Outside the doors of the Waldorf-Astoria on Tuesday night, protesters pause and wait for the next video camera light to turn on. Buttressing both sides of the Park Avenue entrance, they stand in the drizzle clutching umbrellas, dozens of miniature Ecuadorean flags, and signs bearing journalist Janet Hinostroza’s face, emblazoned with the words, “VERGUENZA DEL PERIODISMO” (shame of journalism), “VENDE PATRIA” (sells homeland), and, on another, exhibiting perhaps the most ironic of the night’s statements, “CPJ: ENEMIGO DE LA DEMOCRACIA Y LA LIBERTAD DE EXPRESION” (CPJ: enemy of democracy and freedom of expression). As the next camera starts to roll, they chant.
Inside, Hinostroza—dressed in a long, shimmering ballgown—mingles with other members of the media as she awaits the night’s ceremony, in which she will be honored along with three other journalists with an International Press Freedom Award by the Committee to Protect Journalists. The protesters don’t seem to phase her; but then, she’s used to it.
In Ecuador, Hinostroza and other journalists who try to report investigative work are enemies of the state, painted as liars and thugs by the government. After reporting on a scandal concerning shady dealings between a businessman and a state-owned bank, Hinostroza received anonymous phone calls threatening the safety of her and her son. In 2012, she was forced to take a leave of absence from her news program, La Mañana de 24 Horas.
“Today, I am part of a community with which no one wants to mix,” she says in her speech later in the evening. “People are afraid to have relationships with journalists, doubt giving us information, and are terrified of becoming targets of the state along with the rest of us.” Yet Hinostroza continues to report, anchoring the investigative show 30 Plus and hosting a radio program. Perhaps it’s because she doesn’t know how to be anything else. She was always drawn to journalism, she says in her speech, drawn to “the power to give a voice to those who are listened to the least. To hold up a mirror to society so that it cannot deny that we are part of a reality that cries out for change. And to not be silent.”
The reception area—draped in chandeliers and shades of gold—is quiet as attendees start to waft in. A woman approaches me, smiling, asking if she can fix a particularly slippery silk button that has come undone on the back of my dress. She’s Wendy Brandes, wife of Paul Steiger, the founding editor in chief of ProPublica who is also being honored. Steiger will receive the Burton Benjamin Memorial Award for a lifelong commitment to press freedom. “He has a great speech,” Brandes says, beaming. “And it’s not too long.”
More tuxedos and ball gowns rustle through the doors and begin to cluster. Arianna Huffington’s recognizable, voluminous hairdo is spotted, briefly. Anna Schecter, producer at Rock Center with Brian Williams, has just come from a shoot, high heels whipped from her bag. She stands by herself and surveys the room while she waits for her colleagues to arrive. Last year was her first time at the event, and it left her with a sense of renewal. “It’s why we all got into this business,” she says. “It’s great to come here and reconnect with what we do it for.”
Cameraman Eric Teti rests momentarily at a table. He’s been following awardee Bassem Youssef around all day, filming for a documentary. Youssef, a cardiac surgeon-cum-satirical newscaster, is known as Egypt’s Jon Stewart. (Stewart is slated to present Youssef with his award. In one of my finer moments, as Stewart walks past me on his way to the stage, I look him in the eye and say, “Hi.”)
Youssef began critiquing Egyptian society in 2011, during the fall of the Mubarak era, from his living room, posting to YouTube under the name “The B+ Show.” Episodes went viral, and soon he was the host of Al Bernameg (“The Program”), a Daily Show-like newscast with more than 40 million viewers. In 2012, he was charged with “insulting the president,” “insulting Islam,” and “reporting false news” by the Morsi-led government, and in March of this year he was arrested. Youssef was released on bail and later fined, but just this month Al Bernameg was suspended. Legal action is pending.
The bells sound in the reception area and attendees shuffle toward the ballroom, where the ceremony will be held. Google has two tables right up front, Bloomberg another two, directly behind. Then there’s Conde Nast, News Corp., the Open Society Foundation, The New York Times.