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Winners of the 2021 Press Freedom Awards unveiled

In December of 2019, a mysterious new lung disease spread through the city of Wuhan in central China. At the time, no one imagined it would soon become a global pandemic. The Chinese authorities played down the incident as infections went into overdrive. On January 23, 2020, the city went into total lockdown — with estimates that thousands of inhabitants were already infected.

Dangerous virus, dangerous reporting

In early February of 2020, independent journalist Zhang Zhan traveled from Shanghai to Wuhan to report on the dramatic situation first-hand. For her fearless reporting, she was awarded this year’s Reporters Without Borders Press Freedom Award — in the category “Journalistic Courage”.

Her reporting, which was streamed via social media, shed light on overcrowded hospitals, overloaded crematoriums and intimidated citizens throughout the city. Add to this run-ins with the Chinese authorities, which in no way were her first. Earlier, in September 2019, the former lawyer was arrested and jailed for taking part in a solidarity rally for Hong Kong. She was detained, went on a hunger strike and was released after 65 days in jail.

But she wouldn’t allow herself to be intimidated. She continued to report from Wuhan until she disappeared on May 14, 2020. Not until a while later did anyone find out that she had been arrested, brought back to Shanghai and jailed without charge.

In December 2020, the 38-year-old was sentenced to four years in prison for “seeking quarrels and provoking trouble,” which is a common phrase the authorities use to suppress dissent.

She began another hunger strike, which continues to this day, and is said to weigh only 40 kilograms (88 lbs). She is being force-fed with a stomach tube and restrained around the clock to prevent her from removing it. She remains in custody despite appeals by numerous international human rights organizations.

With this award, Reporters Without Borders hopes to draw attention to her plight. Since 1992, the award has honored the work of journalists and media outlets that have made a remarkable contribution defending and promoting freedom of the press.

Who is monitoring the monitors?

The “Pegasus Project” is an international consortium of more than 80 journalists from 11 countries that is effectively monitoring the monitors. They get their name from the surveillance software program “Pegasus,” which is owned by the Israeli technology firm NSO Group, and aims to help states and their security agencies in the fight against terrorism.

Its software has been sold to numerous governments since 2011 and, according to the Pegasus Project, is also being used by at least 11 governments — both autocratic and democratic — to spy on journalists, human rights activists and opposition figures. These countries include Mexico, Saudi Arabia, Azerbaijan and Hungary.

DW reported back in 2017 that Mexico’s government at the time was using this software to monitor journalists.

For uncovering the full extent of the scandal, the Pegasus Project is the recipient of this year’s award in the category “Impact”.

Based on a leak of more than 50,000 phone numbers that were targeted by the spying software, the journalists revealed that almost 200 media professionals were spied on worldwide. The mobile numbers of French President Emmanuel Macron, European Council President Charles Michel and Mexican President Andrés Manuel López Obrador may have also been spied on.

The project’s research has shed light on the extent to which media professionals, opposition figures and government critics are being subjected to surveillance in many countries. Reporters Without Borders and numerous media outlets around the world have since filed lawsuits against these practices.

“We need a global sanctions regime that fundamentally prohibits and sanctions the export of such technology to authoritarian countries,” says the managing director of Reporters Without Borders Germany, Christian Mihr. “Because such surveillance technology is hostile to freedom of the press and, in the worst case, endangers human lives.”

Reporter caught in the middle

The critical Palestinian journalist Majdoleen Hassona is no stranger to public scrutiny and has seen her work obstructed and charges brought against her by both Israeli and Palestinian authorities.

“I criticize Israel’s human rights violations and crimes that the Israeli army is doing against journalists”, she told DW, “and I criticize the Palestinian Authority for corruption and for restricting freedom of opinion and expression — and this has caused me harm on both sides.”

In late 2015, she took a job with the Turkish broadcaster TRT and moved to Istanbul. She previously worked at various Palestinian news outlets, including 11 months as the main editor of Dooz News, a news portal run by the DW Academy, the German Society for International Cooperation (GIZ) and the University of Nablus.

She visited her homeland in August of 2019 but was prevented from leaving the territory at an Israeli checkpoint “for security reasons.” The Israeli intelligence service imposed the ban. Since then, she has been stuck in the West Bank — but she has continued to do what she has always been doing, working as a journalist.

In June of 2021, the well-known Palestinian critic Nizar Banatdied while in Palestinian police custody. His relatives contend that he was beaten to death by Palestinian security forces.

When Majdoleen Hassona covered the story and reported on the protests following his death, Palestinian forces beat her as well.

She has been awarded this year’s Press Freedom Award in the category “Independence”. In an initial statement, she said she was delighted to receive the award.

“The Freedom Award means a lot to me,” she told DW, “because this award is not given to any journalist, but to every journalist who has been subjected to restrictions on the freedom of the press, and they deserve to exercise their work and their life freely.”

This article was originally written in German.


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