TORONTO, Canada, Nov 4 2005 (IPS) — Journalists from Ukraine and Gambia were honoured this week with the International Press Freedom Award for persisting in their work even while facing serious threats against their lives.
“Mykola Veresen’s and Alagi Yorro Jallow’s cases exemplified true fighters for freedom of the press,” said Rod Macdonell of the Canadian Journalists for Free Expression (CJFE).
CJFE promotes and defends free expression and press freedom and grants thousands of dollars to aid persecuted journalists in Latin America, Africa, Asia and Eastern Europe.
“Their courageous work in the face of great adversity has demonstrated an exceptional commitment to free expression,” said Macdonell.
The annual award is given to journalists outside of Canada by the CJFE to recognise and call attention to the many countries where journalists face personal danger simply for telling the truth.
“Journalism is one of the few professions that requires personal courage,” noted Marlys Edwardh, a prominent Canadian criminal law lawyer. Edwardh also received a special award from CJFE for her work in defending the right to freedom of expression, including the defence of Canadian reporters.
Being a reporter is a very dangerous job in many parts of the world. Fifty-four journalists have been killed and more than 110 imprisoned so far this year, according to Reporters without Borders, an NGO watchdog based in France.
Iraq remains the most dangerous place in the world for journalists, with at least 24 killed this year alone. But journalists are targeted in many other countries as well.
Alagi Yorro Jallow’s mentor and fellow journalist Deyda Hydara was murdered in Gambia last December. Jallow is managing editor of The Independent newspaper and a former correspondent for the BBC. He believes Hydara’s killing was politically motivated because of his criticism of the ruling government.
There has been little effort by the police to find the killers, said Jallow, who himself has been arrested and detained 12 times in the past six years.
Gambia is a small West African nation that gained its independence from Britain in 1965.
For four years, Jallow served as the vice chairman of the Gambia Press Union, where he was part of a successful campaign to disband a government-controlled media commission with extensive powers to punish journalists with years of imprisonment and heavy fines. Ironically, Gambia’s constitution guarantees freedom of the press.
“How can journalists be held criminally accountable for telling people the truth?” Jallow told IPS.
In April 2004, a group of armed men entered the offices of The Independent and set them ablaze with the staff still inside. Several people were hurt, and the office and brand-new printing equipment owned by the paper was destroyed, causing huge financial losses.
Currently living in temporary exile in the United States, Jallow is painfully separated from his family and community simply because Gambian officials can “oppress any journalist they don’t agree with”.
Gambian President Yahya Jammeh, who first came to power in a military coup in 1994, has expressed an increasingly hostile attitude toward the media, according to a recent report by Reporters Without Borders. That and “the unpunished murder of journalist Deyda Hydara” makes Gambia one of the more dangerous places to be a reporter, the group concluded.
The New York-based Committee to Protect Journalists also recently noted the decline in press freedom in Gambia in 2004, “a year marked by arson attacks, threats, and repressive legislation aimed at the independent media”.
Jallow says that it is vital to bring worldwide attention to what is happening to journalists in his country. “The press must be free or it can’t be called a press at all,” he added.
The media also played an important role in Ukraine’s dramatic Orange Revolution last year, thanks in large part to the efforts of TV journalist Mykola Veresen, the other CFJE award winner.
The Orange Revolution began in Ukraine as a series of political protests and events in response to charges of fraud in the Nov. 21 run-off election. A small cable TV station called Channel 5, with Veresen as anchor, was the sole media outlet to provide unbiased coverage to the challenger, Viktor Yushchenko.
Channel 5 became the station everyone watched, including international monitors of the election, and Veresen was the public face of the news.
Ukraine is a dangerous country in which to be a journalist in recent years. In 2004, 20 journalists were arrested and more than 30 were physically attacked. In the past 10 years, four journalists have been murdered in Ukraine.
Veresen was a well-known and respected journalist. He was also the first Ukrainian journalist to work for a foreign news service, the BBC, reporting for them from 1986-1996. Later he hosted a social affairs programme called “Taboo”, which tackled themes that had previously been off-limits, such as drug addiction, sex, and police corruption.
Although the Orange Revolution was largely peaceful, Veresen faced personal threats.
But one year later, there are signs of movement towards a free and open media, he said through a translator.
“We always knew there was corruption but now we have access to information and can document abuses,” the journalist said.
Groups like CFJE play an important role in monitoring press freedom to keep countries like Ukraine from backsliding, he said. “It is my hope that we will have continents where the press is free one day – instead of isolated pockets.”