NGUYEN NGOC NHU QUYNH was in a Vietnamese prison in August when she learned she had won an International Press Freedom Award from the Committee to Protect Journalists. Thankfully, she will be free and present in New York on Tuesday to accept the prize. Vietnam allowed Mother Mushroom, as she is known to her readers, to go into exile in the United States with her family.
But Ms. Nguyen will not be celebrating. She sees the award as “not for myself,” she said during a visit to The Post last week, but for all her fellow bloggers and human rights defenders in Vietnam, many of whom remain behind bars. And she herself would rather be in her home country, doing her work, she told us as she eyed our newsroom with envy. Vietnam needs a free press, she said, but the media are all state-owned and state-controlled. Every Tuesday, media outlets receive their orders — print this, retract that, glorify this one, lie about that one — from functionaries relaying instructions from the Communist Party Politburo.
Ms. Nguyen’s fellow prize winners Tuesday will no doubt share the same bittersweet combination of pride in the recognition of selfless work and sadness at how dangerous that work remains in so much of the world. Others being honored are Amal Khalifa Idris Habbani, who has been attacked, threatened and imprisoned as she has reported over the past decade on protests and official corruption in Sudan; Luz Mely Reyes, hounded by Venezuela’s dictators for her honest reporting; Anastasiya Stanko, who has braved harassment from both occupying Russian forces and her own government in Ukraine; and Maria Ressa, the founder and chief executive of Rappler, an independent news site under constant attack from the Philippines’ bullying president, Rodrigo Duterte.
Faced with such doggedness, an American can only wonder: How do these people summon the courage? “I have to be completely honest,” Ms. Nguyen told us. “I was scared, when they first locked me up, for 10 days. I thought of my children, and I thought I would stop. Then I realized that is exactly what the government wants. They want to shut me up. And I thought, if I let fear consume me, I would no longer be me. I do not want to set that example for my children.” And so, as Mother Mushroom — “Mushroom” being her term of endearment for her daughter, now 12 — she persisted, through repeated imprisonments.
As we asked our questions last week and listened to the awardees’ stories, Ms. Reyes likewise shook her head with envy at our freedom. “I come here, I think, this is a newsroom,” she said. “I miss the newsroom.” Not so long ago,Venezuelan newspapers too were free to report honestly and criticize. Ms. Reyes’s bravery and her travails — like those of Mother Mushroom, and Ms. Habbani, and Ms. Stanko, and Ms. Ressa — are a reminder of how fragile that freedom can be, and how precious it is.