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Theodore J. Boutrous, Jr.

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True Courage in Journalism

Posted: 10/29/2012 3:42 pm

If you live in the United States, it's sometimes easy to take freedom of the press for granted. The free flow of information seemingly has turned into a gusher from a multitude of old and new media people, platforms and devices.

The First Amendment to the Constitution provides express and strong protection for those who gather and publish the news, outlawing prior restraints, restricting defamation lawsuits to all but the most egregious cases of knowing falsehoods, and mandating access for the press and public to judicial proceedings so the press can scrutinize our justice system and political leaders in real time. The laws of most states include additional safeguards.

We still need a federal law shielding reporters from grand jury and other subpoenas seeking to discover confidential sources and information -- and more vigorous enforcement of the Freedom of Information Act -- but overall the laws in this country provide a wide swath of "breathing space" for vigorous reporting, debate and discussion of the public controversies that shape the world.

But things are much different in other parts of the world. Many countries lack not just a constitutional right to freedom of the press, but any semblance of the rule of law. Governments and other powerbrokers see the press as a threat and often reflexively target journalists, resorting to violence, intimidation and imprisonment to silence them. And, more often than not, we get the truth about war and terrorism from journalists reporting from the front lines, not from the combatants. Journalists get attacked, wounded and killed.

It takes special courage to report the news in the face of these dangers. Tonight, the International Women's Media Foundation will hold its annual Courage in Journalism Awards ceremony in Los Angeles, honoring three women journalists for their courageous reporting and presenting its Lifetime Achievement Award. At the core of the IWMF's mission is the idea that no press is truly free unless women have an equal voice.

These women are remarkable and inspiring.

Reeyot Alemu, 31, worked as a columnist for an independent Ethiopian newspaper Feteh until she was jailed on bogus terrorism charges for writing articles criticizing the Ethiopian government. She languishes ill in prison today so will be honored in absentia.

Asmaa al-Ghoul, 30, is a blogger and freelance writer working in Gaza, whose stories analyze social and political life in the Middle East. She regularly receives death threats against her own life and that of her young son and has been beaten by Hamas security forces while covering popular protests. But she keeps reporting.

Khadija Ismayilova, 35, is a reporter for Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty's Azerbaijani service who investigates corruption and abuse of power among her country's elite. She was targeted with a massive and utterly outrageous smear campaign aimed at stopping her reporting. But she keeps reporting.

The 2012 IWMF Lifetime Achievement honoree is Zubeida Mustafa, 71, the first female editor in the Pakistani mainstream media and a true trailblazer and mentor who paved the way for Pakistani women to ascend to the leadership ranks of her country's news media. She has worked for more than three decades at Dawn, one of Pakistan's oldest and most widely circulated English-language newspapers. And, even though her eyesight is failing, she keeps reporting.

As the Supreme Court of the United States said in its famous decision in New York Times v. Sullivan, the First Amendment and freedom of the press reflect "a profound... commitment to the principle that debate on public issues should be uninhibited, robust, and wide-open, and that it may well include vehement, caustic, and sometimes unpleasantly sharp attacks on government and public officials."

By honoring these four brave and amazing women during tonight's ceremony, IWMF will help ensure that this profound commitment someday will be embraced and will flourish around the globe.

 
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