CPJ is honored to present its 2020 Gwen Ifill Press Freedom Award, for extraordinary and sustained achievement in the cause of press freedom, to lawyer Amal Clooney.
Clooney specializes in public international law, international criminal law, and human rights. She has represented clients before courts such as the International Criminal Court, the International Court of Justice and the European Court of Human Rights. She also provides advice to governments and individuals on legal issues in her areas of expertise.
Clooney previously served as a senior adviser to Kofi Annan when he was the U.N.’s envoy on Syria. She also served as counsel to the U.N. inquiry on the use of armed drones. She is a member of the U.K.’s team of experts on preventing sexual violence in conflict zones, and she is on the U.K. attorney general’s expert panel on public international law.
Clooney is a strong advocate for press freedom and the rights of journalists. She served as international counsel for Reuters and the media organization’s journalists Wa Lone and Kyaw Soe Oo, who were arrested in Myanmar in December 2017 and sentenced to seven years in prison under the country’s Official Secrets Act for their reporting on crimes committed against the Rohingya by Myanmar forces. Clooney worked with CPJ on the journalists’ case and, together with Reuters and CPJ, advocated on behalf of the Reuters reporters and other journalists imprisoned around the world at the United Nations. In her remarks at the U.N., she called the journalists’ convictions and sentence a “travesty of justice” and outlined their defense case. In May 2019, the two journalists were freed.
Prior to this, Clooney represented award-winning Azerbaijani journalist Khadija Ismayilova, who was persecuted by Azerbaijani authorities for years. Ismayilova was jailed in December 2014 and sentenced to seven and a half years in prison on charges of tax evasion and embezzlement, allegations that CPJ believed were in retaliation for her reporting. For years, CPJ, too, advocated for her freedom. Clooney represented Ismayilova before the European Court of Human Rights, securing a strong judgment in her favor. In May 2016, Ismayilova was released from prison. “Her release is a victory for all journalists who dare to speak truth to power,” Clooney said at the time.
Clooney also represented Mohamad Fahmy, a Canadian journalist who was one of three Al-Jazeera journalists imprisoned in Egypt in 2013. Fahmy was sentenced to three years in prison on charges of terrorism and spreading false news. The charges spurred international condemnation, and CPJ repeatedly called for the journalists’ release. In September 2015, Fahmy was freed and thanked his “remarkable and courageous” lawyer Amal Clooney.
Clooney also promotes freedom of speech and journalism through the Clooney Foundation for Justice, which she co-founded with her husband George Clooney. One of their flagship initiatives, TrialWatch, monitors the trials of journalists worldwide and provides free legal representation for those in greatest need. The initiative grades the fairness of each trial in order to rank judicial systems on a global justice index that will be used to push for systemic reform. CPJ works closely with TrialWatch on many of these cases and has supported Clooney’s calls for legal and policy reform—including the use of sanctions against officials who silence reporters—to better protect a free press.
CPJ is deeply grateful to Clooney for her contributions to the cause of press freedom. Clooney has been a strong supporter of CPJ’s advocacy in recent years and has taken up the call for governments to provide emergency visas to journalists in distress. She is currently representing Maria Ressa, CPJ’s 2018 Gwen Ifill award winner, who has been convicted of cyber libel, a criminal offense, in the Philippines.
The text of Amal Clooney’s acceptance speech is below:
Good evening, everyone. I’m sorry not to be seeing you in a beautiful ballroom in New York as we had planned. And I regret missing the opportunity to share a stage with the brilliant Meryl Streep. Meryl, thank you so much for your kind words introducing me. You are an inspiration, as a woman, as an artist, as a press freedom advocate. I know I can’t ever hope to win the number of awards that you’ve won, but it does occur to me that we have something special in common, which is that we’ve both been married to my husband. And honestly, the fact that you did it as Mr. And Mrs. Fantastic Fox just makes that so much less awkward. So thank you, Meryl and thank you to the Committee to Protect Journalists, for this tremendous honor. And for shining a light on the importance of press freedom at a time when many of our fundamental freedoms have been under threat.
We often hear Martin Luther King’s words that the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends towards justice. And I think that’s true. In most places in the world, it is better to be black or gay or female, today than it was a hundred years ago, but we have a long way to go in the struggle for equal opportunity. And the rights that we take for granted today can all too easily be lost, even in democracies. Ask the people of Hong Kong. They know that. They lost basic freedoms almost overnight. The citizens of Hungary, Poland and the Philippines know it too. And even in the United States, the world’s most powerful democracy, the head of state has treated the electoral process with a contempt reminiscent of his counterpart in Belarus.
Human rights are in crisis when the leader of the free world does not stand up for them. And when in so many places in the world, those who commit egregious human rights abuses are free, while those who report on them are not. Yet, this is what I see time and time again in my work. A few years ago, I represented Khadija Ismayilova, a reporter who uncovered corruption by the President of Azerbaijan, in a series of articles that were later validated in the Panama Papers.
When I took on her case, she was serving a seven-year sentence following a series of spurious charges designed to intimidate her. I successfully petitioned the European Court Of Human Rights and ultimately her sentence was overturned. But she is still subject to a travel ban. She still works under the constant threat of arrest. Meanwhile, President Aliyev has never been investigated for corruption.
Last year, I represented Wa Lone and Kyaw Soe Oo, two young journalists who worked for Reuters in Myanmar. They were arrested for possessing secret documents that had been planted on them seconds earlier by the police. This clumsy operation was designed to silence the journalists. Why? Because they had gathered evidence of a massacre of Rohingya civilians, the victims of genocide in their country. Reuters was about to publish the piece, including a photograph of 10 Rohingya men kneeling in front of a mass grave. And when the journalists refused to drop the story, they were sentenced to seven years in prison.
I worked closely with Reuters general counsel, and we were able to secure their release, but they can no longer work in their country. No more reports like theirs ever came out. And those who are responsible for the genocide have yet to be held to account. My client in the Philippines, Maria Ressa, has been sentenced to up to six years for libel and faces the rest of her life behind bars in a series of bogus prosecutions. All because her news site criticized President Rodrigo Duterte, who has been accused of crimes against humanity, following the killings of thousands of civilians in his country. Maria faces death threats and is in contact with me almost daily to try and face off all the legal challenges. But Duterte’s reign of terror continues uninterrupted.
Unfortunately these cases are emblematic of a global trend that is making journalism one of the most dangerous professions in the world. That’s why the foundation that my husband and I set up, The Clooney Foundation for Justice, focuses on the need for a global response. Through our Trial Watch initiative, we have monitored dozens of trials like this all over the world, including in recent months, the trials of journalists, and bloggers in Malaysia, Nigeria, Russia, Tunisia, and India who have been prosecuted merely for questioning their government’s response to the coronavirus pandemic. We all know how important it is to monitor elections, but somehow we forgot to monitor trials. So our team aims to be in every courtroom in which a journalist is prosecuted for doing their job, so that we can report on what’s happening when the journalists can’t. So that we can push for the release of those who have been unjustly imprisoned and reduce the chilling effect on the press. And so that in time, we can use the data we gather to produce global justice rankings of States that will help us advocate for systemic reform.
I want to thank the Committee to Protect Journalists for believing in this work and being such an important partner in it. I’m also particularly honored to receive an award named after a trailblazing and inspirational woman who made it to the top of the broadcasting world at a time when things were designed to keep her decidedly close to the bottom. I recently went back and read some of Gwen Ifill speeches and something that she said rang very true for me at this time. She said that hope springs eternal, even in politics. And I just wish she could have been here to watch the citizens of the United States who turned out in record numbers earlier this month to elect their new President. Americans voted in a new leader who can reclaim moral leadership on the world stage. They rejected the candidate who called the press enemies of the people and shrugged off the murder of a Washington Post columnist.
They chose the candidate who has vowed to stand up to dictators, over an incumbent who praised them and allowed authoritarianism to spread. They have ushered in a new leader of the free world who brings back hope for human rights. So it’s true that hope springs eternal and I believe this is a time for optimism. But optimism should not mean complacency. Those who seek to oppress and silence others, will always be united and determined to achieve their aim. We must be more united and more determined in opposing them.
What we see happening in the world should remind us that rights must not only be secured, but jealously guarded. Democracy must constantly be defended and the press vigilantly protected. So I’d like to accept this honor on behalf of all the lawyers who work to protect journalists and others being persecuted around the world. And I’d like to dedicate it to all those who fought for the rights that we enjoy today, because progress is not inevitable. And the arc doesn’t just bend towards justice on its own. Courageous individuals bent it for us. And now it’s our turn to play our part. Thank you so much for this great honor. And thank you for listening.