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.
CBS News correspondent Lara Logan was slated to host the awards, but she dropped out at the last minute, following news that she was taking a leave of absence in the wake of her retracted 60 Minutes segment on Benghazi. Scott Pelley, anchor of CBS Evening News, took her place.
The event began with uncomfortable statistics. Fifty-five journalists have been killed for their reporting on the Syrian conflict to date. Forty-three journalists are currently held hostage. Since CPJ began tracking the murders of journalists in 1992, more than 1,000 have been killed. Mike Deane, a cameraman for Sky News, was number 1,000, shot while covering violence in Cairo this summer.
Huffington presents Hinostroza’s award. Then Jonathan Klein, co-founder of Getty Images, presents an award to Nedim Șener, a Turkish journalist arrested on charges of supporting a terrorist organization connected to an alleged anti-government conspiracy. Șener has already spent a year in prison while awaiting trial. He was released conditionally but faces up to 15 years if he is found guilty. He speaks briefly of his time in prison, calling the cells there “coffins made of concrete.” “But you are not dead,” he says.
Șener exposed police and intelligence officers who were responsible for the killing of another journalist, Hrant Dink. “I was tried as a terrorist. It was those same officers whose involvement in the crime I had exposed who decided my fate,” Șener says in his speech.
Sitting to my left is Gülsin Harman, a Turkish journalist who has been stationed at the United Nations in New York on a coveted three-month fellowship. She remembers when Șener was taken into custody. She returns to Turkey on Saturday, and when I ask her how she feels about flying home, she doesn’t say much, just shrugs. She feels unsafe writing about certain issues, but she’s better off than others, since she sits on the foreign news desk. She writes about other countries, not her own.
Stewart introduces Youssef (“Turns out that the new regime in Egypt has less of a sense of humor than the Muslim Brotherhood”), and then Pelley presents the final International Press Freedom Award of the evening to Nguyen Van Hai.
Hai is the only guest who is absent from the ceremony. A well-known blogger in Vietnam who reports on politics, he’s serving a 12-year prison sentence and then five years of house arrest. The charges: “conducting propaganda against the state.” While it wasn’t possible to interview Hai, CPJ recorded a brief Skype call with his son, which plays on two large screens on either side of the stage. He details his father’s trials and thanks CPJ. “I feel safe because of your attention,” he says.
Time, Inc.’s Norman Pearlstine presents Steiger with his award. I scan the room for Brandes, who is likely still beaming. Steiger speaks on the history of the award—it was first given to Ted Koppel in 1997—and of CPJ itself, founded in 1981. Even then, he says, “Americans had the protection of the First Amendment and the backing of wealthy, committed, and lawyer-stocked news organizations.” Not so in many parts of Africa, Asia, and Latin America, where reporters were beaten, jailed, killed or bankrupted. “As is the experience if our incredibly courageous honorees tonight demonstrates, in many places around the world, the life of a journalist who is determined to find and report the truth is no better today than it was 32 years ago.”
What has changed, he goes on, is the financial position of American newspapers, of course, but also our access to information. Steiger cites last month’s CPJ report on the Obama administration, which states that the administration “has initiated more than double the number of prosecutions for leaks of classified information than all previous administrations combined,” says Steiger.
“If we are going to be credible admonishing abusers of journalists abroad,” he continues, “we can’t stand silent when it is going on at home.”