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Peter Mackler Award Ceremony Recap

The first annual Peter Mackler Award Ceremony was a success, with attendees including a wide range of journalists from around the world, all there to honor the memory of Peter Mackler and show support for the award winner, jailed Sri Lankan journalist J. S. Tissainayagam.

Clothilde Le Coz, Washington Director of Reporters Without Borders, gave an impassioned speech, denouncing J. S. Tissainayagam’s wrongful imprisonment and calling for justice to be sought in all cases where journalists have been unfairly imprisoned.

Tissa’s wife, Ronnate, accepted the award on her husband’s behalf.

“For the last 20 years my husband has endeavoured to pursue the goals that Mr. Mackler believed in as a journalist,” she said. “Like Peter, my husband was never too busy to encourage those who wanted to learn to write and has helped many in journalism. Today my husband is continuing to teach me courage and grace in difficult times. For him no matter what the circumstances are; there is no excuse for unkindness. No matter what circumstance fellow human beings must be treated with dignity.”

Marcus Brauchli, a friend to Peter Mackler and the executive editor of The Washington Post, was the keynote speaker at the ceremony and gave credit to reporters who face everyday challenges in developing nations or in countries which do not value freedom of speech.

“Doing such good journalism as the Peter Mackler Award encourages takes courage,” said Brauchli.

J. S. Tissainayagam’s is a Tamil reporter and editor cited by President Barack Obama as an “emblematic example” of the struggle for press access and freedom worldwide. He was arrested on March 7, 2008 by the Terrorism Investigation Division (TID) of the Sri Lanka police and has been sentenced to 20 years in jail for inciting “communal disharmony”. He is the first journalist in his country to be convicted under terrorism laws.

You can view a video of the ceremony here.

Pictured (from left to right): Clothilde Le Coz of Reporters Without Borders, Lauren Mackler, daughter of Peter Mackler, Catherine Antoine, wife of Peter Mackler, Ronnate Tissainayagam, wife of J. S. Tissainayagam, and Camille Mackler, daughter of Peter Mackler

Photo Credit: Adrian Winter/PMA, Parameswaran Ponnudurai/AFP

Eritrea Houses World’s Biggest Prison For Journalists

A tiny country on the east coast of Africa, Eritrea and its 5 million inhabitants don’t often make the international news stage. But it is more politics than population that keeps the country out of the press. Eight years after a government mandate that shut down all private news outlets and ended free speech, Eritrea now matches China and Iran in the number of journalists it has detained without trial.

Reporters Without Borders announced that Eritrea now holds at least 30 journalists in prison, adding that four of the journalists who were detained in the September of 2001 crackdown have died due to harsh prison conditions which included metal containers and underground cells.

Aaron Berhane is the former editor of Setit, the largest private paper in Eritrea before it was shut down. He managed to escape to Canada after the fateful announcement in 2001, one of the few among his peers and colleagues who is not dead or in jail. He writes about the first time he heard the government announcement of the media blackout, saying:

I was in bed when my wife turned on the radio to listen to the morning news. ‘Starting today, September 18, 2001, the government has ordered all private presses to stop their publications,'” he recalls. “I felt as if I was dreaming. I didn’t move my head. I was still under the blanket.”

Berhane got lucky. He wasn’t home the night the police came to his house to arrest him and he is still able to practice journalism. He now runs Meftih, a community paper geared towards helping other
Eritreans in Canada.

There is no government interference or police harassment here and there is respect for the rule of law. In Eritrea, it’s not the law that rules, it’s one person that rules the law,” says Berhane. “I hope that one day my country will enjoy the blessings that I experience here in Canada and that my colleagues will be eventually set free.”

Citizen Journalism and Twitter in Uganda

In the midst of riots and anti-government protests leading up to the 2011 elections in Uganda, the government has continued to clamp down on the press. And as the Committee to Protect Journalists reports, citizen journalists and social media sites are helping to fill the void.

At least four radio stations were recently shut down and news broadcasts have been replaced by sitcoms or kept light, with no mention of the protests. A Ugandan talk show host, Kalundi Serumaga, was also arrested, along with four journalists from Uganda’s largest daily paper.

Internet availability has almost doubled in Uganda since 2007, boosting blogging and micro-blogging activity and opening up more channels for information. BlogSpirit is one site that aggregates blogs from Uganda and can be accessed from around the world. Although daily papers have so far been allowed to continue to print, Ugandans are turning to these sites for immediate updates and reports.

CPJ writer
Rebekah Heacock says she was constantly checking her Twitter account in hopes of hearing from her friends and colleagues in Uganda. One friend wrote: “Okay. We’re like running for our lives.” Another tweeted: “Wow…everyone hurry and turn to [Ugandan television station] NBS for a riveting report on…wait for it…how to play golf.”

You can read Heacock’s full report at CPJ here.

Laura Ling and Euna Lee Speak Out About Their Arrest

Laura Ling and Euna Lee shed new light on the details of their arrest in statement released today and restated their hopes that in the publicity surrounding their case, their original intention for being in the region will not be forgotten.

Of their time in detainment in North Korea Ling and Lee said, “There are things that are still too painful to revisit.” For now at least, they hope to keep the focus on the story they were there to cover: the extreme hardship in North Korea that sends people fleeing to China, only to face a different kind of struggle.

Although they express some regret for seemingly crossing the unmarked border, there are clear undertones of defiance towards the country that kept them locked up in conditions they are still unable to describe, and pride in the work they were doing.

“Totalitarian regimes the world over are terrified of exposure,” the women said. “Journalists have a responsibility to shine light in dark places, to give voice to those who are too often silenced and ignored.”

You can read the statement in full here.

Photo Credit Jae C. Hong/AP Photo

J.S. Tissainayagam: Convicted as a Terrorist for Acts of Journalism

As reported yesterday, PMA is proud to announce J.S. Tissainayagam, known to friends as “Tissa”, has been awarded the first Peter Mackler Award for Courageous and Ethical Journalism. Having been sentenced to 20 years in prison in a country crippled by conflict, we hope to bring recognition to both a region and a reporter very much in need of it.

Sources close to the case who will remain anonymous for their own safety say that today Tissainayagam has been moved to the Welikada prison J block. His supporters are pushing for him to be moved to the New Magazine Prison J block, so he will be with other political prisoners.

Tissainayagam’s case is unique in that he is one of the only journalists in a democratic state to be arrested under his own country’s terrorism law, with the main evidence against him being his own published work.

Vincent Brossel is a reporter with the Asia-Pacific desk of Reporters Without Borders who has followed Tissainayagam’s case closely. According to Brossel, charges by the Sri Lankan terrorism investigative division are relatively uncommon in themselves. “In fact, it is the first time a case against a journalist has gone so far,” says Brossel. “In the past, journalists have been accused of directly supporting the LTTE, but in the case of Tissa, he wasn’t carrying weapon or actively conspiring.”

Instead, the case against him was built with his articles, written for such prestigious publications as the English language Sunday Times and the news site, where he is an editor.

Tissa, like many others in the Tamil ethnic minority, does not identify himself with the violent separatist group LTTE, or Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam.

“Even the prosecutor was not able to give any material evidence or witness to link him to terror or LTTE,” says another journalist close to the case.

In his many years as a journalist, Tissa has worked with the UN, UNICEF, and Amnesty International, who has called him a “prisoner of conscience”. He filmed a documentary on children who were orphaned as a result of violence in the east.

In addressing World Press Freedom Day, President Obama even gave mention to Tissainayagam, saying, “”In every corner of the globe there are journalists in jail or being harassed. Emblematic examples of this distressing reality are figures like J. S. Tissainayagam in Sri Lanka, or Shi Tao and Hu Jia in China.”

In his statement to the court shortly after his arrest in March, Tissa said “I was and am still an advocate against terrorism. I have criticized terrorism in whatever form. I never advocated violence, my objective was to generate non violent means of resolving the conflict, my research, writings and work was towards achieving this.”

Lawyer in Tissainayagam’s defense, Anil Silva said his client “was never a racist and he at no time tried to arouse hatred. Now he has been punished for what he wrote as a journalist. This will be a lesson to other journalists, too.”

His lawyers say he will appeal the conviction.

Photo Credit: AFP/Ishara S.Kodikara