1999 Press Freedom Awards – Speeches

International Press Freedom Awards

María Cristina Caballero, Colombia

In July of 1997, I covered a terrible massacre in the town of Mapirip‡n. Right wing paramilitaries cut many of the inhabitants into pieces during five days. As I was leaving, a very old man without shoes ran to me and said, “Wait! Wait!”

He told me, “All of my sons are dead. Three of them joined the guerrillas and two joined the paramilitaries . . . Perhaps they killed each other.” With tears in his eyes he said, “Please help us . . . Guerrillas and paramilitaries are killing all our children . . . All our future.”

I could only say, “I will do my best.”

Today, I will try to keep that promise.

Colombia is confronting a huge humanitarian crisis. As a journalist, I have seen the many faces of desperation in my country. Many of my colleagues have died in the line of duty. Almost 50 in the past ten years.

If journalists suffer these kinds of casualties, imagine the daily horror that confronts rural people who are trapped in the conflict. In many regions, the children have more access to guns than to a toy or a book. 1.5 million have been forced from their homes; 10 Colombians die every day in political strife.

Colombia is on the brink. This should be of grave concern to everyone here. All factions in the escalating war are financed by drugs sold in the United States.

The U.S. government has responded to the crisis with increased military aid. We have plenty of guns. We need humanitarian assistance. Urgently.

One U.S. Congressman told me he could not get a bill passed to give development assistance to Colombia. He said his constituents don’t care about the country. I say Americans don’t know.

Colombia needs the help of all journalists everywhere. The international media have a key role in the future of Colombia. Decision-makers and international organizations pay a lot of attention to what you publish.

If all the media represented here would cover Colombia more closely, then the public and also decision-makers would better understand the country. Perhaps this would lead to more constructive and effective policies, that give the peace process a chance.

It will be very difficult, but the alternative is total war and the first to be killed would be the Colombian children that have joined the many factions.

I’m honored to receive CPJ’s International Press Freedom Award, but as a journalist I feel that my role in Colombia is to give voice to the voiceless. The real heroes– the ones I would like to honor — are those like that old man who cling to hope in the midst of desperation.

Najam Sethi, Pakistan:

Ladies and gentlemen, it’s an honor to receive this award from the CPJ. This has great meaning for us. We are only two journalists amongst hundreds of others fighting to report the truth in hazardous conditions. That the CPJ has chosen us suggests that our struggle to expose corruption and oppose despotism for over a decade in Pakistan is also important to people like you. It heartens us to know that when we stand up, you are right there with us, arm in arm, in opposition to tyranny and injustice. You cannot imagine how much strength this gives us.

Ladies and Gentlemen, the situation in Pakistan vis-a-vis fundamental rights and press freedom had become truly perilous during the last so-called democratic government. So Pakistanis have shed no tears at its ouster. But the irony is that the new military government has assured us that press freedom will not be curtailed. We hope so. But we know from bitter experience that this honeymoon may not last long. So, whatever happens, you can be sure that we will continue to speak out. That’s why it will be all the more critical for you to watch our backs! Thank you for all your support.

Jugnu Mohsin, Pakistan:

Ladies and gentlemen, as a woman in a conservative, male- dominated society, I cannot tell you what it has been like to campaign for my husband’s release while at the same time continuing to bring out The Friday Times. At times it seemed like an impossible task. And I could not have done it without the support of journalists and human rights bodies at home and abroad. The CPJ in particular was a source of enormous strength. So too was the international community, principally the United States government and the European Union, who were galvanized into action by people like yourselves.

In countries with weak civil societies and fragile democracies, it is important for the world to act as one in defense of fundamental rights and press freedom. You must never accept the argument that when you stand up for such universal human rights you are interfering in the internal affairs of another country. Far from it. Freedom is indivisible. Human rights transcend borders. We are one, you and us. I thank you all.

Baton Haxhiu, Kosovo:

I thank you for this press freedom award and I am thankful to CPJ. The award makes a great contribution for Kosovo’s free press. The award will also pressure our regime, our political structure, to respect free press and free speech in Kosovo and the region.

American citizens are born with freedom from fear. In the Balkans, citizens are born to fear.

Why are we born with fear? Because our institutions — that is, the media, the court system, prosecutors, the police — have always been mere extensions of corrupt regimes. In such a world, your loyalty to power counts for everything. The word “traitor” is thrown at you quickly and easily. And its effect makes a mockery of free speech.

Now you have the international commuity in Kosovo, an international administration, and political parties.

But you also have a big political vacuum, no security, and excellent conditions for our blooming political mafia.

At the moment in Kosovo, you can easily be corrupted and ignore the law because there are no laws. But all is not lost. You still have a chance to build something new. You still have a chance to build a civic society and democracy in Kosovo.

What I need from you is help in building independent institutions from scratch before elections. Because if institutions are build after elections, they will once again be extensions of the regime.

This can be fulfilled by you Americans. You hold the key to progress and democracy in the Balkans. And especially you in the media. Anything is possible with you. Not because you are perfect — only God is perfect —but because you Americans are near God. I need your help and your presence in Kosovo.
Again, thank you CPJ. I also want to thank my friend Fred Abrahams from Human Rights Watch, because he is part of our freedom. He is the best example of how to help Kosovo and the region.

Thank you.