaza suffers from three overlapping occupations: by Israeli forces who send helicopters overhead and drop bombs, and also by the oppression of the two main, rival Palestinian factions.
At Monday’s dinner, a lifetime achievement award went to Zubeida Mustafa of Pakistan, who is 70 and nearly blind, but continues to write. She was saluted as a woman who opened the doors of the newsroom to other women in her country.