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Last night, in a hotel nestled amidst the energy of New York City, benefit attendees honoured the incredible work of four people who do not aspire to be household names or to be given standing ovations by doting audiences.

For the four journalists whose work was the focus of the 2012 International Press Freedom Awards, the ceremony was a nod of recognition to the plights and achievements that their careers have led them to. I have no doubt that reverence among their colleagues means a great deal more to those in receipt of yesterday’s awards than million-pound pay checks; given that reporting is often a thankless profession with unsociable hours and pitiful salaries, I expect the winners want words – not wealth – to be their legacies.

This year, the Committee to Protect Journalists has chosen to acknowledge the following awardees for their courageous acts in the name of documenting the truth: Azimjon Askarov, Mae Azango, Mauri König and Dhondup Wangchen. Each of them has had a unique and sickening encounter with oppression by corrupt authorities, but all of them share an unwavering bravery which has shone through their coverage of injustices that they felt the world should know about, and duly reported on with no second thought to the repercussions they would later face. For each of the four journalists being honoured at last night’s Waldorf Astoria dinner, informing others about national travesties was so paramount that they sacrificed their own liberties as a consequence of speaking out against the state. I implore you to read the articles hyperlinked to their names above; their stories are so harrowing that other sources better explain their experiences than I could ever hope to.

In a survey published this September, 79.2% of the 1500 journalists polled by MediaAct stated that they felt most responsibility towards their own conscience. Perhaps that is unsurprising, given that journalism seems to attract those who have questionable notions about right and wrong by other peoples’ standards (one only need look at public reaction to evidence turned up by the Leveson enquiry), but who have a strong sense of moral obligation to communicate facts that might otherwise remain unknown – there are not many careers in which doorstepping recently-bereaved parents and rifling through the refuse of shifty MPs are deemed acceptable ways to spend your working day.

As with any witch hunt, everyone in the spotlight is a suspect. Despite the aims of the Leveson enquiry being fundamentally investigative, it has cast a shadow over an entire industry and given ammunition to those who love to slate the press (such as chief pitchfork-bearer Hugh Grant and his celebrity buddies). And now, those who felt a calling to journalism are waiting with baited breath to see if we can regain the esteem of our former audiences and go back to believing that our conscience is dependable enough to answer to.

I would love to think that any reporter in the position of Azango, Wangchen, Askarov or König would do the same as they did, that they would feel so strongly about getting other peoples’ voices heard that they would be willing to forego their own freedom of speech. That is an idealist view though, and one that would mean that the achievements of the 2012 CFJ’s prize winners are dismissible – a travesty in itself. Moral conscience is subjective and it is clear that those who have attained an International Press Freedom Award (in previous ceremonies as well as this year’s) have a sense of duty which is far less marred by egocentricity than that of the typical person. Those willing to risk their own safety and independence are truly deserving of recognition for their sheer selflessness, and they should receive a separate award for the quality of their thought-provoking journalistic contributions and the actions they have brought about.

Since news of the phone-hacking scandal first broke, journalists have learnt – perhaps rightfully – to keep their heads down in debates about morality. From a consumer’s perspective, it is easy to tar all reporters with the same brush and to decry the institutions that condoned the hacking of phones belonging to the likes of Sara Payne and Prince William, accusing such organisations of ruthless and underhand tactics of which they should be ashamed. However, while many reporters go to great lengths to get a scoop, not all are heartless enough consider violation of Milly Dowler’s voicemail ‘within the line of duty’; those journalists honoured at yesterday’s ceremony employed a different class of eyebrow-raising methods, waiving anonymity and writing off their emotional (and physical, in the case of in Askarov, Dhondup and König) trauma as collateral damage, necessary in order to tell the world about the miscarriages of justice they had witnessed.

Last night’s awards dinner also honoured the incumbent editor of The Guardian, Alan Rusbridger, whose lifetime achievements were recognised with the Benjamin Burton Memorial Award. A champion of publishing public interest stories, Rusbridger’s time at The Guardian has assisted the broadsheet in becoming one of the UK’s most well-respected and reliable newspapers. While he is fortunate enough not to be imprisoned like Dhondup and Askarov, Rusbridger’s commitment to a free press and his belief in the right to report has shaped the face of modern journalism and The Guardian, under his leadership, has been the mouthpiece of many stories that have exposed judicial failures and misplaced sanctions.

In 2011, as an aspiring reporter, talking about my ambitions was consistently met with questions about whether or not I would accept a job at the then-existing (though already disgraced) News of the World; I suspect such a reaction was familiar to many newspaper employees last year, when Operation Weeting began and the Leveson enquiry opened. The phone-hacking controversy has, fittingly, dominated headlines since it broke, and the media industry looks set to stay the centre of attention for a while yet, especially with the onslaught of celebrity paedophilia allegations. Journalism seems to have been the playing field for many a scandal, but I am tired of apologising for my passion; fundamentally, reporters are individuals who believe that the public benefit from hearing stories that might go unheard of without them – and there is nothing sinister in wanting to speak up for others.

Glenn Mulcaire and Rebekah Brooks may have temporarily tarnished the reputation of journalism, but those who won last night’s International Press Freedom Awards epitomise everything that is admirable about reporting, and it is those people who will restore faith and trust in the industry. In order to distance ourselves from Hackgate and reclaim our right to pass judgements about morality, the achievements of Rusbridger, Dhondup, König, Azango and Askarov should be aspired to; journalists should covet a byline on tomorrow’s front pages, not their faces being splashed across them.


To sign the petitions which ask the responsible authorities to free Dhondup Wangchen and Azimjon Askarov, click on the following: