UNESCO awards press freedom prize to jailed Syria activist

Darwish is one of the founders of syriaview.net, an independent news site banned by Syrian authorities in 2006

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The U.N.'s cultural body on Sunday awarded its annual press freedom prize to Mazen Darwish, a Syrian journalist and rights activist who has been jailed by the regime for more than three years.

Darwish was arrested on February 16, 2012 along with Hani Zaitani and Hussein Ghreir, his colleagues at the Syrian Centre for Media and Freedom of Expression.

They are accused of "promoting terrorist acts".

"I call on the Syrian authorities for his and his colleagues' release," UNESCO director general Irina Bokova said at the ceremony in Latvia to mark World Press Freedom Day, echoing repeated calls by rights groups, press organisations and the United Nations.

Darwish is one of the founders of syriaview.net, an independent news site banned by Syrian authorities in 2006 -- a move he said at the time was part of the state's "repression which targets free expression and democratic activists".

UNESCO awarded its prize to Darwish "in recognition of the work that he has carried out in Syria for more than 10 years at great personal sacrifice, enduring a travel ban, harassment, as well as repeated detention and torture."

Darwish's wife Yara Bader accepted the award on his behalf. She said the prize was important in raising awareness not only of his case but of the "hundreds" of people currently imprisoned in Syria for openly expressing their views.

Human rights groups say some 100,000 people have been detained since the uprising against Bashar al-Assad's rule erupted in March 2011, which escalated into an armed rebellion after the regime unleashed a brutal crackdown.

Another 50,000 are believed to be held by the regime's myriad of military intelligence branches.

"Mazen has already forgiven those who tortured him almost to death," Bader said and dedicated the award to his children, in the hope that they would grow up in a free Syria.

"We need a time to learn how to listen to people who have different opinions," she said, adding that she took heart form the example of Australian-Latvian journalist Peter Greste -- who attended the award ceremony and was himself released from an Egyptian prison in February after more than a year thanks to a global campaign.

"I'm very sure Mazen will be released one day," Bader told AFP.

Created in 1997, the annual UNESCO/Guillermo Cano World Press Freedom Prize honours a person, organisation or institution that has made a contribution to the defence and, or promotion of press freedom anywhere in the world.

It is named in honour of Guillermo Cano Isaza, a Colombian journalist who was assassinated in front of the offices of his newspaper, El Espectador, in Bogota in 1986.