Sign up for PM Award Updates!

Text of Remarks by Marcus Brauchli at the Peter Mackler Award Ceremony

November 3, 2009

Good evening, and thank you all for coming. I’m Marcus Brauchli, executive editor of The Washington Post and, more important for this evening’s event, a friend of Peter Mackler’s and Catherine Antoine’s from our days together in Hong Kong, back in the mid-1980s.

It’s a great pleasure to be here among so many distinguished journalists and people committed to the cause of independent journalism. And it’s an honor to be here to celebrate the first recipient of the Peter Mackler Award for Courageous and Ethical Journalism.

As you have heard, Peter was the quintessential journalist: thoughtful and smart, driven and hard-working, passionate about the facts and a believer in the importance of what we in journalism do. So much a believer, in fact, that he decided to proselytize, to spread the good word about journalism and its ameliorative power. He developed a whole curriculum to teach journalism and raise the standards of journalism around the world through the Global Media Forum. It is a mission that his wife, Catherine, and his daughters Camille and and Lauren, are enthusiastically carrying on. They deserve a round of applause for their extraordinary dedication and this significant accomplishment.

Living in Washington, it’s hard to imagine life without free information flows. Here, as in any capital city, information animates pretty much everything. Saying that knowledge is power is a blindingly obvious truism. Just ask anyone in this room: If you know what the president is going to do on the troop requests for Afghanistan, don’t tell John Moody at Fox, tell us at The Post.

What first set American society apart and has made it an especially interesting experiment for more than two centuries is that it was premised on an idea that everybody should have knowledge, so everybody could share in the power.

The distribution of knowledge and power is one of the fundamental tenets of a democracy. In any open society, democratic or not, independent journalism has been the chief means of collecting and distributing knowledge.

But much of the world isn’t democratic. And in many closed or non-democratic societies, there is no freedom of information. Nearly 2,500 years ago, the Chinese philosopher Lao-Tzu said, “People are difficult to govern when they have too much knowledge.”

That axiom may explain an interesting correlation that Chris Walker, the director of studies at Freedom House, discovered. He found that of 20 countries run by “leaders for life,”16 ranked 160 or lower out of the 195 countries measured in Freedom House’s annual media freedom survey. The highest ranking such country (Egypt, a nominal democracy where President Hosni Mubarak has won an impressive streak of reelection by consistently resounding margins) was No. 128, two thirds of the way from the top-ranked country.

Technology has made it harder to suppress free flows of information, though. Twenty years ago this year, the fax machine played a crucial role in China’s Tiananmen Square protests, allowing protesters gathered in Beijing’s central square to know what the outside world was saying of their protests and giving them hope—false hope, as it transpired—that the government might heed some of their demands.

This year, protesters on the streets of Tehran shared information and frustration over what many believed to be a rigged presidential election in Iran using Twitter and Facebook accounts. Something similar happened in antigovernment protests in Moldova, where Twitter posts marked PMAN referred to the initials of the Romanian name of the biggest square in Chisinau, Moldova’s capital. Ukraine’s so-called Orange Revolution was powered by information flowing across social-media networks.

Technology makes even tightly controlled societies porous. For the information-averse, authoritarian governments of some countries, such as North Korea or Burma, the solution is not to introduce the latest technologies in the first place. Or they adopt technology in limited ways and don’t allow them to be distributed to their people.

Authoritarian regimes know that creating cellphone networks or Internet connections is like building irrigation canals, and that once information starts sluicing down those canals, the long-fallow fields of their societies will produce journalism. The harvest will be a freer, fairer and more open society.

As natural as that sounds, some governments inevitably attempt the unnatural and try to suppress the growth of journalism. Russia’s government has forced most major news operations into government hands, and many, too many, good journalists have been assassinated with impunity. Until recently, Zimbabwe intimidated, imprisoned or induced to leave the country both foreign and local journalists. In Cambodia, a journalist and his son were murdered after writing critical reports on the government, and a publisher was imprisoned and fined for “disinformation” and for “dishonoring public officials.”

And yet we have also seen signal advances in the role journalists play in countries around the world. In Colombia , where for years it was tragically routine for journalists to be kidnapped or killed, journalists have uncovered vital stories about official corruption and nepotism; a journalist who was himself kidnapped is now vice president of the country. In Peru, played a critical role in 2008 in uncovering corruption involving lobbyists and officials. Ukraine has become a haven for Russian journalists, who can operate openly and publish freely. Even in China, which still attempts to filter the information sluicing down its high-tech irrigationways, journalists are achieving things that once would have been impossible: their investigations have led to environmental cleanups, have resulted in communist-era detention laws being tossed out and have ferreted out corrupt officials or company bosses.

Doing such good journalism, as the Peter Mackler award recognizes, takes courage. Especially in countries with only recent experience with a free and independent press. Being a pioneer of independent journalism means you often are alone, because you are first. Or you have seen a truth others don’t want you to see. You feel vulnerable. That is true even in a place like Washington, where 35 years ago Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein of the Washington Post had to stand up to the skepticism of other journalists and intimidation from the White House when they were pursuing the Watergate stories.

Peter Mackler’s legacy is the recognition that journalism, his profession and ours, has the power to change societies, to improve bad conditions, to challenge the powerful and empower people.

In paying tribute to Peter and his legacy, though, we also must recognize the great accomplishment of his wife, Catherine, is turning his dreams into reality.

It’s been a quarter of a century since Peter, Catherine and I all lived in Hong Kong, but I still remember a story he told. It was early in their relationship, and they’d gone to see a movie, On the Waterfront. There is a scene in that movie where Marlon Brando, playing an ex-prize fighter standing up to corrupt union bosses, delivers a strong, stark soliloquy. And there is a famous moment when he says regretfully, “I coulda been a contender.” And in the darkness of the movie theater, as Peter told the story, a French-accented woman’s voice piped up, “Darling, what is contender?”

Well, Catherine, you are a contender, as Peter was a contender. You are contenders for our respect and for our admiration, as are your daughters, for launching the World Media Forum and the Peter Mackler award in the cause of good journalism in our age.

You can read a recap of the Peter Mackler Award Ceremony here.

Pictured (from left to right): Lauren Mackler, Marcus Brauchli, Camille Mackler, Ronnate Tissainayagam.

Photo credit: Adrian Winter

Dispatches from AFP concerning freedom of information, censorship and news coverage in regions where independent media is under threat.