Azimjan Askarov is a brave and determined journalist who is paying a massive price for telling the truth. He is serving a life sentence for his critical reporting in Kyrgyzstan (a country in central Asia that borders Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, Tajikistan and China). He was languishing in a cold basement cell in a Kyrgyz jail listening to Voice of America on the radio late last year when he heard he had won an international award for courageous journalism.
“When I heard about your award, I both cried and jumped for joy,” he wrote in a letter of thanks to the Committee to Protect Journalists’ (CPJ) International Press Freedom Awards 2012 in November. “I am extremely grateful for such an eminent appraisal of my work in defence of human rights.
“Fifteen years ago I promised myself that no person and no circumstance would ever force me to abandon my professional duty, which I have taken by honour, conscience and dignity,” wrote Askarov. “Today, incarcerated, I am ready to repeat this promise, and I hope that I will have enough moral strength to stand by these principles of conscience until the end of my days.”
Askarov is one of four 2012 press freedom award-winners, all of whom have paid a huge price for telling the truth. The CPJ annually recognises the work of journalists who defy huge obstacles to ensure that information flows uncensored and unimpeded. Most have been imprisoned, beaten close to death, or had to go into hiding to carry out their work.
Over 15 years, Askarov documented and exposed flagrant human rights abuses committed by regional police. “Many abusers were brought to trial, though many were left unpunished. Abuse is ongoing,” wrote Askarov.
Being a thorn in the authorities’ side, they pounced on an opportunity to get him out of the way. In June 2012, Askarov was documenting violence and helping identify victims in Baar-Korgon (a small village where 80% of inhabitants are ethnic Uzbeks and the rest ethnic Kyrgyz). “Twenty-three civilians were shot dead, more than 50 wounded and 205 houses belonging to ethnic Uzbeks were burned to ashes,” he says. “Yet not a single one of these facts was publicised in the mainstream Kyrgyz media, and authorities continue to remain silent about these killings, mass-scale looting and arson.” The only news emanating from this tragedy related to the killing of a policeman, for which Askarov was falsely charged and convicted.
“I am extremely grateful for your recognition, and I remain hopeful that I will one day see the sun once more – not through the barred window of my prison cell, but as a free man,” he wrote.
Since the publicity of his award, his lawyers have been challenging his lifelong imprisonmen at the United Nations Human Rights Committee.
Fellow 2012 winner Dhondup Wangchen, a Tibetan documentary filmmaker, is in prison in China for his documentary ‘Leaving Fear Behind’. This film gave a voice to ordinary Tibetans and was screened in Beijing in the run-up to the opening of the Olympic Games in 2008. He wanted to use the opportunity to show the world the forgotten injustice of life as a Tibetan under Chinese rule.
With no journalism or filmmaking training, Wangchen filmed more than 100 interviews under the harshest conditions as he travelled through remote areas of eastern Tibet in the winter of 2007/8. Under constant threat of detention, he sent his parents, wife and four children to India to ensure their safety before he began filming.
After smuggling out the tapes, he was arrested in China around the same time the 2008 Tibetan unrest began. He was beaten and deprived of food, water and sleep. He was later sentenced following a secret trial to six years’ imprisonment for subversion and was unable to appeal because he was denied access to his lawyer.
‘Leaving Fear Behind’ was screened to a select group of foreign journalists on 6 August 2008 in a hotel in Beijing. “It is very difficult for Tibetans to go to Beijing and speak out there. So that is why we decided to show the real feelings of Tibetans inside Tibet through this film,” Wangchen says in the film.
According to Amnesty International, he was charged with “subversion and incitement to separatism” and has contracted Hepatitis B in prison, for which he has received no treatment. After his Beijing lawyer was forced by the Chinese government to stop representing him, local lawyers were appointed, leaving little hope of a fair trial.
Before Wangchen’s incarceration, no other Tibetan journalists had been jailed in China. There have been nine others since then.
Brazilian journalist Mauri Konig – another of the four winners – was brutally beaten, strangled and left for dead in 2000 while investigating the kidnapping of Brazilian children for military service in Paraguay. His assailants were alleged Paraguayan policemen who attacked him after he photographed an implicated police station.
He has done extensive work on human rights abuses and corruption in his 22-year career. He later did a series of articles for the Curitiba-based daily, Gazeta do Povo, that revealed sex trafficking of youngsters along the Brazilian border. This led to the arrest of a key sex trafficker. Despite many threats from the authorities over the years, Konig continues to unravel human rights issues.
On accepting his award in New York in November, Konig said he felt like the most privileged of journalists for being alive and having “escaped situations that could have ended badly”.
He said: “Many journalists have paid with their lives for believing that journalism is a tool for improving our reality, revealing injustices, denouncing corrupt governments, and exposing arbitrary police violence. In their memory, I share this award with those who seek to exercise journalism as an instrument of change, even if this implies some risk.
“A journalism student once asked me if I was not afraid to do this kind of investigative work. I replied that my indignation is greater than my fear. Indignation is what best defines the motivation of those who do this kind of journalism.”
In late December 2012, Konig and his family were forced to go into hiding after receiving death threats related to a series he was running on police corruption. With 21 journalists killed in the line of duty since 1992, 10 in the last two years, Brazil is ranked 11th of the countries where journalists are killed.
“Independent journalism and the right to information cannot continue to exist in the crossfire of legal threats, physical aggression and the curtailing of freedom in an atmosphere of impunity and corruption without limits,” said Konig. “We cannot allow journalists like Dhondup Wangchen and Azimjon Askarov, who could not be present for this tribute, to continue to be imprisoned for fighting against arbitrary governments in pursuit of a more just society.”
The fourth winner of this award is Mae Azango, one of a small number of female journalists in Liberia. After rebels killed her father in 1990, she became a journalist so she could give a voice to her people’s suffering. She has exposed many human rights issues where women and children have been the victims. In 2010, she tackled female circumcision, an issue that even the Liberian President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf had deemed untouchable. She was threatened and, with the authorities doing nothing to help, she and her nine-year-old daughter were forced into hiding. But her reports on this practice did not let up, leading to an international outcry. This forced the government to order the suspension of the practice that affects two out of three Liberian girls.
Azango has worked with the Telegraph and Daily Observer and is now with FrontPage Africa, a leading investigative news site. She is also a reporter with News Narratives, a reporting project that gathers leading African journalists to produce top investigative work.
On receiving her award, she said it was worth risking her life to tell the truth about “female genital cutting” because it has claimed the lives of so many women and girls, some as young as two. She explained that Liberian parents had believed that “cutting” was right and clean and that their daughters had no future without it. “I knew if we started to talk about it and they knew the truth, many parents would take a different path.”
She told how the 14-year conflict in Liberia had claimed 250 000 lives and “went on for so long because the warlords were able to take advantage of the absence of truthful media to spread lies and propaganda that turned Liberians on each other”.
Azango said, “We have learnt the importance of independent, truthful media the hard way. We do not take it for granted. We understand that information is essential if we are to hold our leaders accountable and make smart decisions about our country.”
She recalled the time when she was in hiding. “I was like a bat hanging from every possible ceiling when night falls, because it was risky to sleep in a location for more than two days.” She attributed the international outcry to the CPJ, who made sure her plight was told all over the world until it achieve the desired effect.
“They put so much pressure on the government of Ellen Johnson Sirleaf that they eventually came out with their first-ever stand against female genital cutting. Since the story, several political leaders have felt confident to come out and speak against cutting. The government has promised to begin a campaign to sensitise people to the dangers of the practice and find other sources of income for the women who practise it.”
She added, “But I am not done yet! We have a lot of work to do in Liberia. We have to make sure the government sticks to their promises on cutting. You had better all keep watching and supporting my work. I hope I don’t have to face death threats to get your attention again!” n
* The CPJ Award ceremony in New York in November 2012 raised a record US$1.6 million for the CPJ’s work denouncing anti-press violations, providing assistance to targeted journalists, and advocating for press freedom worldwide. The nearly 900 distinguished guests at the event also pledged support for CPJ’s Campaign Against Impunity during a special appeal that raised just over US$100 000, most of which will be matched two-to-one by the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation. For more information about the CPJ’s work, check out www.cpj.org.
This story was first published in the February 2013 issue of The Media magazine.