By: H. JOSEF HEBERT
Five journalists and an attorney who has long battled for press freedom were cited Thursday for risking their lives and liberty to report the news, often under the pressure of authoritarian regimes.
The six, who work in Iraq, Afghanistan, Uganda, Zimbabwe, and Cuba, are recipients of this year’s International Press Freedom Award presented by the Committee to Protect Journalists. At a press conference, Andrew Mwenda, managing editor of the Ugandan news magazine The Independent, said only hours earlier he had been informed that his publication had been raided by security forces in Kampala when employees reported for work at 8 a.m., and documents and computer files were seized.
If he had been there “I would have been arrested,” said Mwenda, who plans to report to the police when he returns to Uganda next week. Last April police also raided Mwenda’s offices and detained him and two reporters because of news stories critical of the Army’s role in northern Uganda’s civil war.
Other recipients of the freedom award are Associated Press photographer Bilal Hussein, released last April after two years in detention by U.S. forces in Iraq; Danish Karokhel, managing editor, and Farida Nekzad, deputy director, of Pajhwok Afghan News, Afghanistan’s leading independent news agency; Hector Maseda Gutierrez, a leader in Cuba’s independent press movement, who is now serving a 20-year prison sentence in Cuba; and Beatrice Mtetwa, who has defended numerous journalists caught up in Zimbabwe’s repressive media laws.
“These journalists and media activists … have risked their lives and liberty to bring us the news,” said Joel Simon, executive director of the Committee to Protect Journalists.
Simon said the group would campaign for the release of Hector Maseda Gutierrez, 65, saying that the journalist was imprisoned “for doing what everyone here today is doing ? his job as a reporter.”
The committee also had been among those who had pressed for the release of AP photographer Bilal Hussein, winner of a Pulitzer Prize in 2005 for his news photography, including the fighting in Fallujah and Ramadi. Hussein was on assignment and did not attend the news conference.
Steven Hurst, former AP bureau chief in Baghdad, said Hussein was taken into custody and held for more than two years without charges. “He did nothing but his job as a photographer in a war zone,” said Hurst, adding that the military evidently “didn’t like the story that was being told by his pictures.”
Karokhel, the managing editor of Pajhwok Afghan News, said the risks to journalists in Afghanistan, particularly those working outside the capital of Kabul, ranged from being potential targets of U.S. air strikes to kidnapping for ransom. These risks seriously limit journalists mobility, he said.
Mtetwa, a prominent media and human rights lawyer in Zimbabwe who was cited for lifetime achievement in defense of the press, has faced repeated reprisals, harassment and on several occasions beatings for her defense of journalists against charges brought by the government. She was also honored in 2005 by the Committee to Protect Journalists.
She said of her work: “It is a job that needs to be done.”
The awards will be formally presented at a dinner in New York City on Nov. 25.
“These are the frontline reporters who risk their lives and their liberty to bring the news not only to the people of their own countries but to a global audience,” said Paul Steiger, chairman of CPJ’s board of directors, in a statement.