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Thursday, November 24, 2011

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.

So on this Thanksgiving, I’m thankful for press freedom. While you’re exercising your freedom, you can follow CPJ on Twitter at @pressfreedom. You can donate to CPJ by clicking here.

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22 Responses to “Giving Thanks for Press Freedom”

  1. Cameron
    Twitter: CameronMiquelon
    says:

    I remember signing that postcard to help call for Fatullayev’s and J.S. Tissainayagam’s releases from their respective prisons. I’m very happy to have been one of the signatories, especially with a happy ending such as the one described here. I even kept the envelope and your handwritten note from that time.

    And if it happens again with another journalist, I’ll do it again.

  2. jesse.anne.o says:

    Thank you for posting these. It’s amazing how lucky we are and how quickly we can “other” those who aren’t.

  3. coffeeaddict says:

    I’ve been sitting here for the pat five minutes trying to come up with a meaningful, witty insightful comment to this brilliant posts.
    It’s posts like these that make me freeze up, like a rabbit caught in the glare of headlights…
    It’s not a post that will generate a lot of comments in terms of fashion junkies looking to catch a glimpse of your latest outfit post.
    And a lot of people will comment just to nod their heads.
    Well I’m nodding my head, because I so totally agree with everything you wrote. And I also think bloggers need to write more posts like these. We too have an amazing freedom: to write, think out in the open engage people, ultimately to make a difference. Let’s not squander this amazing opportunity by posting solely the copy pasted pics that ran in the latest edition of Vogue.

  4. Tuesday
    Twitter: TuesdayDupell
    says:

    Great posts – I think you summed it up well with your comments about the sheeple’s belief of the “police state” we live in. I wish people would break out of their little shells and venture out into the world. Maybe, just maybe, they will realize how lucky we really are here. They really have no idea…

    Thank you…

  5. Thank you for this post – sometimes I turn my head from unpleasant stories, but these need to be told. Freedom of the press is so precious.

  6. priscilla says:

    Posts like this one are the real reason I read your blog. Thanks Wendy and have a Happy Thanksgiving!

  7. Christine says:

    The bravery, committment, and strength of these journalists is so admirable. I often take a dim view of journalists, based a lot on the crap of the entertainment world.

    No one reading about these women and men could not feel thankful that, in Canada and the US, our press is so free.

    We’ve made donations to the CPJ; is there anything else one can do. Cameron mentioned signing postcards, which reminded me of letters and emails I do for Amnesty International. I am sure many of your readers would like to do what they can.

    I received a book from the CPJ last year, about the 2010 journalists at risk. I would love to lend it to anyone who wants to know more about this topic; it was a real eye opener for Rob and me.

    We’d love to attend the dinner one year if we could; I am sure it is a quick sell out!

    The best thing I think we can also do is expose young people to these realities. Is there material suitable for high school students? At one high school in our area, the staff censored some pieces of their newspaper. The outcry was encouragingly strong but I doubt most of these students are aware of the true danger to some journalists.

    • WendyB
      Twitter: WendyBrandes
      says:

      Next year, you two will come to the dinner as my guests. In the meantime, I’m going to put you in touch with my friend John from CPJ who can tell you what’s going on now.

      And, yeah, just because I believe in press freedom doesn’t mean I’m so delighted in how a lot of people use it.

      • Christine says:

        Thanks Wendy! I appreciate you putting me in touch with your friend John. I really think that kids, who seem to be born cynical these days, will appreciate the work CPJ does.

  8. Thank you Wendy … for reminding us of our liberty juxtaposed against the harshness of a world without limits who would shut it down. Last night a respected female journalist/speaker/blogger was arrested, blindfolded, beaten, sexually assaulted before being released with broken arms, by military “intelligence” in Egypt. Mona Eltahawy is angry and we must all be angry that this was done to her. My brother was taken hostage in Lebanon, he the MidEast Bureau Chief and held captive for many days. He escaped. Others did not.

    The bravery of each man and woman picking up a camera along with a bullet-proof vest to show us the world is astounding and incredible. The very finest of humanity that opens the doors to a more understanding, compassionate world that can judge what is evil and speak up.

  9. Sounds like an amazing event – wish we had something similar in the UK. As a journalist myself, its nice to hear something positive being said about the profession as opposed to people always criticizing a tough job

  10. WendyB
    Twitter: WendyBrandes
    says:

    I saw that about Mona — terrible.

    What’s your brother’s name?

  11. liz says:

    Thank you for highlighting the bravery and honor of those who see injustice and DO something about it knowing the odds are against them. And for helping me to be thankful (again) for the 1st Amendment.

  12. Elizabeth says:

    I’m grateful that there are people who care enough about letting the rest of us know what’s going on to risk their own lives. That’s true selflessness, in my opinion.

  13. stacy says:

    This is a really wonderful post. Thanks for reminding me how grateful we should be for everything we have in this country… as hard as things seem sometimes, we’ve got it so much better/easier than a lot of the world.

  14. Pam @over50feeling40
    Twitter: over50feeling40
    says:

    My first journalism lesson for the beginning class is about a man named Elijah Lovejoy…he died for freedom of the press during the time of slavery. Then I end with stories such as these…in order to remind my students of the level of commitment a true journalist has…to tell the truth…no matter what the cost.
    Thank you for your posts on this fundraiser.

  15. Susan Tiner says:

    So upsetting reading about these stories. Thank you for writing this post Wendy. I made a donation.

    I know what you mean about people in the US complaining about lack of press. They don’t have a clue.

  16. Samar
    Twitter: samarbabarhps
    says:

    Thank you for another touching and insightful post. As someone with part of my family hailing from a country where the government is beyond corrupt and can pretty much mandate whatever it wants with such ridiculous stunts as banning facebook and even censoring text messages I’m thankful to have been born and raised in the US. I can view the news from any source that I please without fear or censorship and that is a great thing. Those who risk their lives to tell the worlds stories (which I can view from the comfort of my home) are truly amazing!