Book Review: Words of Freedom

A poignant reminder of the price journalists and others pay for oppression

Audacity of Truth

Telling the truth remains a dangerous preoccupation in many parts of the world. Since 1997, over 950 journalists have been killed because of their work in crisis regions. Dictatorships, theocracies and some struggling new democracies have done everything in their power to suppress the implementation of a free press. Journalists are still being harassed, jailed, tortured and killed.

Yet, honest investigative journalism is needed more than ever to expose atrocities and abuses of power, say media and government leaders meeting at the International Press Institute World Congress in Vienna in September. Media freedom, all agreed, is essential to the establishment of human rights and civil liberties, and indeed, may be the only way out of oppression and despair.

José Rubén Zamora, one of the sixty press heroes, coming from Guatemala, stated that he fears “for the safety of my family,” however, he continues that “we are all vulnerable to delinquency…and I have a duty to carry on.”

Words of Freedom: A Tribute to 60 IPI World Press Freedom Heroes, published by the International Press Institute (IPI) in Vienna with significant support from UniCredit Group, recounts the stories of sixty journalists who have made a mark for media freedom since 1997, when IPI honored its first ‘Press Freedom Hero.’ It tells the stories of some western journalists who risked their professional reputation – Katherine Graham, publisher of the Washington Post, Harold Evans, editor of the Times of London – to expose corruption and deceit in high places and many more tales of journalists in other parts of the world, who literally lost limbs or lives in pursuit of a truth too uncomfortable for the powerful to tolerate.

For the 60 heroes honored, the book offers unwavering praise. Self-produced by the IPI, the stories are a poignant reminder of the price journalists and others pay for oppression, a reminder that is needed in our western culture where discussions over freedom of the press seem to hinge on how far a paparazzi photographer can go in exposing the doings of the noted and the notorious. The authors were varied, many from the Institute staff, but also some from admirers or family members, as in May Chidiac’s profile written by her nephew, Fadi Baaklini. Others were written by co-workers such as Pawel Smolenski, staff reporter from the Gazeta Wyborcza writing about his editor-in-chief, press hero Adam Michnik. Thus the profiles were appreciations rather than reporting, yet rich in detail of the background stories, challenges and achievements of the subjects’ lives.

Produced by Lindenau Productions in Vienna and sponsored by a grant from UniCredit Group, Words of Freedom is a visually handsome book, with page after page of portraits and archive photos from newspaper, television and wire service morgues, as well as private collections and the IPI library, that support these mini profiles in courage.

Of all the stories though, three especially jumped out.

Indro Montanelli of Italy (1909-2001) started as a journalist at the student wing of the National Fascist Party’s paper L’Universale. After Mussolini enacted anti-press regulation, his support for Fascism dwindled. He then had the courage to take on Mussolini in the press. He wrote about Il Duce’s affairs and other matters not ready for the front pages. After escaping a 1944 death sentence through the aid of the archbishop of Milan, Cardinal Ildefonso Schuster, Montanelli continued to write at his anti-communist publication, Il Giornale after the war.

This earned him a negative reputation amongst Italian leftists. The Red Brigades shot him four times in the legs in 1977.  Still, Montanelli continued to write until his death in 2001. Even his “old nemesis” Silvio Berlusconi, media tycoon and on-and-off prime minister, had kind words of farewell, saying he “[weeps] for the friend with whom I have shared many battles.”

Russian journalist Anna Politkovskaya (1958-2006) too met a premature end. A reporter for the Soviet newspaper Izvestiya in the 1980s and early 1990s, in 1994 she became a crime correspondent for Obshchaya Gazeta covering the Chechnya war. Working for one of the “[few] remaining independent newspapers” in Russia, she challenged the Moscow line and supported independence for Chechnya.

This controversial position put her at great personal risk. In 2006, she was found shot dead in her elevator. The case has yet to be closed, but court proceedings are currently taking place. The life of a courageous reporter ended too soon.

May Chidiac was born in 1964 in Lebanon. She was formerly a journalist at the Lebanese Broadcasting Company. In a country perpetually at conflict with itself, she insisted publicly that the Syrian military withdraw its troops from Lebanon in 2005. In August of that same year, a car bomb failed to kill her but cost her part of her left arm and leg. This didn’t silence her.

This striking Lebanese was one of those present at the award ceremony and book presentation hosted by the IPI at the Wiener Rathaus. Chidiac was joined by others who had survived assassination attempts, torture and repression but refused to back down. Six journalists from Africa, South America, the Middle East and the South Pacific recalled the atrocities they experienced while reporting stories their governments didn’t want told. Intimidation and jail terms were commonplace, but their message remains clear: Risk is necessary for the journalist in pursuit of truth and justice.

Heroes are the people who lay their life on the line for their beliefs, and most of the men and women depicted in the book exemplify that definition. These are professionals for whom being dragged out of bed by armed thugs and jailed for criticizing their government was a possibility – and indeed a reality. Honest journalism, for them, was worth risking life and limb.

But they had another message: Only action can bring about change, and the developed world, with the luxury of established freedoms, should put forth more effort to pressure repressive governments to end their crimes against expression.

 

Words of Freedom: A Tribute to 60 IPI World Press Freedom Heroes. International Press Institute, Vienna 2010.

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