Timothy Balding, CEO of the World Association of Newspapers, is no softy. Neither are any of the other 1 600 journalists and news editors from around the world gathered in Cape Town at the 60th World Annual Newspaper Congress.
Yet Balding was not alone in wiping eyes blinded by tears during the presentation of the Golden Pen award.
The Pen is presented annually by WAN to honour the journalist who, against great odds, has done the most to champion the cause of free speech. This year it went to Shi Tao, a Chinese journalist. And today, 4 June, is the 18th anniversary of the massacre at Tiananmen Square.
You may never have heard of him, but Shi is the first casualty in new-media’s complicity in yielding up its users to brutal regimes. Shi is currently serving a ten-year sentence for distributing Chinese state secrets. What secrets?
In 2004, on the 15th anniversary of the massacre at Tiananmen Square, the Chinese government distributed a warning to all journalists in China telling them how to cover the event so as not to offend the state. Shi sent the message to associates overseas on a Yahoo email account. Yahoo passed that information over to the Chinese police, and Shi was arrested.
At great personal risk, Shi’s mother Gao Qinsheng accepted the award on his behalf. What she said was simple enough. Her passion, her obvious pride and sorrow and anguish, her howl of outrage at the injustice, reached beyond language and culture and resonated in a roomful of journalists and editors.
And we had been skilfully led to this point.
Gavin O’Reilly, president of WAN and head of the Independent Newspaper Group, had led the charge when addressing Thabo Mbeki, South Africa’s president: “Mr President, this time last year, I stood â€“ in my capacity as President of WAN – in the Kremlin Palace and addressed President Putin on the thorny issue of press freedom in Russia. The year before, it was before President Roh in South Korea. Similarly â€“ and realising that I shanâ€™t be getting a Christmas card from either of them – I still want to speak frankly on the issue of press freedom here in South Africa, and I do so in a constructive and friendly way.”
George Brock, President of the World Editors Forum, who presented the award, followed up: “Even today, most Chinese know nothing about what happened that day. The Communist regime continues to prevent the Chinese media from talking and writing about it openly and honestly and will go to great lengths to silence any such revelations and to severely punish those who make them.”
“How the Chinese authorities traced this e-mail, and discovered that Shi Tao was the author, is a cautionary tale with widespread implications for on-line privacy, and for the way that western communications companies do business in their understandably difficult dealings with repressive regimes,” said Brock.
“While those who do business around the globe must often deal with non-democratic countries, we believe that new media companies that provide more and more of the means for global communications have a special responsibility” he said. “They have an obligation to ensure that the basic human rights of their users will be protected, and they must carefully guard against becoming accomplices in repression.”
Shi’s mother then read a poem from her son:
My whole life
Will never get past â€œJuneâ€
June, when my heart died
When my poetry died
When my lover
Died in a passionate pool of blood
June, the scorching sun burns open my skin
Revealing the true nature of my wound
June, the fish swims out of the blood-red sea
Toward another place to hibernate
June, the earth shifts, the rivers fall silent
Piled up letters unable to be delivered to the dead
Written 9th June 2004.