Published on Thursday, November 6, 2003 by the Toronto Star
Saluting Those Who Risk All to Bring you the News
by Antonia Zerbisias
Just about every day this year, news arrives of yet another journalist who met some dastardly fate doing his or her work.
Yes, other people who do good and important things for society — firefighters and police officers, for example, die on the job. But few face beatings or killings by their own governments. Journalists also face imprisonment, kidnappings, disappearances, torture, the murder of family members, or the bombing of their homes or cars as occupational hazards.
It's been a particularly bad year for journalists, no thanks to the invasion of Iraq where U.S. forces bombed and shot reporters from Reuters, Al-Jazeera and other news organizations. But those deaths, or at least most of them, could be chalked up to the risks of covering violent conflict, whether we're talking war or the tragedy of Israel and its occupied territories.
These folks have way more guts in their typing fingers than I will ever have in my lifetime.
I'm thinking, for example, of Pulitzer Prize winner Paul Watson who in 1992, while working for the Star, took that unforgettable photo of a U.S. soldier's corpse being dragged through the streets of Mogadishu. What most people don't know is that, after he had braved that ugly mob to get his photos, he realized the soldier's genitals were visible. So he returned to get more shots that would have a better chance of getting published.
Less publicized than the fates of war correspondents are those of journalists in the world's backwaters, where CNN or CBC cameras rarely go, where there are few if any Western interests, such as oil, and where millions eke out miserable existences while criminals or corrupt governments, often indistinguishable from one another, exploit the people for their own gain.
(And yes, I am aware that Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat fits the latter description so could you please just hold off the angry e-mails calling me anti-Semitic just this once? Thank you.)
If you check out the journalistic death toll maintained by the Committee To Protect Journalists (http://www.cpj.org), you'll find 27 names for 2003. But, like the U.S. troop casualty lists coming out of Iraq, that does not include the maimed, mutilated and injured.
There is no freedom, anywhere, without freedom of the press.
Which is why tonight's awards dinner, held by Canadian Journalists for Free Expression (CJFE), should be on the social calendar of every one of us relatively comfortable working slobs on the home front. Some 500 people, including journalists and supportive corporate types, are expected to attend the benefit, which raises funds to support the year-round work of the CJFE.
One of its biggest files this year has that of Zara Kazemi, the Canadian photojournalist who died July 10 from head injuries she received in an Iranian prison.
She is to receive the Tara Singh Hayer Memorial Award, named for the British Columbian journalist whose injuries after an attack in 1988 confined him to a wheelchair. Kazemi's son, Stephan Hachemi, will accept the award on her behalf.
"She is an example of many other journalists who take great risks and expose themselves to danger," he told me. "She also represents especially all the journalists and all the political prisoners who have been persecuted by the Iranian regime."
Another prize will be awarded to China's Xu Wei. But he won't be showing up either. He has been in prison since March, 2001, for attempting to "overthrow the Chinese Communist Party's leadership and the socialist system and subvert the regime of the people's democratic leadership.'' This because he wrote two essays that made the rounds on the Internet.
Another prizewinner, who will attend since he can't go home where his life is under threat, is Luis Alberto Perez Barillas. He is a Guatemalan reporter who has been repeatedly assaulted and whose home was bombed after he started naming names emerging from the legal cases following the massacres of one third of the people in his town of Rabinal.
"I do know what poverty is in my country," he told me through a translator. "I also know that other people benefit from the impoverishment of our small town and of our entire country. I also had the benefit of getting an education and a position where I could talk about these issues and I feel I had an obligation to do so."
If only more of us took that obligation as seriously, what a better world this might be.
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