The Grand Ballroom of the Waldorf Astoria might seem like an odd venue to stage a call for resistance. Nine hundred people in tuxedos and gowns. Champagne and cocktails. Bill Cunningham snapping photos. This combination is generally more likely to coax a boozy nostalgia than foment a revolution. But the journalists honored last night at CPJ’s annual International Press Freedom Awards had a clear message to their colleagues: Fight the power.
“A journalist who gives in to intimidation, who becomes obedient, has already lost the fight for that right” to freedom of expression, said Eynulla Fatullayev. This former editor of two newspapers in Azerbaijan was in prison when he was bestowed with CPJ’s International Press Freedom Award in 2009. Fatullayev was put behind bars for successfully investigating the murder of a friend, colleague and government critic. He was kept in solitary confinement for two of his four years in prison.
Fatullayev emerged from prison undeterred. “The state’s actions against me failed to shut me up and today I am determined to restart my newspapers.”
The four journalists honored with this year’s press freedom award made equally stark portraits of what it means to be courageous in the face of a brutal threat.
In the year of the Arab Spring, when thousands rose in protest against authoritarian governments, journalists became targets. Bahraini newspaper editor Mansoor al-Jamri told of the death of a colleague in prison, attacks to his printing press and a hate campaign launched against him by the official media. He resisted.
“I have been leading a recovery process so that we continue to perform our duty as journalists truthfully, and credibly report the events that matter,” al-Jamri said.
“The people of Bahrain want human rights and democracy as much as anyone else,” he said.
While millions of television viewers witnessed the toppling of governments in Tunisia and Egypt, a calcified dictatorship in Europe remained hidden in plain view. Last winter in Belarus, Natalya Radina, the editor of the independent news website Charter 97, was beaten and held in a KGB prison cell for more than a month. She was released on bail, and fled the country. She now edits Charter 97 in exile.
“We have the power to destroy the prison in the heart of Europe as well,” Radina told the audience of journalists, media executives and press freedom advocates last night. “Please do not forget about Belarus.”
In Mexico, where the drug war has claimed countless lives and all but silenced the press, reporter and editor Javier Valdez Cárdenas described living in a constant state of hyper-awareness: checking his rear-view mirror, going out alone so as not to endanger his family, losing sleep at night. But he remains dedicated to telling the stories of the powerless.
“I dedicate this award to the brave journalists, and to the children and youths who are living a slow death,” Valdez, fighting tears, told the audience. “I have preferred to give a face and a name to the victims, to create a portrait of this sad and desolate panorama, these leaps and bounds and short cuts towards the Apocalypse, instead of counting deaths and reducing them to numbers.”
Last night, no image of resistance was more vivid than that of Pakistani journalist Umar Cheema. Photos of a tormented man flashed on a screen above the room: His eyebrows shaved, his head battered and bald, the skin on his back striped and red, his eyes haunted. This is how the kidnappers left Cheema in September 2010 after seven hours of torture for his reporting on the government, threatening to destroy him if he ever told the media. It’s not how he looked yesterday. As he crossed the stage in a shiny tuxedo to claim his award from David Rohde, he wore the smile of a man who prevailed.
“I can’t finish without thanking my attackers,” he said, “who helped me in discovering the strength of character that I possessed but didn’t realize before.”
In case there was anyone in the Grand Ballroom who thought the fight to tell the truth is no longer relevant here in the U.S., former CBS News anchor Dan Rather had breaking news.
“We are living in an age when big money owns everything … including the news,” said Rather, who last night received the Burton Benjamin Memorial Award for lifetime achievement in defending press freedom. “That cash bought a lot of silence for a long time. Enough time for unchecked power to get this country tangled into messes all around the world.”
He called on his colleagues to restore the media to its role in service of the public, to once again ask hard questions, give megaphones to whistleblowers, and demand access to those who challenge power as well as those in power.
“As the people of our nation begin rising up in concern about the economy and where the country is headed, they expect the business of the news to be about inquiry and accountability,” Rather said.
“Tonight, if I can convince you of anything, it is to buck the current system.”