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Courageous Journalism

December 21, 2005 at 12:00 AM EST
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JEFFREY BROWN: Americans tend to think of the dangers of journalism in terms of war correspondents, offering their reports in the midst of battle.

But for many journalists around the world, the dangers of their job are most acute at home, where the greatest threat comes from their own government, and just writing a story can land them in jail or worse.

ANN COOPER: Just going to work every day, or going out on the street and reporting, you could be risking your life or harassment of yourself and your family. You know, what makes people do that?

JEFFREY BROWN: Ann Cooper is executive director of the Committee to Protect Journalists, an organization that works on behalf of such reporters.

ANN COOPER: The best antidote to abuses against journalists is to expose them and try to shame the people who are causing the abuses.

JEFFREY BROWN: At New York’s Waldorf Astoria Hotel recently, the Committee to Protect Journalists highlighted some ongoing cases, while handing out its annual International Press Freedom Awards. One of the honorees was 31-year-old Galima Bukharbaeva of Uzbekistan.

Last May, Bukharbaeva was one of a handful of reporters covering a large demonstration in the northeastern Uzbek city of Andijan, the former Soviet republic in Central Asia has been ruled for 14 years by an increasingly autocratic president, Islam Karimov. But no one expected the reaction of his troops that day.

GALIMA BUKHARBAEVA: They just started to shoot at people without any warnings, and I was there when armored personnel carriers, they appeared. They were just driving, passing by the square, the line of them and shooting at people. They didn’t stop; they would just pass by and shoot at people.

JEFFREY BROWN: These are some of the few pictures of the events that day. No one is sure how many were killed. Some estimates range from two to seven hundred. Bukharbaeva believes thousands died.

The Uzbek authorities claim the uprising was the work of Islamic extremists who fired first. They fixed the death toll at 173.

Bukharbaeva, then a correspondent for the London-based Institute for War and Peace Reporting, was herself nearly killed.

GALIMA BUKHARBAEVA: The next day, when I miraculously, I survived because one bullet went through my backpack, which was on my back when I was running, so it hit my backpack and also my notebook and press card and even pen.

JEFFREY BROWN: In Washington recently, Bukharbaeva visited American news organizations, including The Washington Post and Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, to relate her account of the killings. Her reports and a handful of others led to widespread international condemnation of the Karimov regime, which has so far rebuffed calls for a U.N.-sponsored investigation.

ANN COOPER: Her reporting was able to put the lie to what the Karimov government was saying. She was able to say this was much worse than what they were putting out officially, and that was really crucial news for the international community.

JEFFREY BROWN: Bukharbaeva told her audiences. How her countrymen rely on outside organizations, including Radio Liberty and the BBC for honest reporting of their own country.

GALIMA BUKHARBAEVA: They have huge audience, and like in the Soviet time, when people would listen to Voice of America, in Uzbekistan, people every evening, they sit around one radio and listen to Radio Liberty.

JEFFREY BROWN: The Karimov regime knows this and has retaliated against the organizations. Radio Free Europe’s Uzbek correspondent has been jailed since August on charges of insulting a state security officer.

The BBC recently closed its operation in Uzbekistan. For her part, Galima Bukharbaeva now lives in exile in the United States. She says she faces certain arrest were she to return to Uzbekistan, but hopes to go back one day.

GALIMA BUKHARBAEVA: I hope to be back, if not to my country, to the region, to Central Asia, and I hope to be based in some neighbor countries maybe to report from there about Uzbekistan.

JEFFREY BROWN: Beatrice Mtetwa, a second honoree of the Committee to Protect Journalists this year, was a more unusual choice. A human rights lawyer, she’s the first non-journalist to receive the International Press Freedom Award, honoring her advocacy on behalf of the dwindling number of independent journalists in Zimbabwe.

BEATRICE MTETWA: Zimbabwe currently has the largest number of journalists in exile in the world, and this is a direct result of this law, the persecution of journalists, the arrest of journalists.

JEFFREY BROWN: In recent years, the government of Robert Mugabe has come under increasing criticism by the international community for a variety of human rights and anti-democratic abuses.

According to the Committee to Protect Journalists, an independent press has been one of the Mugabe government’s chief targets. And that’s where Mtetwa comes in.

ANN COOPER: She began taking up defending the cases of these journalists who were facing charges by the Mugabe government. The journalists there have described her to us as their best friend in Zimbabwe, because she is willing to, at personal risk to herself, stand up and defend their right to go out and report the news.

JEFFREY BROWN: Earlier this year, Mtetwa successfully defended two British journalists who were accused of working without accreditation, but no one has been able to reopen Zimbabwe’s largest independent newspaper The Daily News, which was shut down last year.

BEATRICE MTETWA: These newspapers have, obviously, not been in favor of the government, and the government would like to see as few independent newspapers as is possible.

JEFFREY BROWN: Mtetwa cites a recent controversy as an example of the impact of a weak press: a project to clear urban areas in and around what Harare, the capital.

Dubbed “Operation Drive out the Trash” the government has forcibly removed thousand of people with little or no notice and has demolished their homes.

JEFFREY BROWN: Has the restriction on journalists played a role in that, allowing that to happen, or the world not knowing, not learning that much about it?

BEATRICE MTETWA: Certainly, that has had a huge impact. So the absence of an independent press played a huge role in that devastating operation.

RADIO ANNOUNCER: Welcome to Washington, D.C. and welcome –

JEFFREY BROWN: During her stay here, Mtetwa visited the U.S. Government-funded Voice of America.

RADIO ANNOUNCER: What do you feel about that recognition and –

JEFFREY BROWN: The VOA set up a Zimbabwe service in early 2003 that broadcast from Washington to an estimated 500,000 listeners in country. The Mugabe government has made unsuccessful attempts to jam the signal.

JEFFREY BROWN: Do you have hopes for change for the press and for the country as a whole?

BEATRICE MTETWA: I wouldn’t be doing this if I didn’t have hope. I do hope that there will be a change for the better, that at some stage we will enjoy a free press in Zimbabwe.

JEFFREY BROWN: Beatrice Mtetwa and Galima Bukharbaeva were at least able to enjoy their moment in the spotlight. Two other honorees were unable to attend the New York ceremony. Brazilian Lucio Flavio Pinto faces constant legal pressure from the subjects of his investigations in the northern Amazon. Chinese journalist Shi Tao was arrested last year for disseminating the government’s official rules for covering the 15th anniversary of the 1989 Tiananmen massacre. He’s been sentenced to ten years in prison.