IT'S A MEASURE of the political dangers facing journalists in much of the world that two of the four winners of this year's International Press Freedom Awards couldn't make it to New York City to pick up their prizes tonight. A third will be there, but doesn't dare go home. And the fourth is, for the first time in the history of the awards, not a journalist at all, but a media lawyer from a nation that basically has no more free journalists to honor. The Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ), in choosing this year's honorees, not only highlighted the almost unimaginable bravery of reporters and their advocates seeking to work in repressive environments; it also demonstrated that, in too many of those environments, the repressers are winning, at least for now.
One absent winner will be Shi Tao, 37, a Chinese journalist serving a 10-year sentence for "leaking state secrets abroad." The "secrets" he posted on the Internet were from a Propaganda Department memo telling Chinese journalists how to cover (or not) the 15th anniversary of the Tiananmen Square massacre. In other words, Mr. Shi was imprisoned for reporting on how the Chinese government keeps other journalists from doing their jobs. His case, sadly not surprising under the current Chinese regime, was made possible by cooperation between Chinese police and the U.S. company Yahoo, eager to maintain access to China's market.
Also missing from tonight's award ceremony will be Lucio Flavio Pinto, 56, a newspaper editor in Brazil's Amazon region. He's not in prison, but the corrupt businessmen and local officials he writes about have filed so many harassing lawsuits against him that he dare not leave his home: One missed court appearance would give authorities an excuse to put him in jail, according to the CPJ. Meanwhile, Uzbekistan's Galima Bukharbaeva, 31, who bravely reported on a May 13 massacre of civilians in the city of Andijan, cannot return to the former Soviet republic still ruled by its old communist boss, for fear of imprisonment or other reprisal. "The last years of the Soviet Union were paradise for journalists compared to today in Uzbekistan," she said.
In Zimbabwe, lawyer Beatrice Mtetwa, 47, has gone to court on behalf of independent newspapers and journalists, even as dictator Robert Mugabe has closed the papers one by one and forced the journalists into exile. Ms. Mtetwa herself has been followed and arrested and beaten, but in a conversation last week she sounded more concerned about what the absence of a free press means for her country: "The government can really do what it likes, because there is no one to report on what they are doing."
That is the goal, of course, of dictators from Burma to Belarus. But in those nations, as in China, Zimbabwe and Uzbekistan, brave reporters and editors either inside the countries or in exile keep trying to do their work. As the CPJ will note tonight, they deserve the respect and support of everyone lucky enough to take press freedoms for granted.