By: BRIAN MURPHY
An Associated Press photographer who was jailed by U.S. forces in Iraq and four other journalists from Uganda, Afghanistan and Cuba were honored Tuesday by a global press rights group for their work in war zones and confronting authoritarian regimes.
The International Press Freedom Award, presented by the Committee to Protect Journalists, also went to a prominent human rights lawyer from Zimbabwe, Beatrice Mtetwa, who has aided journalists jailed or threatened by the government of President Robert Mugabe.
Speaking by video link from the Middle East, AP photographer Bilal Hussein thanked the committee and others who pressed for his release during his two years and four days under U.S. military detention in which he was held without formal charges. He vowed to “forge ahead” with his work.
“I will not hesitate to put out the truth,” he told more than 500 people attending the awards dinner.
In a separate video clip made for the ceremony, Hussein described the pressures of chronicling both sides of the conflict during some of the fiercest street battles of the Iraq war ? images that were part of the AP’s Pulitzer Prize-winning photo package in 2005.
“A journalist does not take sides,” he said. “That’s why he is the enemy of all.”
Hussein was taken into U.S. military custody in April 2006 in the western city of Ramadi. He was released shortly after his second anniversary in U.S. hands after two Iraqi judicial amnesty committees ruled that there would be no trial on any of the accusations raised again Hussein.
“Bilal Hussein has emerged from his ordeal with a strong and confident calling, fiercely committed to his profession of recording the truth without fear. The same resolve that allowed him to survive hours of difficult questioning inform his work today,” said John Daniszewski, the AP’s managing editor for international news.
Two other award recipients ? Danish Karokhel and Farida Nekzad of the Pajhwok Afghan News agency ? described the increasing difficulties of reporting as the Taliban reclaims its hold in parts of Afghanistan and escalates its battles with Afghan and Western forces.
Nekzad, one of the most prominent women in Afghan journalism, said the award belongs to “all Afghan journalists” and asked the international community: “Do not forget us again.”
One of Uganda’s leading political journalists, Andrew Mwenda, has faced repeated arrests and harassment by authorities and is currently fighting more than 20 criminal charges, some dating back to 2000.
“Not even the threat of death will stop us from seeking the truth,” he said after receiving his award.
Cuban journalist Hector Maseda Gutierrez, a leader in the country’s independent press movement, received his award in absentia. He was arrested in a press crackdown in 2003 and sentenced to 20 years in prison.
CNN correspondent Christiane Amanpour read a letter by the 65-year-old Gutierrez smuggled from prison in which he promised to keep seeking the truth “or die trying.”
Mtetwa, the Zimbabwean lawyer, has defended journalists against Mugabe’s regime, including working on behalf of New York Times reporter Barry Bearak and British freelance journalist Steven Bevan, who were detained and later released after raids against journalists covering the run-up to the presidential election earlier this year.
“Zimbabwe remains an extremely dangerous place for journalists … trying to report what’s really going on there,” she said.
The New York-based Committee to Protect Journalists says about 120 journalists remain behind bars around the world.