CPJ honors press freedom leaders

International Press Freedom Awards

New York, November 25, 2009—The Committee to Protect Journalists honored four journalists with its 2009 International Press Freedom Awards in a ceremony Tuesday night that highlighted impunity in journalist murders, this week’s killings of Philippine journalists, and the Internet’s emerging role in press freedom. Anthony Lewis, a two-time Pulitzer Prize winner and founding CPJ board member, was honored with the Burton Benjamin Memorial Award for lifetime achievement.

About 800 people attended the benefit dinner, which raised more than $1.3 million. Robert Thomson, managing editor of The Wall Street Journal, was chairman. Christiane Amanpour, CNN’s chief international correspondent and a member of the CPJ board, hosted the ceremony at the Waldorf-Astoria.

Naziha Réjiba (CPJ/Michael Nagle)
Naziha Réjiba (CPJ/Michael Nagle)

Among the awardees was Naziha Réjiba, editor of the independent online news journal Kalima. She has been the target of continual government intimidation and harassment: Her home is under constant surveillance, her phones are monitored, and she has been summoned for repeated police interrogations. “I am neither a hero nor a victim,” she told the crowd, “but a journalist who wishes to work under normal conditions. The degree of repression in Tunisia is such that it transforms normal activities into something exceptional.”

Mustafa Haji Abdinur, Somalia correspondent for Agence France-Presse and editor-in-chief of the independent radio station Radio Simba, spoke about the danger he faces reporting in one of the world’s deadliest countries for journalists. “This year alone, six of my colleagues have been killed in Somalia. That makes it the deadliest country in Africa for journalists. No one has had to answer for their deaths,” he said. “Friends, if a journalist is killed the news is also killed. We need your support now more than ever. Please don’t forget us.”

Bill Keller presents the award to Mustafa Haji Abdinur. (CPJ/Michael Nagle)
Bill Keller presents the award to Mustafa Haji Abdinur. (CPJ/Michael Nagle)

Amanpour opened the evening highlighting impunity in the cases of murdered journalists. “Since 1992, when CPJ began tracking, more than 500 journalists have been murdered in direct retaliation for their work. Of those, more than 88 percent go unsolved. That’s a powerful silencer of the press,” Amanpour said. “CPJ is fighting to beat back the culture of impunity where murderers go unpunished, witnesses fear reprisal, and journalists are sent a clear message that certain topics are too dangerous to be discussed.” She described the killings of numerous journalists in the Philippine province of Maguindanao on Monday. At her behest, several members of the audience contributed directly on Tuesday night to CPJ’s global assistance fund, a portion of which will be used to aid the families of the Philippine victims.

Amanpour also took a moment to pay tribute to Walter Cronkite, famed CBS news anchor and CPJ’s honorary co-chairman, who died earlier in the year. “CPJ is grateful to have had Walter Cronkite at its side as a champion for press freedom. We will miss him dearly,” she said.

Paul Steiger, CPJ’s board chairman, noted journalism’s transition online and the challenges it presents to press freedom. “We need to defend the medium through which information is disseminated: That means the Internet,” Steiger said. “We must challenge governments, defend journalists of all kinds, and create a united front with Internet and media companies to challenge online censorship and surveillance.”

Two awardees could not attend because of their ongoing imprisonments. Eynulla Fatullayev is serving a term of more than eight years in Azerbaijan, and J.S. Tissainayagam is jailed in Sri Lanka on a 20-year sentence.  Their awards were presented by Gwen Ifill, who called on those in attendance to sign a CPJ petition seeking their immediate release. The cards were collected and two separate petitions will be sent to the leaders of Sri Lanka and Azerbaijan. CPJ will hold both awards until Fatullayev and Tissainayagam can accept them in person.

CPJ did much the same in 2001, when it honored imprisoned Chinese journalist Jiang Weiping and petitioned for his release. Jiang, now free, was finally able to accept his award on Tuesday. “Allow me to express my belated, but sincere thanks to all of you for your strong support of press freedom worldwide,” Jiang told the crowd. “Today, I have my freedom, but there are 26 of my colleagues in China still in prison for doing their duty. Some of them are in difficult, even dangerous conditions. They need our attention and support. We should not hesitate in petitioning for their release.”

Lewis, two-time winner of the Pulitzer Prize and one of the foremost thinkers on freedom of speech and the First Amendment, received the Burton Benjamin Memorial Award for lifetime achievement. “Tonight we celebrate a person who has never hid or been silent,” Lee Bollinger, president of Columbia University, said in presenting the award. “We honor him for a life defining of good citizenship and a professional career that has made an extraordinary contribution toward building a world in which ideas matter, knowledge can be pursued freely, dissent can be heard, objective news can be gathered and published, and society of laws can yet redeem itself.”

Other presenters included Jacob Weisberg, editor-in-chief of Slate Group, and Bill Keller, executive editor of The New York Times.