Heroism in name of media freedom honoured at British Press Awards

Ahmed Benchemsi

Editor, Morocco

Facing five years' jail

Ahmed R Benchemsi is the founder and editor of a newspaper which has become Morocco's top-selling current affairs weekly.

Launched in 2001, Tel Quel (As It Is) sells 23,000 copies a week. As well as winning plaudits for the quality of its journalism, it is also highly profitable as the country's top current affairs weekly.

Benchemsi, 32, has been hit by numerous defamation cases and fined hundreds of thousands of euros in defamation actions. The paper has broken new ground in Morocco by tackling taboo subjects such as homosexuality, AIDs and the Moroccan drug trade.

Most controversial have been his articles investigating the Moroccan King, Mohammed VI. He is currently being prosecuted, and could face up to five years in prison, for an article which was found not to have shown 'due respect to the king".

He told Press Gazette: 'The situation in Morocco is surprisingly quite good compared to other Arab countries."

However, he explained that Article 41 of the Moroccan press law forbids attacks on sacred things – specifically the monarchy, Islam and the country's territorial integrity.

He said: 'If you attack them you could face five years in prison, but we write about them every week. I would argue we are not attacking them but just doing our job.

'The average age of our journalists is 27 or 28, and we look at journalism in a different way from the older Moroccan journalists. Under Hassan II you couldn't even write the king's name without putting the words 'his majesty'first.

'They lived with fear but now things have changed dramatically."

Ching Cheong

Reporter, Singapore

Spent more than two years in prison

Hong Kong-based correspondent for Singapore's Straits Times, Ching Cheong spent over 1,000 days in prison for alleged espionage, and was accused of passing state secrets to Taiwan and using money provided by Taiwan to purchase political and military information.

His ordeal began in April 2005 when he was arrested and detained by Chinese authorities. He was on the way to meet a source who had promised him a copy of recordings of secret interviews with former communist party leader Zhao Ziyang.

In August 2006 he was sentenced to five years in prison, but was released on parole on 5 February 2008, and has always professed his innocence.

His family, the journalistic community in Hong Kong and the Ching Cheong Concern group have continuously campaigned for his release, and in June 2005 the Hong Kong journalists Association teamed up with Reporters Without Borders to organise a petition – which gathered more than 13,000 signatures and was sent to the President of the People's Republic of China.

Speaking shortly after his release from prison, Cheong said: 'This year is the 30th anniversary of China's reform and opening and the year of our first Olympics.

'I hope the Beijing government will announce an amnesty to help create greater social harmony."

Cheong was born in China in 1949, and started his career in 1974 on the pro-China newspaper Wen Wei Po, of which he became deputy editor before joining his current employer.

Emadeddin Baghi

Journalist, Iran

Repeatedly imprisoned

Emadeddin Baghi has been speaking out against the country's regime for more than 25 years, despite repeated imprisonment and numerous court summons.

Baghi, 45, studied theology and sociology and was a teacher before beginning his journalistic career in 1983. He was forced out of teaching because of the nature of his discussions with students and pressure from the security forces.

With the rise of the reformist movement that led to the presidency of Mohammed Khatami in 1996, Baghi worked as writer, consultant and editor on a number of reformist newspapers like Fath, Neshat and Khordad, which were subsequently banned.

Baghi wrote articles exposing the killings of political and intellectual opponents in Iran, known as the Chain murders. Baghi was imprisoned in 2000 in connection for the exposé and served three years of what was originally a seven-and-a-half-year sentence.

He has made regular appearances in court and has been summoned 23 times since his release in 2003. He is a member of the central council for press freedom in Iran.

He has written more than 20 books, a number of which are currently banned by the Iranian regime. In 2003 he founded the Society for Defending Prisoners' Rights. He also founded the Society of Right to Life Guardians in 2005, which campaigns to abolish the death sentence and capital punishment.

He founded Jomhooriyat newspaper in 2004, taking the radical step of including dedicated pages to human rights, trade unions and civil institutions coverage. The judiciary, who have called for Baghi's dismissal, subsequently banned the newspaper.

He is currently serving a year's prison sentence on charges of 'acting against national security". He has also had his passport confiscated and suspended prison sentences have been passed against his wife and daughter.

Eynulla Fatullayev

Editor, Azerbaijan

Death threats, family members kidnapped,currently imprisoned

Azerbaijan journalist Eynulla Fatullayev is currently imprisoned in the Ministry of National Security isolation ward serving two prison sentences. Editor-in-chief of Russian-language weekly Realny Azerbaijan and Azeri-language daily Gundelik Azebaycan, which have now closed, his staunch criticism of government policies has seen him become the victim of death threats and violence and led to members of his family being kidnapped.

In April 2007 Fatullayev was sentenced to two-and-a-half years for criminal libel and insult, referring to comments attributed to him on a website which allegedly said that Azerbaijanis shared responsibility with Armenian forces for the deaths of hundreds of ethnic Azeri civilians during the 1991-1994 conflict between the two countries. Fatullayev has strongly denied ever making these comments and claims that the case was fabricated to silence his critical reporting.

The Azerbaijani government has shown increasing hostility towards independent and opposition media, and there are serious questions about the safety of journalists in the country. In May 2007 both of Fatullayev's newspapers were closed down after the owner of the property rescinded their lease, and 14 journalists submitted requests for political asylum to British, American, Germany and Norwegian embassies.

Shortly afterwards new charges were brought against Fatullayev and in October last year he received a second sentence of eight-and-a-half-years on charges of terrorism, inciting ethnic hatred and tax evasion. The charges refer to an article published in Realny Azerbaijan which focused on Azerbaijan's relationship with Iran.

His father Emin Fatullayev said: 'Eleven months before the closures threatening calls started coming. The people threatened to beat up Eynulla and to shut down his newspaper. In response to this Eynulla said, 'I will continue my struggle, I know what can happen but there is no other way. It's me or them.'"

Asos Hardi

Editor, Iraq

Faced jail sentence

Founder and editor-in-chief of Iraqi Kurdistan's Awene (Mirror) newspaper Asos Hardi claims the paper is the only independent voice in the country.

Prior to launching Awene, Hardi founded the weekly Hawlati (The Citizen) in 2000 and was the paper's editor-in-chief until 2000 when he and his staff resigned en-masse following a clash with its owner.

In 2005 Hardi and the current editor of Hawlati were arrested after authorities accused them of publishing a false story. Their subsequent prison sentences were commuted on agreement that they would not publish any further errors in the following three years.

Speaking to the Frontline Club in London in 2005 Hardi said: 'Red lines are everywhere, even in this country (UK). However, a good journalist can cross all red lines. There is always a way of crossing.'

Awene circulates 17,000 copies and employs 40 members of staff. Its board includes lawyers, doctors and intellectuals who are all shareholders in the company.

The Kurdish media in Iraq benefits from a longer tradition of democracy with more contacts with Westerners giving it more awareness of press freedom issues.

Lydia Cacho Ribeiro

Reporter, Mexico

Death threats, sued, facing prison sentence

Freelance journalist and contributor to daily paper La Voz del Caribe, Ribeiro has been subject to multiple death threats for defending victims of domestic violence and exposing organised crime and political corruption.

In 2004 she was sued for linking public officials, businessmen and drug traffickers to a paedophile ring in her book Demons of Eden.

Cacho faced a four-year prison sentence after being accused of criminal libel by businessman Jose Camel Nacif in Puebla. She was arrested in 2005 for ignoring court summons she claimed she never received and said she overheard police talking about 'these prisoners who end up being found dead."

She managed to win the right to stand trial in her own state to avoid Nacif's influence in Puebla and in 2007 a Mexican court dismissed the charges against her.

In 2006 Cacho reported on hundreds of violent deaths of young women from 1993 in the Northern Mexican city of Ciudad.

She founded the Refuge Centre for Abused Women of Cancun and is also the president of the Centre for Women's Assistance. She herself was raped in 1999.

Cacho received the Ginetta Sagan Award in recognition of her human rights work.

Receiving the award recently she said: 'To expose the criminals who destroy the lives of women and children is not enough; it is imperative to challenge the powers that be in Mexico. We do not ask for revenge, but rather for accountability for the criminals and the politicians who manipulate the justice system for money.'

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