Lisa LaFlamme: For much of the world, press freedom is a distant dream
Azeri Khadija Ismayilova in Baku, Azerbaijan on March 2, 2014 (Aziz Karimov / AP)
Published Tuesday, May 3, 2016 9:00AM EDT
Last Updated Tuesday, May 3, 2016 2:16PM EDT
HELSINKI, Finland -- "Blow the trumpets and send up some flares -- THIS is World Press Freedom Day!”
George Orwell had it right with his "Ministry of Truth," which functioned, of course, as the Ministry of Lies.
Yes, the name "World Press Freedom Day” has a stirring ring to it. But the truth is much of the world does not have press freedom.
There can be no democracy without a free press, and no free press without democracy.
And so I find myself today in Finland, privileged to be the first Canadian on the international jury for the UNESCO World Press Freedom Award.
It was one of the most difficult assignments I've ever had -- choosing the journalist who most deserves the award when every single candidate is a shining example of tenacity and bravery.
This week in Helsinki, the UNESCO/Guillermo Cano World Press Freedom Prize was awarded to a woman who is sitting in a jail cell.
Khadija Ismayilova is an investigative reporter from Azerbaijan.
She won the coveted prize in recognition of her outstanding contribution to press freedom in difficult circumstances. Khadija is a freelance journalist and contributor to the Azerbaijani service of Radio Free Europe. She was detained in December 2014 and, in September 2015, was sentenced to seven-and-a-half years’ imprisonment on trumped up charges relating to abuse of power and tax evasion.
Her mother and sister came to Helsinki to accept the award on her behalf -- so proud and so sad that Khadija's work has put her behind bars.
Meanwhile, Khadija spent her 516th day in prison for filing a story the government didn't like.
She comes from a long line of persecuted journalists -- eight of the last winners have been in prison and unable to accept the award in person. Two never knew they won -- they were murdered.
In Khadija's case there was no incriminating evidence and not one single witness to testify against her. She wrote a powerful speech that her mother read from the podium in the Helsinki auditorium. I know where her daughter gets her strength. She asked one thing -- 'fight with me for freedom and truth.'
Just last week when I was in northern Iraq covering the war against ISIS, I was reminded again of how dangerous a free press is to any oppressor. The power of the press is a wicked and corrupt thing in the hands of the despots.
We were driving to a Displaced Persons camp north of the ISIS stronghold of Mosul and a radio station suddenly came in and out of range. Our fixer said it was "ISIS" radio -- the terrorists had taken over the broadcast tower in Mosul and were transmitting their own deadly edict to those living in the occupied city.
The ISIS messenger was telling people to smash their satellite dishes, hand over their laptops, burn them or be burned. By the way, the announcer also banned "exercise clothes." If it wasn't so sinister it would be funny.
Banning a satellite dish or cutting off any form of communication is such a cowardly and desperate attempt to control a free society -- in this case, though, ISIS backs up its threat with well-documented punishment.
As dire as these warnings are and as dangerous as it is to report from Mosul or any occupied place, there are still local journalists on the ground managing to get information out to the rest of the world. They are the heroes on this day.
I have brushed up against journalistic strength in the face of adversity in many places around the world. In the Congo, female reporters I've met have been raped to try to force their silence. MOSTLY it hasn't worked.
This year I met a journalist in Yangon, Myanmar, who spent nine-and-a-half years in prison -- again for reporting on an anti-government protest. Nine-and-a-half years!
I asked: What was the trial like?
“Trial,” he said. “I wish, there WAS no trial.”
His story is chilling but equally shocking is his strength of mind. He survived torture and solitary confinement and, when the military dictatorship in Burma ended with the triumph of Aung San Sui Kyi, he was freed. And what did he do? He went right back to the newsroom and got to work.
Journalists in Burma are now learning what it's like to have a fledgling free press -- to have the freedom to report the truth without threat of arrest or even death. It's a tough transition and old habits of the powerful die hard.
Things that stun me, as a Canadian journalist, are part of normal life in so many parts of the world, like getting an envelope of cash for covering a press conference by a private company or government department. The guy standing at the podium is literally buying positive coverage. In Vietnam they call it "coffee and tea" money. In Cambodia, “gasoline" money. In DRC, "coupage." We call it bribery.
I could go on forever about the tactics used to stifle or control the media in different places around the world but you get my point.
In Canada we don't really celebrate World Press Freedom Day because we don't need to. Essentially, we have it. But it's the polar opposite in so many other places.
This week in Finland, the tiny country that punches above its weight on this issue, having written the first Freedom of Expression Act 250 years ago, they are, rightfully, blowing the trumpets and sending up flares for journalists like Khadija, so she and journalists in jail cells around the world are not left to languish alone.