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World: Committee To Protect Journalists' International Press Freedom Present Awards

  • Beatrice Hogan

A Bosnian-Serb journalist crippled in a car-bomb attack and an Iranian newspaper editor now serving a jail sentence have each received one of journalism's top prizes: the Committee to Protect Journalists' International Press Freedom Award. Correspondent Beatrice Hogan attended the awards ceremony last night in New York and files this report.

New York, 22 November 2000 (RFE/RL) -- As crippled Bosnian-Serb journalist Zeljko Kopanja hobbled to the podium last night (Tuesday) to accept a press freedom award from the Committee to Protect Journalists, or CPJ, the crowd gave him a standing ovation.

Kopanja was visibly moved by the outpouring of sympathy and respect. He told those gathered at a New York hotel that the CPJ award would be what he called "a powerful support" to all those in the Balkans who, in his words, "prefer the truth to lies, the light to darkness, good to evil, the future to the past."

Kopanja was honored for his work in connection with the newspaper "Nezavisne Novine," the largest independent Serbian daily in Bosnia-Herzegovina. Kopanja founded the paper in 1995.

In October of last year -- a day after his 45th birthday -- Kopanja lost both legs in a car-bomb attack outside his home in the Bosnian-Serb capital Banja Luka. He believes the attack was prompted by a series of articles he published that documented killings of Bosnian Muslims and Croats by Serb authorities during the war from 1992 to 1995.

Kopanja was one of four recipients of this year's CPJ international press freedom awards. The New York-based media watchdog group recognizes journalists for courage and independence in reporting news.

Another recipient, Iranian journalist Mashallah Shamsolvaezin, could not attend the ceremony. He is now in an Iranian jail serving a two-and-a-half-year prison sentence for allegedly insulting Islamic principles in an article that criticized capital punishment in Iran.

Critics say the charge of "insulting Islam" is an all-purpose pretext Iranian courts use to prosecute and imprison journalists. Iranian authorities have already shut down more than two dozen newspapers.

Since 1998, Shamsolvaezin has edited four different newspapers. Now all four are banned. He has been arrested three times, most recently in April.

Michelle Martin of the U.S. television news program "Nightline" received the award on behalf of Shamsolvaezin. She read from a letter Shamsolvaezin passed to his wife from prison. In the letter, the jailed journalist expressed sadness over the state of the media in his country, yet ended on a positive note:

"I am certain the great family of the fourth pillar of democracy (that is, a free press) in the world will defend the right of human beings to learn and live in the world of peace and freedom."

The award ceremonies were attended by some of the media's brightest stars. They raised more than a million dollars to support CPJ's work helping journalists worldwide report the news truthfully and independently.

The two other press freedom award recipients were Modeste Mutinga from the Democratic Republic of Congo and Stephen Gan from Malaysia.

Andrei Babitsky, an RFE/RL correspondent who reported on the war in Chechnya, attended the ceremony. A Russian citizen, Babitsky angered authorities with his candid coverage of the conflict. He was arrested last January by Russian officials in Chechnya and was held for 40 days before being released and allowed to return to Moscow.

Otis Chandler, the publisher of The Los Angeles Times, was honored for lifetime achievement.