How CPJ began helping journalists with more than letters

By the late ’90s, the Committee to Protect Journalists was solving many of its financial problems and building a strong list of dependable contributors. It became possible to consider expanding our activities. Up to this point we were fighting for a free press around the globe mainly by focusing attention on governments that were imprisoning or killing journalists. We wrote letters to hostile governments. We sent board and staff members abroad several times a year to pressure officials into releasing jailed journalists. We published our annual book, Attacks on the Press, and announced our yearly lists of enemies of the press. All of this was vitally important, of course. We were helping to free and protect journalists by generating publicity about their cases.

We were aware, however, that we needed to do more, much more, for journalists who were risking their lives and their freedom to put news into the public arena. Some could avoid jail if we provided them a quick airline ticket and a safe haven outside their county. Others needed medical attention for wounds in the line of duty. And we were coming to realize that embattled journalists were more likely to stand up against government threats if they knew that our organization would give financial assistance to their families while they were in prison or in exile.

It was not that we had never provided financial assistance to individual journalists, but we had done it in sort of a makeshift way. We would hear of an endangered journalist and call around to key contributors to help on a case-by-case basis. The problem with this approach was obvious. The journalist could be beyond help by the time we gathered the assistance money. What we needed was clear–an ample journalist assistance fund that could be tapped speedily, and a full-time staff member to quickly vet the neediest cases and see that our financial assistance was well spent and  got into the right hands–not always an easy matter in countries with governments opposed to journalistic freedoms.

By 2001, we felt we had a sufficient budget and the right person to launch a serious, ongoing Journalist Assistance program–Elisabeth Witchel.  And to ensure she was backed up at the highest levels of our organization, we formed the Journalist Assistance Committee as a special arm of our board of directors.

Now, 10 years later, we can reflect with pride on how often CPJ has been there for journalists in need. This is not just because of our willingness to spend money to help our colleagues around the world, but also because of remarkable continuity in the assistance program. Only two people have been assistance coordinators, Elisabeth and later Maria Salazar-Ferro, and they have been stellar in the care, empathy, and diligence they have given to the job. They both have been empowered to make decisions on their own in emergencies; but in cases in which they have breathing room they send round-robin emails to the assistance committee members for their approval. This has kept the importance of the program constantly in the minds of the assistance committee members who, in turn, with the active support of CPJ Executive Director Joel Simon, help keep it in the mind our board of directors. The help-in-a-hurry concept is now firmly implanted in the CPJ culture and we trust it will remain that way forevermore. Journalists who are risking imprisonment and their lives deserve no less.

This entry is part of a series commemorating 10 years of CPJ’s Journalist Assistance program.