National Press Club

Club honors jailed journalists with Press Freedom awards

July 31, 2015 | By Mark Schoeff Jr. | markschoeff@gmail.com

Ali Rezaian (left) accepts the John Aubuchon Press Freedom Award from NPC president John Hughes on behalf of his brother, Jason, who has been jailed in Iran since 2014.

Ali Rezaian (left) accepts the John Aubuchon Press Freedom Award from NPC president John Hughes on behalf of his brother, Jason, who has been jailed in Iran since 2014.

Photo/Image: Noel St. John

The top honorees at the National Press Club awards dinner on July 29 couldn’t attend the event – not due to deadlines or travel but because they are in jail.

The Club presented its John Aubuchon Press Freedom Award to two U.S. reporters – Jason Rezaian of The Washington Post and freelance reporter Austin Tice – and a foreign correspondent – Khadija Ismayilova of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty – who are being detained in Iran, Syria and Azerbaijan, respectively.

The Club announced their awards earlier in the year in order to increase pressure on their government captors for their release. The goal was to push for their freedom before the awards dinner.

Over the past several months, the Club has held news conferences, issued statements, conducted satellite interviews from its broadcast center and met with State Department officials and diplomats, NPC President John Hughes said.

“While these efforts have not yet proven successful, we are not giving up,” Hughes, an editor at Bloomberg News, told a dinner audience of more than 200. “Press freedom is central to all that we do at the National Press Club. We have family, colleagues and friends of these reporters here tonight. I want them to know, I want all of you to know, we will not stop fighting for these three honorees until they are free to do their jobs.”

The Aubuchon recipients were among journalists honored in 14 categories of Club awards.

The Club also presented journalism scholarships and a fellowship to three students – Megan Elizabeth Zahneis of West Chester, Ohio; Alycia Washington of Farmington Hills, Mich.; and Madi Alexander of Columbia, Mo.

Editors, relatives and friends of the Aubuchon winners said that in each case, the reporters are victims of governments that are trying to shut down press coverage. They are being persecuted for fundamental journalism.

Rezaian has been held in an Iranian jail for more than a year. On July 22, the Club hosted a press conference in which the Washington Post announced that it had filed a petition for his release with the United Nations Working Group on Arbitrary Detention. Rezaian’s brother, Ali, thanked the Club and the journalism community for its help during the family’s ordeal.

“Each of you should be proud of the support that you give to Jason and others who are being punished for choosing to follow their calling to share their stories and the knowledge they have with the world through the press,” Ali Rezaian said at the dinner.

Lindsay Hamilton, a friend of Austin Tice, described his exuberance for journalism, even from dangerous locations. She recounted a Facebook post in which Tice told his friends, “Quit telling me to be safe… [reporting from Syria] is the greatest feeling of my life.”

Ismayilova “has paid the price for living her principles in journalism,” said Nenad Pejic, editor in chief of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty. “These awards show they are not forgotten.” The honors “must be used to show governments and the world that we know they are jailing innocent people who are simply doing their jobs,” Pejic said.

The scholarships and fellowship were funded by the National Press Club Journalism Institute, the Club’s non-profit arm, and are designed to promote diversity in the field.

Zahneis has battled a rare neurological disorder by becoming a voracious reader and prolific writer, including contributions to the Major League Baseball news website.

“I want to be the voice of the next generation and I want to harness the power of words,” said Zahneis, who will attend Miami University of Ohio in the fall.

Washington won a scholarship for her stories about “everyday people in Detroit” who have strengthened the city’s social fabric through their volunteerism during tough economic times. She is set to attend the University of Missouri.

Alexander, who is a master’s degree student at the University of Missouri specializing in data journalism, will use the fellowship she won from the Club to cover tuition for a project in Washington that is part of her course of study.