Yesterday’s post was about what I wore to the annual International Press Freedom Awards Dinner for the Committee to Protect Journalists. As I said, the dinner honors journalists from around the world who risk their lives to report from war zones and in defiance of brutal regimes. It also raises money for CPJ’s activities: denouncing anti-press violations, providing assistance to targeted journalists, and advocating for press freedom worldwide.
There are a lot of fundraising dinners in New York, but I think this is one of the most emotional. Brian Williams of NBC News, one of the evening’s speakers, ruefully noted that the typical fundraiser doesn’t treat you to images of graphic violence during the first course. This year, we saw some of the very last pictures taken by U.K.-born Tim Hetherington and New Yorker Chris Hondros, photojournalists who were killed while covering the conflict in Libya this spring. They were just two of the 41 journalists who have been killed this year. We also saw CPJ’s new overview video about its work.
The four 2011 honorees– Mansoor al-Jamri of Bahrain; Natalya Radina of Belarus; Javier Valdez Cárdenas of Mexico; and Umar Cheema of Pakistan — are all journalists who are or were persecuted by their own governments or criminal enterprises, just for reporting the news. I urge you to watch the video depictions of their experiences.
Al-Jamri is co-founder and editor-in-chief of Al-Wasat, an independent Arabic-language daily. CPJ says, “When waves of protests swept the country in early 2011, Al-Wasat called for moderation and prudence by demonstrators and authorities. In March, armed, masked thugs attacked and blockaded the daily’s presses for a week, blocking employees from getting to and from work. In April, authorities shut Al-Wasat and charged al-Jamri with ‘publishing false news’ intended to incite Shiite unrest. Al-Jamri, called to answer criminal charges, resigned in the face of intimidation and harassment, as did the paper’s managing editor and news director. Al-Wasat was allowed to reopen under state control, but its board of directors voted to reinstate al-Jamri as editor-in-chief.”
Radina is editor-in-chief of the pro-opposition news website Charter 97, which covers government wrongdoing, human rights violations, and corruption in Belarus. She was arrested in December 2010 and spent a month and a half sleeping on the floor of a prison cell that had no hot water or toilet. She became so ill she was bleeding from her ears. After she was released, pending trial, she managed to escape to Russia and from there to Lithuania. She continues to edit Charter 97 from exile.
Cárdenas founded Ríodoce, a weekly publication covering crime and corruption in Sinaloa, which CPJ says is one of Mexico’s most violent states. He frequently covers drug trafficking and organized crime. In 2009, a grenade was thrown into Ríodoce‘s facilities. In his video interview, Cárdenas describes how he avoids going out with his family due to the dangers of life in Mexico.
Cheema, a reporter with Islamabad’s The News, was kidnapped in September 2010. “Men in police commando uniforms” stripped, beat, and photographed him in humiliating positions. “If you can’t avoid rape, enjoy it,” they told him. After he was released, he went public. He has been harassed and threatened since then.
Also receiving an award was Eynulla Fatullayev of Azerbaijan. He was supposed to get his award in 2009, but at the time he was imprisoned on trumped-up charges. He had written an article that charged Azerbaijani authorities with ignoring evidence and obstructing the investigation of the assassination of Fatullayev’s magazine colleague Elmar Huseynov. The attention and pressure brought by CPJ helped set him free after four years in prison, two of which were in solitary confinement.
There’s no denying that shit goes down in the U.S. too. But whenever I see people declaring — on Twitter, Facebook, blogs or news sites — that we’re living in a police state, I have to laugh. The very fact that millions of people are able to complain vehemently (and all too often with racist or sexist language) without fearing for their lives proves that we’re not living in a police state. We still have legal recourse under the First Amendment, despite attempts to chip away at it. Someone like two-time CPJ-award-winner Beatrice Mtetwa of Zimbabwe would love to have our supposed lack of freedom. She’s an attorney who has been beaten up twice for defending journalists imprisoned for reporting on the outrages committed by the government of Zimbabwe’s dictator Robert Mugabe. Basically, she’s doing a First Amendment lawyer’s job in a place with no First Amendment. Meanwhile, the very day of the CPJ dinner, South Africa’s Parliament passed a bill that will restrict the ability of journalists to report information claimed to be a government secret. In contrast, the day after the event, New York City Police Commissioner Raymond W, Kelly warned officers “not to interfere unreasonably” with journalists’ access during Occupy Wall Street protests. Those that do, he said, will be subject to disciplinary action.