Courage in Journalism

Fitting honors for those who risk their lives to do their jobs

The Washington Post
November 21, 2008

Plainclothes Ugandan police officers descended yesterday on the newsroom of the weekly newsmagazine the Independent, seizing computer documents and attempting to deliver an arrest warrant to managing editor Andrew M. Mwenda. “Unluckily, I was out of Uganda,” Mr. Mwenda told us. Unluckily? “Yes. I do not want them to think I am running away.”

No one is likely to entertain that confusion. Mr. Mwenda, who is in the United States to receive an International Press Freedom award from the Committee to Protect Journalists, founded the Independent when government pressure constrained his freedom as political editor of Uganda’s largest daily newspaper. In his new post, Mr. Mwenda said, he has reported on paramilitary groups that detain civilians, take them to illegal detention centers and torture them. He has criticized President Yoweri Museveni, who was once hailed as a reformer and a departure from Africa’s sad tradition of autocratic rule.

Mr. Mwenda was asked what happened. “Let’s assume Obama is still president in 2030 — you think he would be the same guy?” he replied. “Being in power for such a long time is not good for psychological health.” Twenty-one criminal charges are pending against Mr. Mwenda, who could be sentenced to 105 years. He says that he is not worried; every time the government moves against him, he laughs, circulation rises and the Independent’s credibility is enhanced.

Mr. Mwenda’s courage is typical of CPJ award winners. Others being honored this year include photographer Bilal Hussein of the Associated Press, whom the U.S. military imprisoned in Iraq for two years without charges; Danish Karokhel and Farida Nekzad, who run a news agency in Afghanistan, one of the world’s most dangerous places for reporters, and especially for female reporters such as Ms. Nekzad; Beatrice Mtetwa, a lawyer who has defended journalists against the vicious persecution of President Robert Mugabe in Zimbabwe; and Cuban journalist Héctor Maseda Gutiérrez.

Mr. Maseda Gutiérrez will not attend the award banquet in New York on Tuesday because he is in prison in Cuba, as he has been for the past five years. “At a time of such change in the world and in the U.S., the government of Cuba after 50 years hasn’t changed one bit,” said his friend Manuel Vázquez Portal, a journalist who was imprisoned and then exiled from Cuba. Raúl and Fidel Castro have 21 journalists in jail, of whom Mr. Maseda Gutiérrez, 65 years old and serving a 20-year sentence, is the oldest. The Cuban government “will not tolerate any freedom of expression,” his colleague explains.

Those of us who can take such freedom for granted should salute these honorees and their many colleagues who risk life and liberty every day to do their jobs.