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Journalism, no matter the cost


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.

Jamai and Amar were sentenced to three and two months in prison, respectively, and were ordered to pay fines and damages totaling $200,000. The sentences were eventually suspended, and an appeal is pending.

Acceptance remarks:

I share this award with Ali Lmrabet and Mohammed Lhourd, my two fellow Moroccan journalists who are today in jail. They have committed the crime of displeasing the Moroccan authorities with their writings. And I share this award with Ali Amar and Fadel Iraki, the two other co-founders of Le Journal and Assahifa. I also share this award with all the Moroccan and Arab journalists who ... fought to extend the limits of freedom. Finally, I share this award with my father, Khaled Jamai, who, as a journalist, was imprisoned and tortured by the Moroccan secret police in 1973.

The regression of press freedom in our country is illustrated by the repeated bans of our newspapers, an ongoing advertising boycott against them, and also by the adoption of a repressive press law. ... It is no coincidence that this regression happened at about the same time as the U.S.-led war on terrorism. In using this war as a pretext, the government is clipping the wings of our society.

The current message of American foreign policy to Arab and Muslim people is the promotion of democracy and the respect of the human rights. But what kind of credibility should we give to this when "interrogations" of suspected terrorists are being subcontracted to the Moroccan secret police ... ?

By honoring me and my newspapers, CPJ recognizes our vibrant civil society, without which our work would have been impossible. In doing so, all of you here tonight are reaching out to the vast majority of Moroccans who seek freedom and liberty. ...

Musa Muradov

As editor in chief of the weekly Groznensky Rabochy, Muradov has been threatened by Russian authorities and Chechen rebels alike because he refuses to become a mouthpiece for either.

In 1996, one of his reporters was killed in cross fire, and Muradov himself was trapped in a basement for 14 days by intense shelling. In 1999, a bomb destroyed his offices, and another reporter was killed. The staff fled to a neighboring region, publishing from there.

Now Muradov lives in Moscow, traveling periodically to Chechnya, unable to identify himself as a journalist there but continuing to distribute his newspaper.

Acceptance remarks:

I feel somewhat awkward. First of all, this is the first time in my life that I am honored to speak in front of such a distinguished audience. Second, as you can imagine, I have not had a chance to wear a tuxedo in Chechnya. ...

Journalism which is not independent of the government cannot fulfill its principal function - to be a means, by which society can monitor those in authority. ...

I have been granted this award by a nongovernmental organization that defends independent journalists and press freedom. This is the biggest award I could expect for my work. I will do my best to continue to be worthy of this award. ...

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