NEW YORK CITY After this year's International Press Freedom Awards dinner, an ex-reporter remarked to me that the honorees' inspiring stories made her "think about getting back into real journalism again," with her accent on "real."
"Me, too," I responded spontaneously, feeling unusually humbled by the realities of many of our overseas colleagues. It's been a rough year for American journalists. But things could be worse; we could be trying to work in China, Zimbabwe, Uzbekistan, or rural Brazil.
Those are the countries in which death, jail, beatings, exile or intimidation color the daily working conditions of this year's recipients of the Press Freedom Awards, given out by the New York-based Committee to Protect Journalists, of which I am a board member.
This year, the tributes seemed to have a new edge. The hardship and sacrifices of journalists in societies that are less free remind us not only of how much we take for granted in the USA but also how often our own press freedoms seem to be under siege.
We've seen one American reporter, Judith Miller, jailed while working as a reporter for the New York Times this year, and Rhode Island TV reporter Jim Taricani put under house arrest with an ankle bracelet in 2004. Dozens of others have been similarly threatened with subpoenas and jail while Congress drags its heels on whether to pass a federal shield law.
As our own government fights for increasing secrecy in the name of the war on terrorism, more tyrannical regimes increasingly borrow such homeland-security rhetoric to cover up their own abuses. And as our international trade grows, American companies increasingly ignore human rights abuses in order to win favors from tyrannical regimes.
One of this year's CPJ honorees, for example, was jailed in China, a perennial international leader for jailing journalists. Shi Tao, 37, a Chinese journalist, is serving a 10-year sentence for "leaking state secrets abroad."
Translation: He posted on the Internet a Propaganda Department memo that instructed Chinese journalists in the government-approved way to cover the 15th anniversary of the Tiananmen Square massacre. If you follow the news, you also may know that his arrest resulted from a troubling cooperation between China's repressive police and the American company Yahoo, which has refused to discuss the affair, except for brief press statements about cooperating with host countries' laws.
Another honoree, Brazilian editor Lucio Flavio Pinto, 56, was too tangled up in harassing lawsuits to leave his Amazonian hometown to receive his award in person. Investigating corruption and deforestation has made him the enemy of powerfully well-connected big business people, one of whom punched him in a restaurant on camera! Missing even one of his almost daily court appearances could land him in jail, said his daughter, Juliana da Chuna Pinto, who accepted the award on her father's behalf.
One of the other two honorees could not return to her home country and the other was about to do so only with great courage. Galima Bukharbaeva, 31, cannot return to Uzbekistan for fear of imprisonment or other reprisal stemming from her reporting of police torture, repression of Islamic activists, and other state-sponsored abuses in the former Soviet republic. While reporting a May 13 massacre of civilians in the city of Andijan, a bullet tore through her backpack, piercing her notebook and press pass, when troops opened fire on demonstrators.
And Zimbabwean lawyer Beatrice Mtetwa, 47, is the first non-journalist to be honored by CPJ after she has been followed and arrested and beaten for her work on behalf of journalists, foreign and domestic, who have dared to operate independently of dictator-president Robert Mugabe.
With almost all of the country's independent journalists and correspondents driven out of the country, there is little press freedom left in Zimbabwe to protect. The result, as Mtetwa pointed out, is a growing freedom for Mugabe and his cronies to do whatever they want, unexposed by the light of journalists.
We take freedom of the press for granted in the United States. Press freedoms here are facing new questions, sometimes with good reason. Journalists who abuse those freedoms need to be taken to task. But that doesn't make the freedoms any less valuable.