CPJ to honor five international journalists

International Press Freedom Awards

New York, September 23, 2009—The Committee to Protect Journalists will honor courageous journalists from Somalia, Sri Lanka, Tunisia, and Azerbaijan with its 2009 International Press Freedom Awards at a ceremony in November.

Mustafa Haji Abdinur of Somalia, Naziha Réjiba of Tunisia, Eynulla Fatullayev of Azerbaijan, and J.S. Tissainayagam of Sri Lanka have faced imprisonment, threats of violence, and censorship to stand up for press freedom in their countries.

“These are reporters who risk their personal freedom and often their lives to ensure that independent voices resonate within their nations and across the globe,” said CPJ Board Chairman Paul Steiger. “Their fearlessness to report the news in the face of great obstacles is an inspiration to us all.”

“These journalists are being honored not only because they embody what CPJ stands for, but because they have fought against injustice to uphold the values of press freedom,” CPJ Executive Director Joel Simon said. “Imprisonment, harassment, and threat of death cannot deter these extraordinary journalists from continuing their work.”

Anthony Lewis, noted author, journalist, and scholar, will receive CPJ’s Burton Benjamin Memorial Award for lifetime achievement in recognition of his continued efforts to ensure a free press around the world.

The awards will be presented at the Waldorf-Astoria in New York City on Tuesday, November 24. Robert Thomson, editor-in-chief of Dow Jones and managing editor of The Wall Street Journal, is chairman of the black-tie dinner. Christiane Amanpour, CPJ board member and CNN’s Chief International Correspondent, will be the host.

Here are the recipients of CPJ’s 2009 International Press Freedom Awards:

Ø      Mustafa Haji Abdinur, Somalia: Haji has seen six of his colleagues die this year on the streets of Mogadishu—caught in the crossfire of battling insurgents, or gunned down for their work. He is one of a very small number of courageous journalists still working in Mogadishu despite ongoing violence and a shattered economy. As a correspondent for Agence France-Presse in Mogadishu and editor-in-chief of independent radio station Radio Simba, Haji faces danger and threats on a daily basis to report from Mogadishu’s once-bustling Bakara Market, which has become a stronghold of insurgents in the war-torn city. In 2007, with the help of a small businessman, Haji started Radio Simba in Mogadishu, which now reaches more than 2 million listeners across southern and central Somalia. His work for AFP and several other Western media outlets has made him a target of both Islamic insurgents and government authorities. He was beaten by insurgents for assisting two Japanese journalists from the Kyoto News Agency and arrested by government security forces for airing an interview with an Islamic militant leader of the Al-Shabaab insurgency. Despite receiving death threats and seeing his colleagues from Radio Shabelle and HornAfrik killed, Mustafa has insisted on staying in Mogadishu to report the unfolding Somali crisis, even while having to move his family three hours north for their safety.

Ø      Naziha Réjiba, Tunisia: As editor of the independent online news journal Kalima, which is blocked in Tunisia, Réjiba is one of Tunisia’s most critical journalists. In a country where the media is heavily restricted and the government actively harasses the few independent journalists who attempt to write critically of the government, Réjiba, also known as Um Ziad, has been the target of intimidation and harassment since November 1987, when President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali came to power in a coup. Rejiba’s home is under constant surveillance, her phones lines are monitored, and she has been summoned for questioning repeatedly. Réjiba co-founded Kalima in 2000 with prominent journalist Sihem Ben Sedrine, herself a frequent target of the government. A year later, the pair founded the press freedom group Observatoire de la Liberté de la Presse, de L’Edition et de la Création (OLPEC). Both Kalima, which went online after being denied the right to publish in print, and OLPEC, are banned in Tunisia. In 2007, after ignoring numerous anonymous threats to ruin her reputation and that of her family if she continued her critical journalism, Rejiba was subject to a vile smear campaign featuring fabricated pornographic pictures of her husband, lawyer and former Member of Parliament Mokhtar Jellali. In October 2008, Kalima was hacked into and shut down. When Réjiba wrote an article accusing the government of being behind the hacking of Kalima, she was summoned to appear before a public prosecutor. Although she has not been charged, lawyers said that under the press law she could still face up to three years in prison for publishing “false news.”

Ø      Eynulla Fatullayev, Azerbaijan: When Fatullayev’s friend and colleague Elmar Huseynov was murdered, the journalist set out to find his killer—and ended up facing more than eight years in prison. In 2005, Fatullayev was working as an investigative reporter for the opposition magazine Monitor when his colleague and Editor-in-Chief Elmar Huseynov was assassinated. In 2007, he published an article in Realny Azerbaijan, a newspaper he founded after Huseynov’s assassination. The article, “Lead and Roses,” accused Azerbaijani authorities of obstructing the investigation into the killing and alleged that Huseynov’s murder was ordered by high-ranking officials in Baku and carried out by a criminal group, including five Georgian citizens who had arrived in Baku two months prior to the assassination. Four days later, Fatullayev began receiving death threats. In the months following, he was convicted on charges of libeling and insulting Azerbaijanis in an Internet posting that was attributed to him but which he denied making, and his newspaper’s offices were raided and shut down. Then in July 2007, Fatullayev was hit with a series of politicized charges including “terrorism” for an analysis of Azerbaijan’s policies toward Iran. He was convicted in October and slammed with an eight-year sentence. In June 2008, the Supreme Court of Azerbaijan upheld Fatullayev’s convictions. CPJ Europe and Central Asia Program Coordinator Nina Ognianova reported on Fatullayev’s case in CPJ’s special report, “Finding Elmar’s Killers.”

Ø      J.S. Tissainayagam, Sri Lanka: On March 7, 2008, Tissainayagam, editor of news web site OutreachSL and a columnist for the English-language Sri Lankan Sunday Times, went to the offices of the Terrorism Investigation Division to ask about a colleague who had been arrested the day before. He never made it back home. Tissainayagam, also known as Tissa, was one of the dozens of ethnic Tamil journalists who were swept up during the 26-year-long conflict between the Sinhalese-dominated government and Tamil separatists, which ended this year. Terrorism Investigation Division officials arrested Tissainayagam and held him without charge for six months. Then in August 2008, he was charged with inciting “communal disharmony,” an offense under the Prevention of Terrorism Act, in two articles written nearly three years earlier in a defunct magazine called North Eastern Monthly. In September 2009, he was sentenced to 20 years in prison. Local journalists say Tissainayagam wrote political columns about Tamil issues that were frequently critical of the government but not considered partisan to the separatist group the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam. U.S. President Barack Obama highlighted Tissainayagam’s case during his World Press Freedom Day address in May.

Burton Benjamin Memorial Award: Anthony Lewis, United States

CPJ will honor Anthony Lewis with the Burton Benjamin Memorial Award given for a lifetime of distinguished achievement in the cause of press freedom. Twice awarded the Pulitzer Prize, Lewis is a former columnist for The New York Times. He is widely recognized as one of the United States’ foremost thinkers on freedom of speech and First Amendment rights. Lewis has been a tireless scholar of journalism, having taught and lectured at Columbia’s School of Journalism as well as at Harvard University. His book Freedom for the Thought That We Hate: A Biography of the First Amendment was published in 2008.

“For more than 50 years, Tony Lewis has been a frontline observer and eloquent chronicler of the issues surrounding press freedom,” CPJ’s Steiger said. “Two generations of readers owe to him much of their understanding of the crucial role that the First Amendment—and journalism—serve in democracy.”

 The Burton Benjamin Memorial Award is named in honor of the late CBS News senior producer and former CPJ chairman who died in 1988.

CPJ will also finally present an award to 2001 winner Jiang Weiping from China, who was in jail and could not receive his award at the time.

The International Press Freedom Awards, now in their 19th year, are the centerpiece in CPJ’s annual fund-raising effort, providing more than a third of the budget for our press freedom advocacy efforts around the world.

To attend the awards dinner, please call CPJ’s Development Office at 212-465-1004 x 113.

 For more information about the award winners, and for information about CPJ’s work or CPJ, visit our Web site at www.cpj.org or call 212-465-1004 x105.