Journalism, no matter the cost

SUN JOURNAL

Awards: Four journalists are honored for their independence and courage in covering the news.

December 03, 2003|By Kathy Lally

Two of Musa Muradov's reporters were killed and his office was bombed. Abdul Samay Hamed was beaten unconscious and forced to flee his country. Aboubakr Jamai was convicted of defaming the foreign minister. Manuel Vazquez Portal was sentenced to 18 years in prison.

Their crimes? Journalism.

Muradov, a Chechen editor; Hamed, an Afghan writer and publisher; Jamai, a Moroccan publisher; and Vazquez Portal, a Cuban journalist, share a passion for pursuing honest journalism no matter the cost.

Now, they are sharing recognition. Last week, the New York-based Committee to Protect Journalists honored them during a ceremony at the Waldorf-Astoria in New York.

The CPJ, founded in 1981 by a group of American foreign correspondents, organizes campaigns to protect journalists around the world. Bringing the glare of worldwide attention to journalists under attack is one way of offering a measure of safety.

The technique has apparently proved effective. This week, the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, made up of 55 nations, awarded its annual Prize for Journalism and Democracy to the CPJ, calling it a "courageous and professional organization which defends the right of journalists to report news without fear of reprisal."

Following are brief descriptions of the work of the four journalists honored by CPJ, excerpted from the CPJ award citations, along with remarks from the three who were able to attend the ceremony.

Manuel Vazquez Portal

In April, Vazquez Portal was given an 18-year prison sentence, part of Cuba's crackdown on dissidents. Twenty-seven other journalists received sentences of 14 to 27 years in prison.

In 1995, Vazquez Portal, a writer and poet, began working for the independent news agency Cuba Press and in 1998 helped establish another one, Grupo de Trabajo Decoro, where he worked until his arrest. His articles offered criticisms of the Cuban electoral system, as well as commentary about the disillusion of many Cubans over economic and social issues.

His wife has smuggled his diary out of prison and in June excerpts were printed in several publications outside Cuba.

"I have thought about the reprisals when these pages are published," he wrote. "I am prepared. If for the simple act of working as a journalist I was given an 18-year prison sentence, nothing else can be more unjust or excessive."

Abdul Samay Hamed

In 1997, Hamed was detained and beaten unconscious on the orders of Haji Mohammed Mohaqiq, then a leader of Mazar-e Sharif and now Afghanistan's minister of planning, because of his critical articles and cartoons.

Hamed went into exile in 1998, returning from political asylum in Denmark in 2002 to found the magazine Telaya, which has developed a reputation in northern Afghanistan for publishing uncompromising articles and commentaries about the country's political and social problems.

A frequent commentator for the BBC's Dari service, he was attacked in April by two men armed with knives. His colleagues say the assault came in reprisal for a BBC broadcast in which he criticized the power of local warlords.

Acceptance remarks:

... The idea of democracy is only just beginning to take shape in the capital, Kabul, where there are over 150 newspapers and magazines. But in most of the provinces, there is no media and little awareness of human rights including free speech. ...

The situation for working journalists in Afghanistan today can be confusing. All of those in power censor independent journalists, and tradition and religion can cause self-censorship. In the government, former supporters of the Taliban are now democratic reformers, and warlords hold key government positions. Five years ago, a warlord in Mazar-e Sharif physically attacked me because of my writing, beating me unconscious -today he is a minister, planning the reconstruction of Afghanistan.

The culture and mentality of democracy are new to Afghanistan. The only guarantee for freedom of expression and pluralism is the courage of individual independent journalists and the support of the international community.

... I dedicate this award to all independent writers and journalists in Afghanistan. I hope that in the future, you - my fellow journalists - will write about Afghanistan not only in wartime, but also in times of peace.

Aboubakr Jamai

Publisher of the weekly Moroccan newspaper Le Journal Hebdomadaire and its sister publication, Assahifa al-Ousbouiya, Jamai has encouraged tough investigative reporting on government corruption, corporate impropriety and taboo political topics.

Editions of the newspapers have been banned, and Jamai and his general manager, Ali Amar, were convicted of defaming the country's foreign minister after an article alleged that he had profited from buying an official residence in Washington while he was Morocco's ambassador.

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