Zaffar Abbas, an editor of Pakistani newspaper Dawn, has been awarded the 2019 Gwen Ifill Press Freedom Award by the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) for "extraordinary and sustained achievement in the cause of press freedom", the body announced on Tuesday (July 16).
The award, previously known as the Burton Benjami Memorial Award, was renamed in 2017 to honour a veteran journalist and former board member who died in 2016.
"The award is presented annually to an individual who has shown extraordinary and sustained achievement in the cause of press freedom," notes the CPJ website.
Notable past recipients of the award include Alan Rusbridger, former editor-in-chief of The Guardian who was awarded in 2012, The Associated Press' Kathy Gannon who was the recipient in 2015, and CNN's Christiane Amanpour who received it in 2016.
In a statement released by the CPJ to announce the award, it observed that at a time when journalists and media in Pakistan were facing extraordinary pressure, Abbas continued to be a vocal supporter of steps taken to keep journalists safe. He was elected as the chairman of Editors for Safety in 2015, a body of editors who work to provide protection to journalists who faced threats.
"Zaffar Abbas is the embodiment of journalistic courage, which is why the board is so pleased to honour him with the Gwen Ifill Press Freedom Award," said Kathleen Carroll, chair of the CPJ board.
"Every day he fights to deliver facts to Dawn's readers in the face of pressure, obstacles, and blockades from the institutions in Pakistan that would much prefer to go about their business without scrutiny from the press or the public."
Abbas, who was named Dawn's editor in 2010, started his journalism career in 1981 as a junior reporter for The Star, a Karachi-based newspaper.
He started working with the Herald magazine in 1988 as an investigative journalist and later joined the BBC as the network's Pakistan correspondent in 1992. He joined Dawn in 2006 and covered the insurgency and civil war in Afghanistan during the Soviet occupation, post-9/11 events and their impact on the region which included the rise of religious extremism.
Abbas has been subjected to intimidation and physical torture more than once in his journalism career. He and his brother were attacked at their house by armed men in 1991 when he reported on the activities of the Muttahida Qaumi Movement.
A few years later, when he was working at the BBC, the network's office in Islamabad was set on fire by militants and Abbas and his colleague were physically assaulted. The violence was said to be a reaction to two videos broadcast on the BBC regarding sectarian killings in the country.
In recent years, Dawn has come under increasing pressure and its circulation has been disrupted in several cities on multiple occasions after the paper published an exclusive report in 2016 pertaining to relations between the civil and military leadership.
The CPJ statement, quoting Abbas, said that he and the reporter of the news story were subjected to hours of interrogation by members of intelligence agencies but refused to reveal their sources.
"Even discussing politics or serious conflicts can be a red line," the CPJ quoted Abbas as saying.
International Press Freedom Awards
The committee will also honour journalists from Brazil, India, Nicaragua, and Tanzania with the 2019 International Press Freedom Awards "amid the erosion of press freedom in democracies around the globe", the body's press release stated. A brief background on the journalists is given below:
1. Patrícia Campos Mello, a reporter and columnist at Brazil's daily Folha de S. Paulo.
During the Brazilian presidential election campaign in 2018, Campos Mello was attacked online and doxxed in response to her coverage of supporters of then presidential-candidate Jair Bolsonaro allegedly sponsoring bulk messaging in WhatsApp.
2. Neha Dixit, a freelance investigative journalist in India who covers human rights.
She has faced legal and physical threats, as well as online harassment, after reporting on alleged wrongdoing by right-wing nationalist groups and police.
3. Lucía Pineda Ubau, news director, and Miguel Mora, founder and editor, of Nicaraguan broadcaster 100% Noticias. The pair was imprisoned in December 2018 in relation to their coverage of political unrest. They were freed on June 11 after six months behind bars, under surveillance and in isolation most of the time.
4. Maxence Melo Mubyazi, champion of online freedom of expression in Tanzania, who co-founded and is the managing director of Jamii Forums, an online discussion site and source of breaking news. Melo has been charged under the country's restrictive CyberCrimes Act and, in 2017, appeared in court 81 times.
In all honesty, it is a tribute to Dawn's highly dedicated editorial team. Despite the unending intimidation, harassment, demands for self-censorship, disruptions in advertising and distribution of the newspaper, and significant pay cuts due to immense financial pressures on the newspaper, these thorough professionals have continued to work tirelessly to defend press freedom and disseminate the truth. It is precisely for this reason that even many of its detractors regard Dawn as one of the most credible newspapers in South Asia. So, thank you CPJ for honouring us. I am humbled.