The Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) honoured journalists from Brazil, India, Nicaragua and Tanzania at the 29th annual International Press Freedom Awards (IPFA) held in New York on November 22, 2019.
The awardees were Neha Dixit (India), Patrícia Campos Mello (Brazil), Lucía Pineda Ubau and Miguel Mora (Nicaragua) and Maxence Melo Mubyazi (Tanzania)
The 2019 International Press Freedom Awardees were recognised and honoured for upholding press freedom in democracies around the world, confronting online harassment, legal and physical threats, and imprisonment in their pursuit of freedom of expression. CPJ also honoured the editor of Pakistan’s Dawn newspaper, Zaffar Abbas, with the Gwen Ifill Press Freedom Award recognising his extraordinary achievement for the cause of press freedom over the years.
Hailing CPJ’s contribution to journalism, IPFA host and veteran journalist Shepard Smith donated USD 500,000 for the cause. “Autocrats have learned how to use those same online tools to shore up their power. They flood the world of information with garbage and lies masquerading as news. They dispatch troll armies after critical reporters who are vilified and harassed,” he said.
Lucía Pineda Ubau, news director and Miguel Mora, founder and editor of Nicaraguan broadcaster 100% Noticias, were imprisoned for six months following their coverage of demonstrations against Nicaraguan leader Daniel Artega. The pair were charged by the government with cases of promoting terrorism and inciting rebellion, for their “crime” of telling the truth.
Receiving the award, Lucía Pineda Ubau said, “100% Noticias is confiscated. But as long as there is a cellphone, a computer, the internet, a website, social networks, a street, a square, a church, even from a dark cell, we will keep reporting the truth.” Miguel Mora added, “As Nicaraguan journalists, we will not tolerate censorship, nor will we surrender to it. Never. We cannot, we should not, we do not want to. We won’t do it. We choose the truth”.
Indian freelance journalist and awardee Neha Dixit was subject to toxic online abuse, cases of criminal defamation and inciting communal hatred, following her report on child trafficking involving a Hindu nationalist group. “The last couple of years have been about endless follow up on legal cases, death threats and rape threats. Complete with descriptions of how it should be conducted on my body. A journalist has to put things on the table, be critical of government schemes and policies, but if you criticise the government you are seen as ‘anti national’,” said Dixit.
Another victim of right wing online trolling and abuse spearheaded by President Jair Bolsonaro is Patrícia Campos Mello from Brazil, reporter and columnist at Folhade S. Paulo. “Journalists are the targets of intimidation and persecution by the government. This time with the help of social media and digital militias, lawsuits and virtual lynching, we are living through a new form of censorship and harassment, outsourced to armies of patriotic trolls and amplified by bots on Twitter, Facebook, Instagram and Whatsapp,” she said.
Maxence Melo Mubyazi, founder of Jamii Forums, a whistle-blowing platform, has been under scrutiny ever since the Media Services Act was enacted in Tanzania. Safeguarding his sources, Maxence has appeared in court 137 times in the past three years. “Democracy depends on an informed citizenry to survive; without adequate information, global citizens are essentially disempowered. Press freedom is a backbone of that democracy,” he said.
Amidst these crusaders of free speech and expression is also Zaffar Abbas, the recipient of the prestigious Gwen I fill Press Freedom Award. He was bestowed the honour, for his sustained achievement in the cause of press freedom and speaking truth to power. “Zaffar Abbas is the embodiment of journalistic courage,” said Kathleen Carroll, chair of the CPJ board. Worried about the global narrative on freedom of speech and expression, “when the White House questions the veracity of serious journalism, dubs it as ‘fake news’ and promotes a toxic nationalistic mind-set, it inspires leaders from Pakistan to India, from Bangladesh to Brazil to curb free speech,” said Zaffar Abbas.
At an emotional point earlier in the event, Reuters journalists Wa Lone and Kyaw soe oo, were received with a standing ovation by the quorum. Arrested and sentenced to seven years in prison for investigating the massacre of Rohingya men by security forces in Myanmar, CPJ rallied behind Reuters in helping the journalists walk to freedom in May 2019.