Ronald Koven, a seasoned foreign correspondent for The Washington Post and other newspapers who became a prominent advocate for the freedom of journalists around the world, died Oct. 30 at a hospital in Paris, where he lived. He was 80.
The cause was complications from thyroid cancer, said his daughter Michele Koven. For more than three decades, Mr. Koven was the European representative for the World Press Freedom Committee, which describes itself as a “coordination group” of U.S. and international media organizations.
Mr. Koven began his journalism career in the 1960s, covering French president Charles de Gaulle for the International Herald Tribune. By the end of that decade, he had joined the staff of The Post, where he reported from Canada and was foreign editor before becoming the newspaper’s Paris correspondent in the late 1970s.
The son of a French-born father and an American mother, Mr. Koven brought to his assignment a particular sensibility for French culture. In 1978, four years after president Richard M. Nixon’s resignation amid the Watergate scandal, Mr. Koven penned an article that appeared in The Post’s Outlook commentary section under the headline “Why the French Lionize Nixon.”
“France has long been the major European country that seems to like Nixon the most and to understand Watergate the least,” he wrote. “For the French, Watergate was merely a garden-variety electronic-bugging incident. They cannot understand all the fuss since all governments do it, don’t they?”
Although formally based in Paris, Mr. Koven chronicled events beyond — sometimes far beyond — the French capital. In late 1978, he traveled to Italy to cover the election of Cardinal Karol Wojtyla as Pope John Paul II. Shortly thereafter, amid the Iranian revolution, Mr. Koven was in Tehran reporting on the rise to power of Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini.
Mr. Koven chronicled the ayatollah’s triumphant arrival by plane in the Iranian capital after years of exile. With the characteristic flourish of a foreign correspondent, he described the conflicts that swiftly arose between factions of Khomeini’s followers. Those who had remained in Iran when their leader was in exile, Mr. Koven wrote, seemed inclined to “place a lampshade over the pure white light of revolution” that the ayatollah had brought with him.
In 1981, Mr. Koven began a decade of reportage for the Boston Globe. Also in 1981, he joined the World Press Freedom Committee, where he remained European representative until his death.
In that role, Mr. Koven monitored the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO), the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe and other international groups whose members, in some cases, came from countries without strong traditions of a free press.
Mr. Koven was a journalist but “worked the rooms like a professional diplomat,” Joel Simon, executive director of the Committee to Protect Journalists, said in an interview.
Simon recalled one encounter with an ambassador from Russia, where 56 journalists have been killed since 1992, according to the Committee to Protect Journalists. Mr. Koven “was just extremely patient and diplomatic, very principled but very diplomatic,” in impressing upon the envoy the importance of cultivating independent media, Simon said.
Simon also credited Mr. Koven with identifying in the early days of the Internet the need to ensure freedom of information and expression online.
Ronald Pierre Emanuel Koven was born in Paris on Aug. 11, 1935. He grew up in Paris and in New York, where he was educated at the Brooklyn Friends School, a Quaker institution.
He became interested in journalism while studying at Antioch College in Yellow Springs, Ohio, and at Columbia University in New York City, where he had early jobs with Time magazine and the New York Times.
His marriage to Joan Follin Hughes Koven ended in divorce. Survivors include two daughters, Michele Koven of Champaign, Ill., and Martine Kuhlman of Rockville, Md.; and two grandchildren.
In a 2006 essay for the publication Index on Censorship, Mr. Koven observed that “freedom is unsettling. It defies people’s natural intolerance of instability.”
But, he continued, “a free society needs a free press no matter how disorderly that may seem. . . . Without a free press, free even to make mistakes — and, yes, to pay for them if and when necessary under legitimate laws of defamation applied by independent courts — without such a free press, a society can only be un-free.”