As guests mingled at the Waldorf-Astoria for the CPJ International Press Freedom Awards, the sound of gunfire echoed from a video screen–a stark reminder in an elegant environment of the dangers faced by the world press. Familiar names like NBC’s Andrea Mitchell, famed Watergate reporter Carl Bernstein, and Jim Willse, editor of New Jersey’s Star-Ledger, came together with award winners from Afghanistan and Uganda, among other countries.
Gwen Ifill, CPJ board member and PBS moderator, began the award ceremony by telling the 800 guests that there was much to celebrate this evening. Jeff Zucker, president and CEO of NBC Universal, made clear that there is nothing more powerful than a free press, and that tonight, names would be put forward to celebrate the victories and mourn the losses of the world’s media.
Paul Steiger, CPJ’s board chairman, said we will not forget the world’s imprisoned journalists–an iteration that would become a theme for the evening. Bilal Hussein, an Associated Press Pulitzer Prize-winning photographer, would address the crowd from an undisclosed location about his two years in detention by the U.S. military in Iraq, with no charges ever formally filed against him. Héctor Maseda Gutiérrez, founder of and contributor to Grupo de Trabajo Decoro, currently imprisoned in Cuba, was honored–CNN’s Christiane Amanpour, also a CPJ board member, read a letter he wrote from jail on his behalf.
Farida Nekzad, the deputy director of Pajwok Afghan News, an entirely Afghan-staffed news service based in Kabul, spoke of the struggle women have faced in her country since the fall of the Taliban. She ended her award acceptance with the chilling entreaty: “Please don’t forget us.”
In his introduction of Beatrice Mtetwa, the evening’s Burton Benjamin Award winner, the New York Times’ Barry Bearak talked about Mtetwa’s childhood habit of letting the air of her brothers’ bicycle tires, tires on the bikes that took them to school when she was forced to walk. She would later as a media rights lawyer in Zimbabwe stand up to the powerful, he said, and let the air out of their tires as called for. He would know. It was Mtetwa who helped secure his release from a Zimbabwean jail in April.
After the acceptance speeches and dinner, Bearak, who had never attended a CPJ awards ceremony, stood among his colleagues and said, “After this, any reporter would want to walk back out there and do their job.”
The original post has been altered to correct Jeff Zucker’s title.