Umar Cheema, left, of Pakistan and Javier Valdez Cárdenas of Mexico, both 2011 International Press Freedom Award winners, are all too familiar with the culture of impunity. (CPJ)
Umar Cheema, left, of Pakistan and Javier Valdez Cárdenas of Mexico, both 2011 International Press Freedom Award winners, are all too familiar with the culture of impunity. (CPJ)

A call to continue the struggle against impunity

Last night, hundreds of journalists and members of New York’s press freedom community met at the Waldorf Astoria hotel in Manhattan for the Committee to Protect Journalists’ XXI annual International Press Freedom Awards. At the event–celebrating the extraordinary courage of five journalists from across the globe–guests and award recipients unanimously expressed their commitment to fighting impunity in the murders of journalists.

During the evening, Brian Williams, anchor of “NBC Nightly News” and CPJ board member, spoke of the work that the organization has done since 2007 in its Global Campaign against Impunity, and called on the audience to take action on the eve of the International Day to End Impunity. Remembering the 554 journalists murdered since 1992 without prosecution, Williams said, “We owe it to them to fight to bring their killers to justice.”

Thanks to generous donations of approximately $85,000 made last night–matched two to one by the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation–CPJ will be able to unrelentingly continue that fight.

Among those honored at the 2011 CPJ awards were Javier Valdez Cárdenas and Umar Cheema, respectively from Mexico and Pakistan, two countries where journalists are routinely murdered and their killers go free. According to CPJ research, since 1992, 27 journalists have been killed in direct retaliation for their work in Mexico, and 41 in Pakistan.

One of those journalists murdered this year was Pakistani reporter Saleem Shahzad, whose tortured body was found on May 30, after he had reported on alleged links between Al-Qaeda and Pakistan’s navy. Cheema dedicated his IPFA to Shahzad, his friend, and to all other colleagues killed in the line of duty and lost “in a culture of impunity.”

A journalist with Islamabad’s The News, Cheema was abducted in September by unknown assailants who stripped, beat, and photographed him in humiliating positions. But in keeping with Pakistan’s record of near-perfect impunity in attacks against the press, his case remains unprosecuted and unsolved. Though grateful for the award, Cheema said it did not “mark an end of the troubles.” The award,” he said, “is a call for continuous struggle.”

Valdez, founder of Ríodoce, a weekly that covers crime and corruption in Sinaloa, one of Mexico’s most violent states, has also experienced colleagues from across Mexico disappearing or being killed without justice. In his acceptance speech last night, Valdez Cárdenas described Mexico as a country where “it is a danger to be alive and to do journalism.” But, like Cheema, he expressed hope for what a united a front could do. “It is important to count on family and friends, journalists and media outlets,” he said, grateful for his colleagues’ support.

Today, on the International Day to End Impunity, journalists and press freedom groups from around the world are doing just that: standing united in a call for justice for their fallen friends. Today, we are remembering the 32 journalists executed in the southern Philippine town of Maguindanao exactly two years ago. And today, we are demanding that the governments of the Philippines, Pakistan, Mexico and all other countries where journalists are routinely murdered, take action, and prosecute and jail their killers.