BEIRUT: Egyptian newspaper editor Ibrahim Essa was awarded the 2008 Gebran Tueni Award on Saturday in a ceremony that honored the memory of the slain An-Nahar publisher.
Tueni, a vocal critic of Syrian policy in Lebanon, was assassinated on December 12, 2005, by a massive car bomb, just months after his An-Nahar colleague Samir Kassir and former Prime Minister Rafik al-Hariri were killed in similar attacks. Those responsible for the attacks have yet to be identified.
The ceremony, held at the Conference Palace in Antelias, north of Beirut, was organized by An-Nahar in partnership with the World Association of Newspapers (WAN) and the Third Annual Arab Free Press Forum, which concluded Saturday.
The Gebran Tueni Award, consisting of a 10,000 euro stipend (about $13,400), has been made annually to a newspaper publisher or editor in the Middle East since 2005. Its jurors are made up of WAN representatives and the Tueni family.
According to the WAN website, the award is given "to the publisher or editor who is judged to have best demonstrated the values incarnated by Gebran Tueni and his newspaper: an attachment to the freedom and independence of the press, courage, leadership, ambition, high managerial and professional standards."
Essa, editor in chief of the Egyptian independent newspaper Al-Dustour, embodied those values, WAN's president, Gavin O'Reilly, said at the ceremony. Al-Dustour was banned by the Egyptian authorities between 1998 and 2005, and Essa has faced numerous court cases and indictments for tackling the issues of press freedom and corruption in his country.
"Issues pertaining to press freedom are at the core of WAN's mandate and it has proven crucial to monitor situations closely and take action when freedom of the press is violated," O'Reilly told an audience of ministers, diplomats and journalists. "In most of this region, we have seen the hostility toward the independent and opposition media rising and the mechanisms of repression multiplying," he said, singling out Iraq as one of the most dangerous places to work as a journalists, with 14 killed in 2008 alone.
"I find remarkable the commitment and determination of the Arab independent press and of those who defend it, to carry on and challenge those in power, and those who do their utmost to try to silence them," O'Reilly said. "These brave journalists stand for the right to inform, investigate, criticize and express opinions that are contrary to those held by the regimes in power," he said, adding that the media in the Arab world had "yet to reach its full potential."
Before presenting Essa with his award, Tueni's daughter Nayla said those responsible for her father's murder had "wanted to assassinate An-Nahar and the 'Naharists' with the intention of taking Lebanon back to the dark era, but their attempt failed."
The younger Tueni, now deputy general manager of her father's newspaper, spoke of the importance of Lebanon's 2009 legislative elections, saying they would determine the country's fate. She urged the Lebanese, and Christians in particular, to "vote for freedom and liberals by voting for the "one state," rather than the "statelets left behind" by the ending of Syria's military presence in 2005.
In a heavily politicized speech, Tueni said "Christians must vote for those working to share and for those that will work on preventing a repetition of the May 7 events, when civil peace was pounced upon." Tueni was referring to the brief takeover of western Beirut and other areas this year by opposition gunmen led by Hizbullah.
"The spring of freedom," Tueni said, urged the Lebanese to "vote for the truth, justice and for those seeking, working and struggling for the international tribunal, not for those attempting to" obstruct it. The tribunal, which will try those suspected of involvement in the murder of Hariri and other figures, is due to begin on March 1.
Healthy diplomatic relations with Syria could only be established through the mutual exchange of embassies, Tueni said.
"Vote for those that seek a defense strategy for the nation, for exclusively maintaining arms in the hands of the state," she continued. "Vote for one weapon, that of the Lebanese Armed Forces, which is subject to the Lebanese government, and not for arms that receive orders from outside and that wage the wars of others on our land," she urged.
"If Syria wants to resist Israel," it can do so from its own territory rather than Lebanon, Tueni said. Syria must also provide Lebanon with information about the fate of Lebanese citizens thought to be detained in Syria since the Lebanese 1975-1990 Civil War, she said.
Tueni ended by saying the "blood" of her father and "those of the Cedar Revolution cannot accept any form of treason."
After being presented his award by Tueni and WAN CEO Timothy Balding, Essa said he was "proud to accept this award, especially as it bears the name of Gebran Tueni, who is a figure representing freedom of expression in the Arab media."
Journalism in the Arab world was in a critical situation, the Egyptian editor added.
"It is the destiny of the free journalist to face a booby-trapped car or a booby-trapped article of law. They may also face a booby-trapped fatwa [religious edict]," he said.
"It is as if dictators, terrorists and other corrupt people agree on jeopardizing the freedom of journalists," he said.
All journalists in the Arab world had one cause, the newspaper editor said, adding that they "should stand together, support each other and put their differences aside."