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Choosing Heroes is a Difficult Task

By Raymond Louw; taken from IPI Report, No.2, 2000

50 stubborn people, determined to fight for freedom to expose oppression

Raymond Louw, Member of the Award Committee

Choosing 50 world press freedom heroes is a daunting task. In the past 50 years, hundreds of journalists, editors, photographers, publishers and broadcasters showed great courage by facing danger fighting for press freedom.

The IPI selection committee was aware that the assignment brought with it inevitable dispute and the danger of incurring the wrath of colleagues. But the committee was equally aware that by naming 50 world press freedom heroes, IPI has adopted an appropriate method of honoring media heroes and commemorating the 50th anniversary of the founding of this remarkable institution. However, in perusing the list, several factors must be borne in mind.

•  Quite clearly, the people we have chosen are remarkable, resourceful and brave men and women who have made significant contributions to the maintenance of press freedom and freedom of expression.

•  They showed indomitable courage in adhering to the basic principle of professional journalism, reporting accurately and truthfully and in publishing in whatever way they could without fear or favor.

•  They are not the only heroes. There are hundreds more. The 50 the committee chose should not be regarded as the only heroes deserving meritorious mention for this half-century. They symbolize the many, many others who could not be included.

•  IPI received 123 nominations, not entirely a comprehensive list. These were reduced to 65, and, finally, the committee, meeting in Abuja, Nigeria, brought that figure down to 50.

•  The world is a community of some 169 countries. A limit of 50 heroes meant that a substantial number of countries would be excluded. In striving to reduce the impact of this limitation, the committee selected only one person from a country.

This last decision raised further problems about what may be termed “split” countries, such as Turkey and Yugoslavia, “split” cultures, such as in South Africa, and about the unresolved Israel-Palestine hegemony issue.

The three categories of heroic conduct, fighters, martyrs and defenders-promoters-protectors, created the further problem of stretching representation still wider. In its starkest form, categorization led to an assessment of the heroism of publishers in board rooms in juxtaposition to journalists confronted by blood and guts in the field.

Several themes emerged from a study of the biographies of the nominees. All our heroes were stubborn people, imbued with an unquenchable determination to uphold the right to fight for their freedom to expose violence and oppression from whatever quarter, be it corruption or censorship, or administrative, military and police excesses. They withstood extremes of punishment and were equally steadfast in rejecting coercion. They were repeatedly harassed and threatened, censored, arrested and jailed, frequently under what may be termed feudal forms of legislation.

Other punishments were divestment of citizenship, restriction of movement and travel bans, house arrest, bannings (with their own array of frightful restrictions), banishment, smear campaigns and threats against their families.

The charges brought by governments against journalists also followed a pattern. The journalists supposedly insulted the dignity of the head of state, or, more generally, committed an offense against the state, spread false information, reported negatively, disclosed state secrets or refused to disclose sources.

In reducing the number to the stipulated 50, the committee regretfully withdrew the name of Willy Bretscher, late editor in chief of Switzerland's Neue Zurcher Zeitung. This brave editor placed himself at grave risk when in 1940, after Switzerland was totally surrounded by Hitler's Third Reich, he publicly announced that his paper would not conform to the New Order in Europe, angering the Nazis and greatly displeasing many Swiss. The committee also — again with much regret — passed over the nomination of that grand old protector of British journalism, the late Lord McGregor of Durris, who, while presiding over the Press Complaints Commission, fought off politicians and members of the Royal Family who sought to curb the press. A similar fate befell former IPI executive board member Alhaji Ismail Babatunde Jose. He created a stir in leaving the Daily Times of Nigeria when the federal government usurped control of the paper because he believed the paper's freedom would be compromised.

The Turkish problem caused much heartburn. The committee had a Turk, Abdi Ipekci, the late editor in chief of Milliyet, and a Kurd, Ocak Isik Yurtcu, former editor in chief of the daily Ozgur Gundem. Both men had shown great courage in upholding media freedom against Turkish government oppression. In addition to his journalistic enterprise, Ipekci made an enormous contribution to reducing the intense bitterness and friction between Turkey and Greece. Yurtcu was a victim of harassment and violence and was jailed in 1994 for disseminating separatist propaganda. He was released nearly three years later. Ipekci was chosen.

South Africa’s racial conflict produced a host of media heroes. It is not generally known that IPI’s chairman, Moegsien Williams of Cape Town, was jailed during his editorship of the anti-apartheid weekly, South. A well-known photographer, Peter Magubane, spent 586 days in solitary confinement. The late Laurence Gandar, the courageous, self-effacing editor of the Rand Daily Mail from 1957 to 1968, exposed prison conditions endured by blacks. There was the late Percy Qoboza, whose eloquence in criticizing apartheid while editing The World led to the paper’s closure and his imprisonment with other black journalists. Qoboza was chosen as a symbol of black journalists targeted by the South African government.

In Argentina we had the brave David Kraiselburd, who was murdered by left-wing Monteneros guerrillas after being held captive for 22 days. He was killed because of his unremitting fight against both the right-wing militarist regime and the guerrillas. We also had the late Jacobo Timerman, former director of the defunct independent daily La Opinion and author of Prisoner without a Name, Cell without a Number, which documented Argentina's institutionalised violence against journalists. Timerman was chosen.

The committee had similar difficult choices in regard to…

•  Japan, where crusading Shiro Hara, the crime-busting city editor of the Yomiuri Shimbun, was chosen instead of the late Kyoichi Sawada, an intrepid photographer who was shot on assignment in Vietnam.

•  Korea, where the late editor in chief of the daily Maeil, Choi Suk-Chae, who targeted corrupt politicians and is a prime example of a man who refused government offers to silence him, was chosen instead of Song Gun-Ho, an editorial writer for several papers who fought on two fronts, against the government and against his management.

•  Russia, where the remarkable journalist and civil-rights champion, the late Lyubarsky Kronid Arkadievich, who worked on banned anti-communist magazines and endured five years in jail, was chosen ahead of two other workers on samizdat publications, Nastalia Gorbanevskaya, who suffered in a psychiatric prison, and the late Len Karpinsky, editor in chief of Moskovskiye Novosti, who was fired from Pravda for writing an article criticizing censorship.

The choice for the United States was more difficult. The nominees included Lester Markel, former Sunday editor of The New York Times and a founding member of IPI, and George Beebe, the founder of the World Press Freedom Committee and former managing editor of the Miami Herald. The committee chose former Washington Post publisher Katharine Graham as a courageous newspaper proprietor who backed her staff in exposing the wrongdoings of the Nixon administration. Her conduct showed that even the world's most stable democracy can be taken to the edge of disaster by manipulators of the system.

Raymond Louw is Editor and Publisher of the Southern Africa Report in Johannesburg, South Africa, and is a former member of the IPI executive board.