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Heroes of Press Freedom

Tuesday, November 23, 2004; Page A28

WHEN THE Committee to Protect Journalists holds its annual awards ceremony tonight in Manhattan, three of the winners will not be present. Aung Pwint and Thaung Tun, Burmese writers and documentary filmmakers, have been in prison since 1999, in Aung Pwint's case for "illegal possession of a fax machine." The third winner, Paul Klebnikov, is being recognized posthumously; in July he became the 11th journalist to be assassinated in Vladimir Putin's Russia for doing his job. Mr. Klebnikov was American, while the other 10 victims were Russian, but they have in common their stubborn courage. According to the CPJ's executive director, Ann Cooper, their cases have something else in common: No one has been brought to justice in any of the killings.

Indeed, as Ukraine teeters between democracy and Putin-style thugocracy (see above), the CPJ awards highlight the backsliding that has taken place throughout most of the former Soviet Union. Except for the Baltic republics of Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania, "there is less press freedom now in the former Soviet Union than there was in the closing days of the Soviet Union itself," Ms. Cooper said. One testament to that is an awardee who will attend the ceremony tonight: Svetlana Kalinkina of Belarus. Ms. Kalinkina was editor in chief of a popular daily newspaper until her country's dictator, Alexander Lukashenko, made publication almost impossible by means of official harassment, politically motivated tax inspections, death threats and detentions. Today all media in Belarus are under official control.

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In Russia, a few small outlets maintain some independence, but Mr. Putin has engineered control of all national television networks and most major newspapers. Mr. Klebnikov, an American journalist of Russian descent and a fluent Russian speaker, was one who would not be intimidated. In April, he launched the magazine Forbes Russia, which was dedicated to supporting reform by exposing corruption in politics and business. On July 9 he was gunned down outside his Moscow office. Authorities have made some arrests for show but have made no genuine progress toward solving the case.

The final awardee tonight will be Alexis Sinduhije, founder and director of Burundi's Radio Publique Africaine. His station has hired ethnic Tutsis and ethnic Hutus and seeks to promote peace between the groups in a nation where peace has been in short supply. For that the station has been subject to government intimidation and bans, the CPJ reports, but it continues to broadcast. Like Aung Pwint and Thaung Tun, Svetlana Kalinkina and the late Paul Klebnikov, Alexis Sinduhije carries on with a principled defiance of the odds that most American journalists can only stand in awe of.

© 2004 The Washington Post Company