Seen and heard at CPJ benefit: ‘The pen is not broken’

Small in stature but strong in her words, Naziha Réjiba tells a reporter of all the things the Tunisian government does to try to frighten her. But Réjiba said that she will not be scared, that she will never allow such tactics to have power over her. Editor of Kalima, an online news Web site blocked in her own country, Réjiba was honored Tuesday at CPJ’s International Press Freedom Awards at New York’s Waldorf-Astoria for displaying just that sort of courage. Four other leading journalists were recognized as well. 

Her fellow awardees were Somali Agence France-Presse correspondent Mustafa Haji Abdinur, and imprisoned journalists J.S. Tissainayagam of Sri Lanka, and Eynulla Fatullayev of Azerbaijan. Anthony Lewis, a founding board member of CPJ, received the Burton Benjamin Memorial Award for lifetime achievement.

Maziar Bahari, Newsweek’s Iran correspondent, who spent nearly half a year in a Tehran prison, spoke to the crowd about the importance of international support. He said he and his colleagues appreciated being “recognized as journalists, not heroes or victims.”

Mustafa Haji Abdinur and Gwen Ifill (AFP)
Mustafa Haji Abdinur and Gwen Ifill (AFP)

Abdinur, 27, with tears his eyes, talked about how six of his colleagues were killed in war-ravaged Somalia this year. “No one,” he said, “has had to answer for their deaths so far.”

“If a journalist is killed,” he added, “the news is also killed.”

From the podium, Gwen Ifill noted that Fatullayev was given eight and a half years in jail for investigating the murder of his one-time editor, Elmar Huseynov. 

CPJ program coordinators mingled with our supporters before and after the ceremony. Nina Ognianova, CPJ’s Europe and Central Asia program coordinator, spoke with people about the importance of the Fatullayev case. The imprisonment is unjust in two ways, she noted. Fatullayev is jailed merely because he questioned the government’s murder investigation. Now, with him in prison, “there is no one to find Elmar’s killer,” said Ognianova.

Bob Dietz, CPJ’s Asia program coordinator, stressed how in Tissainayagam’s case, Sri Lankan President Mahinda Rajapaksa could step in at any time and free him–underscoring how those in power have the ability to imprison those who criticize their governments.

Lewis gave a straightforward reason for why he does his work: “I believe in journalism,” he told the audience of 800. He spoke, too, about his deep commitment to CPJ, an organization he has helped in numerous ways since its founding in 1981. 

Also honored was Jiang Weiping, who was initially recognized with his press freedom award in 2001, while he was in prison in China. Now free and living in Toronto, Jiang was finally able to accept his award in person tonight, saying as a kind of summation of the night, “The pen in my hand has not been broken.”