CPJ marks 15th anniversary

On April 3, 1981, three New York journalists filed incorporating papers for a new organization called The Committee to Protect Journalists, dedicated to the defense “of the human and professional rights of journalists around the world.”

The members of CPJ’s founding triumvirate were Michael Massing, then the editor of the Columbia Journalism Review; Laurie Nadel, a CBS News producer; and Victor Navasky, editor of The Nation. Aryeh Neier of Human Rights Watch signed on as treasurer, and offered astute organizational and fund-raising counsel. A short while later, Walter Cronkite volunteered to serve as honorary chairman, bringing CPJ instantaneous credibility and clout. The Alicia Patterson Foundation lent desk space for a volunteer assistant, and CPJ began to take shape.

At our most recent semiannual board meeting, held just one week after CPJ’s 15th anniversary, it was striking to see how many of the organization’s founding members remain committed and active. Victor and Michael both attended, as they have regularly since the beginning. So did Tony Lewis and Peter Arnett, also among CPJ’s first recruits, and two of CPJ’s three former chairmen, Josh Friedman and Jim Goodale.

The original goal of CPJ was to use the power of the U.S. media on behalf of their threatened colleagues abroad. The incorporating documents sketched out clearly what is still our basic mandate: the protection of journalists through “the compilation and verification of the actual or threatened violations of the professional rights of journalists; the mobilization of public opinion throughout the world for the prevention of [….] such violations; and the dissemination of information concerning the status and treatment of journalists throughout the world.”

It was an ambitious agenda, but not unrealistic. Since 1981, CPJ has grown into a vitally important institution to journalists and news organizations worldwide. It is the only U.S. organization devoted solely to documenting, publicizing and responding to specific cases of press freedom violations wherever they occur.

We now have a million-dollar yearly budget–an unthinkable sum in CPJ’s early years–and a full-time staff of 12, plus five part-time regional press specialists. Yet we still feel stretched to the breaking point. Paradoxically, the expansion of press freedom after the Cold War has made CPJ more important than ever. Jailings and murders of journalists increase virtually every year. So do the calls for CPJ’s help. Last year alone, CPJ responded directly to more than 250 press freedom violations and documented 500 other such incidents. This trend is not all bad news: Many cases took place in countries where there was no independent press whatsoever when CPJ was founded.

Though we do most of our work by phone, fax and e-mail, direct personal visits are still the most effective way of demonstrating our concern to our colleagues and their nemeses alike. In response to requests for support and assistance, we have sent staffers and board members on recent missions to Colombia, Russia, Tajikistan, Ghana, India, Turkey, Slovakia, Serbia, Croatia and Mexico.

An independent press is stubbornly sinking roots in dozens of formerly totalitarian societies. This is a difficult and dangerous process, and journalists in these countries are routinely jailed, harassed and attacked. They need international support, which, to be effective, must be swift, concerted and backed up by accurate reporting.

On an almost weekly basis, CPJ’s timely intervention is the critical factor in securing the release of an imprisoned reporter, or in protecting a journalist against the threat of violent reprisal.

Fifteen years later, it is clear that CPJ is here to stay.