Committee to Protect Journalists to receive 2021 Zenger Award for Press Freedom

June 8, 2021

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Associated Press photo courtesy of CPJ website Kashmiri journalists protest against a proposed new media policy in Srinagar, in Jammu and Kashmir, in 2020.

For its role in defending the rights and safety of journalists around the world, the Committee to Protect Journalists will receive the 2021 John Peter and Anna Catherine Zenger Award for Press Freedom from the University of Arizona School of Journalism.

CPJ Executive Editor Joel Simon will accept the award at a gala luncheon Friday, Oct. 1, at the Tucson Marriott University Park. Guests unable to attend in-person can watch a livestream broadcast of the event, and proceeds will support student scholarships and reporting projects.

Given by the school since 1954, the award honors journalists or organizations that fight for freedom of the press and the people’s right to know. Previous winners include Christiane Amanpour and Carmen Aristegui (CNN), Dean Baquet (New York Times), Walter Cronkite (CBS) and Katharine Graham (Washington Post).

Founded in 1981, CPJ promotes press freedom worldwide and works to protect “the right of journalists to report the news safely and without fear of reprisal.”

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Joel Simon
Joel Simon speaks during a Press Behind Bars panel at the U.N. (Reuters photo)

Simon said technology has disrupted and dismantled traditional journalism, leaving journalists vulnerable. With information flowing more freely across the Internet and between publications, fewer journalists are needed to report the news. These journalists, Simon said, no longer have large, powerful publications behind them.

“The power of the media has diminished,” he said. “There are leaders around the world in democratic countries and repressive countries that are threatened by independent information. You bring all these things together, and you have an unprecedented crisis in press freedom at a global level.”

Simon pointed to the record numbers of journalists imprisoned, the high levels of violence toward journalists and declining press freedoms as indicators of the level of intimidation and repression facing journalists.

“CPJ’s outstanding work in defending the right of journalists to report the news safely exemplifies the best of what journalism can be,” said Professor Carol Schwalbe, director of the School of Journalism.

While the term “fake news” has made its way into modern vernacular, especially regarding politicians, the term means something entirely different overseas. Recently, Simon said, many governments use the term “fake news” to silence opposition or stories they do not like.

“When Trump calls you fake news, it’s annoying, it’s an insult,” Simon said. “When you get called fake news in Russia or so many countries around the world, it could be a prelude to genuine physical attacks or threats.”

Myanmar, for example, arrested a Japanese journalist under a “fake news” law in April. He was the first foreign journalist known to be charged since the military takeover in February.

The current climate toward journalists, Simon said, is “the worst crisis we’ve seen in the history of this organization.”

As of June 2021, CPJ reported five journalists were murdered this year for reasons including Islamic extremism and political oppression. Six more “died with unknown motives.” During the same time period, countries have imprisoned 274 journalists worldwide, with China leading imprisonments and Turkey holding second place with 47 and 37 imprisonments, respectively.

Just recently, journalist Raman Pratasevich, part of the Belarus political opposition, was jailed after his flight was diverted in May, and an Israeli airstrike destroyed a high-rise building that housed The Associated Press office and other news outlets in the Gaza Strip.

“This organization, of all organizations, they stand up for, they fight, they defend the role that these journalists play in their societies around the world,” said retired Professor Emeritus William Schmidt, the former deputy managing editor for The New York Times. “It’s a necessary and amazingly noble thing that they do. I can think of few other organizations that would deserve (the Zenger award) as much as they deserve it for the work they do on the behalf of press freedom and the essential role of journalism.”

CPJ also publishes the Global Impunity Index, a calculation of the unsolved murders of journalists worldwide as a percentage of a country’s population. The index is then published with the hopes of bringing the killers to justice.

“If you can kill a journalist without consequence and there’s a story that threatens you, then people who have that power will use violence or the threat of violence to censor the news,” Simon said. “If that happens, there’s no accountability and justice. There’s no way to defend human rights.”

“The world’s become much more dangerous for journalists,” Schmidt said.  “CPJ is one of the few organizations that stand up across the board for the work that journalists do everywhere.”