In the beginning, there was the verb ...

The International Press Freedom Awards for 2005 went to a Chinese editor still imprisoned in his homeland, a Brazilian reporter who could not travel to New York because he is pinned down by lawsuits, an Uzbek journalist in exile, and a Zimbabwean media lawyer.

A last-minute, long overdue arrival at Tuesday evening’s ceremony was Manuel Vazquez Portal, who won an International Press Freedom award in 2003, but is only now out of a Cuban jail and able to accept it in person.

The laureates honoured by the Committee to Protect Journalists have endured beatings, threats and prison as a consequence of their work in a profession in which danger and death have become increasingly commonplace.

The New York-based media advocacy group presented the 2005 awards to:

  • Galima Bukharbaeva, former Uzbekistan correspondent for the Institute for War & Peace Reporting;

  • Lucio Flavio Pinto, publisher and editor of the Brazilian bimonthly newspaper Jornal Pessoal;

  • Shi Tao, an imprisoned Chinese journalist; and

  • Beatrice Mtetwa, a media lawyer in Zimbabwe.

The late United States TV news anchor Peter Jennings was honoured at the ceremony at the Waldorf-Astoria Hotel with the Burton Benjamin Memorial Award for a lifetime of distinguished achievement in the cause of press freedom.

Bukharbaeva, now in exile in the United States, risked her life covering the killing of hundreds of protesters by government troops in the city of Andijan in May. The Uzbekistan journalist faces criminal prosecution for her reporting on the Andijan crisis, police torture, and the repression of Islamic activists.

“The massacre in the city of Andijan this past May, when President Islam Karimov’s government opened fire against its own people, showed, once again, the important journalism plays in a society,” she said in her speech. Karimov’s repressive government realised that free press poses danger to their corrupt, brutal regime.
And so, journalists who reported truthfully on what happened in Andijan were branded terrorists,” she said.

“Those who dared to remain in Uzbekistan are threatened and beaten every day. Because of this harsh treatment, now Uzbekistan is under-reported; we do not know what is going on in the country—how to act, how to react,” she said.

Shi Tao, former freelance journalist for internet publications and an editor for Dangdai Shang Bao, a Chinese business newspaper, is serving a 10-year prison sentence for allegedly “leaking state secrets abroad.”

He posted notes from a directive issued by China’s Propaganda Department that instructed the media how to cover the 15th anniversary of the military crackdown in Tiananmen Square.

His essays on political reform, published on news websites outside of China, drew the ire of Chinese authorities.

Pinto has reported on drug trafficking, environmental devastation, and political and corporate corruption in a vast, remote region of Brazil’s Amazon, suffering physical assaults and death threats as a result of his work.

He has also faced a constant barrage of civil and criminal lawsuits aimed at silencing him, which kept him from travelling to New York City to receive his award.

Pinto’s daughter, Lucio Flavio Pinto, accepted on behalf of her father. She delivered his acceptance speech from the heart of the Amazon: “In the 1960s, deforestation represented less than one percent of Amazonia. Today it is about 20%. It is a criminal loss of natural resources,” Pinto wrote.

“I am sending you this forest appeal. Lay your bridges to this side of the world. Come aboard the challenge to build a civilisation and forest culture in this Eden that the great creator delegated to his very human creations,” Pinto wrote.

Mtetwa, a media lawyer in Zimbabwe, has continued to defend press freedom in her country, despite having suffered arrests and beatings. She has won acquittals for several journalists facing criminal charges, including two British journalists who were arrested during April’s tightly controlled presidential election.

“After the government lost a constitutional referendum in 2000, it stepped up its war on the independent press,” Mtetwa said in her speech. “It introduced new laws ... under which it became a crime to practice journalism in Zimbabwe without government accreditation.”

The absence of a free press or independent radio in Zimbabwe, she said, means that people do not learn about “human rights abuses, food shortages, petrol shortages, the collapse of the health and education systems, and the breakdown of the rule of law.”

Portal was one of 75 Cuban activists arrested in on charges of working with American officials to undermine Fidel Castro’s government—something the dissidents and the US government denies.

On Tuesday, Portal said in his speech, “In the beginning, there was the verb. It made humans free. It enabled them to express themselves. And freedom of expression is the genesis of all freedoms.”

“The smell of jail is still on my skin,” he said. “I was convicted for expressing what I thought, what I think. But there are no prisons that prevent thoughts nor jails that stop words. The crime became known. The real criminal was condemned. Truth was rewarded. Freedom of expression was the winner,” Portal said.

Paul Steiger, CPJ board chairperson and managing editor of The Wall Street Journal, told the gathering: “In fact, from Iraq to China, and from Afghanistan to Uzbekistan, it has been a terrible year for journalists in much of the world.”

“But with a journalist jailed for months right here in the United States, with new legal threats emerging every day, with the US military stonewalling investigations into the deaths and detentions of journalists in Iraq, it has also been a terrible year for journalists in this country,” Steiger said.

“Repressive governments are delighted when a journalist goes to jail in a democracy like the United States,” he said. “It makes it easier for them to justify their own repressive policies.”

Steiger was referring to Judith Miller of The New York Times, jailed for refusing to disclose who told her that the wife of former Ambassador Joseph Wilson, a Bush administration critic, was a CIA agent. The source turned out to be Vice-President Dick Cheney’s chief of staff, I Lewis “Scooter” Libby. - Sapa-AP

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