Two hundred and twenty one.
Two hundred and twenty one — the number of journalists who were in prison on 1st of December last year. That’s the second highest tally since the Committee for Protection of Journalists (CPJ) began keeping records.
Freedom of the press is one of the most vital pillars of a fair, democratic and progressive society — if you don’t necessarily agree, let me explain why.
Imagine if the Kennedy administration had drummed up some phony charges to silence war reporter David Halberstam who presented us with a truer view of the Vietnam war which was at odds with the government’s rosy portrayal of an impending American victory. It clearly bothered President Kennedy, since he took the unusual step of asking then New York Times editor Arthur Ochs Sulzberger to replace Halberstam — thankfully, Sulzberger refused. The following year, Halberstam went on to share the Pulitzer prize for International Reporting with Malcolm W. Browne (of the Associated Press) for their coverage of the War and the Diem regime.
Here’s what Halberstam had to say:
The job of the reporters in Vietnam was to report the news, whether or not the news was good for America.
Had it not been for their protected right to report freely, we may never have learnt the true version of the misguided war against Viet Cong.
More recently, the investigative reporting by staff writers at The Boston Globe in 2002, exposed the extensive culture of secrecy, child-abuse and corruption in the local Archdiocese. Thanks to their award winning work, victims who had suffered mostly in silence for nearly three decades, finally had their voices heard on a national platform.
Let’s look further afield — In 1991, Argentine journalist Horacio Verbitsky exposed the deep-rooted corruption in Carlos Menem’s administration. This directly led to Menem firing many of his ministers in order to save his political credibility. Three years later, Verbitsky was approached by Adolfo Scilingo, a naval officer, who disclosed brutal torture practices, killings and disappearances that the Argentine defence forces were directly involved in during the “dirty war”.
In 2012, the excellent sting operation by Tehelka in the Delhi-NCR region exposed the attitude of members of the police force towards rape victims. Fearless reporting like this is helping inform the general public about what their leaders and the agencies that are meant to protect them are actually doing.
Fifty years on since the Halberstam articles, while American journalists are still (relatively) free to report what they want, such liberties are not afforded to their counterparts in many parts of the world. Repressive governments are imprisoning journalists on a variety of charges ranging from trumped up “anti-state” violations to questionable “drug possession” claims.
For example, Reeyot Alemu, an Ethiopian columnist, has spent 1396* days in prison.
She was sentenced to fourteen years in prison in June 2011, convicted of charges ranging from ‘planning a terrorist attack’ to ‘promoting terrorism’. In 2012 most of the charges were dropped and her sentence was reduced to five years. The CPJ (and others) believe that Reeyot is being punished for writing columns that accused authorities of governing by coercion. Since 2013, prison officials have only allowed immediate family to visit her and reports shown to them indicate that her health has deteriorated significantly.
Uzbek journalist Yusuf Ruzimuradov has been in prison for 5,877* days.
He was working with Muhammad Bekjanov (while both were in exile in Ukraine), when they were extradited and then convicted in September 1999 for publishing and distributing a banned newspaper. They were also charged with participating in a banned political protest and attempting to overthrow the regime.
In 2012, Ta Phong Tan, a Vietnamese blogger was sentenced to ten years in prison and five years under house arrest for “conducting propaganda” against the state. In 2013, Dang Thi Kim Lieng, Tan’s mother, self-immolated herself in front of Bac Lieu People’s Committee building to protest the way officials had treated her family and her daughter’s case. She died on her way to the hospital. Tan continues to face harassment and assault from fellow prisoners.
Are you outraged?
I am. And so are the people behind Press Uncuffed.
A much needed project that is a collaboration by students at the Philip Merrill College of Journalism and the CPJ. Led by award-winning American journalist and writer, Dana Priest, the campaign is aimed at raising vital funds that will help the CPJ’s work towards freeing imprisoned journalists around the world. But this is more than just fundraising — it’s about awareness. The team behind #PressUncuffed want to use the initial crowdfunded money to produce bracelets that bear the names of imprisoned journalists. You can then buy these bracelets, and wear them to inform your friends and family about the plight of these brave men and women.
As their campaign mission states:
If a journalist somewhere still wears a cuff, so will we.
The proceeds from the sale of the bracelets will go to the CPJ, so that they can keep fighting for the freedom of the press around the globe.
Your donation can be as small as $5 and yes, the smallest donations can make a big difference!
But you don’t have to (and shouldn’t) stop there.
I asked Lejla Sarcevic, Press Uncuffed’s campaign director, what can people do in addition to their donations?
They can make this as important an issue as Ebola or climate change. That might seem hyperbolic, but without journalists we can’t even address these issues properly. The more this becomes an issue the more pressure we can put on governments.
And that’s the point of the bracelets. For people to start talking about it.
Azerbaijan is about to host the European games. I think governments and athletes should be braver about questioning Azeri leaders on their human rights records
Like at Sochi?
Exactly. That’s the point of this whole campaign.
There are many brave men and women around the world who simply want to do their jobs and expose the truth.
And they need your help — question is, will you just sit idly by while oppressive governments around the world trample on freedom of speech, or will you take a stand?
For those of you who may ask: ‘What can you do?’ my answer will be a quote from a book titled Yefikir Abiyot. It says: ‘I can’t do everything but not being able to do everything can’t stop me from doing what I can’.
*As of 16th April 2015
Photo credit: Carlos Latuff