National Press Club announces 2019 press freedom honorees

The National Press Club will give its annual John Aubuchon Press Freedom Award this year to a journalist in Kashmir jailed for nearly a year for his reporting and to a U.S. reporter who has doggedly produced important accountability journalism despite harassment from powerful people.

Each year, the Club gives its Aubuchon award to one journalist from the United States and one from overseas who bravely pushes to disclose the truth in trying circumstances.

The foreign award this year goes to Aasif Sultan, a journalist with the Kashmir Narrator monthly magazine. The domestic award goes to Mackenzie Mays, a Politico journalist who formerly reported for McClatchy’s Fresno Bee in California.

Aasif Sultan
Sultan was imprisoned last August and is accused of aiding insurgents even though he merely reported on them. The police seized his electronic devices and notebooks. They interrogated him about his sources and asked him to become an informant, his editor has said.

Sultan’s case reflects worsening conditions for the press and citizenry in Kashmir, a region in northern India that is partly controlled by India and partly by Pakistan. The Indian-controlled section has been semi-autonomous for decades.

But the current Indian government, led by Prime Minister Narendra Modi, moved earlier this month to bring the region fully under the central government’s control. Modi’s government has instituted a crackdown and a communications blackout that has left journalists struggling to report the news, and many have been incarcerated or beaten.

“India is the world’s largest democracy and has close relations with the United States,” said Club President Alison Kodjak. “It is completely unacceptable for India to violate the basic human rights of reporters and to deny the people of Kashmir access to unfiltered information through an unfettered press.”

Mackenzie Mays
Mays wrote stories for the Fresno Bee in 2017 and 2018 that angered powerful people. They lashed out at her, yet she kept doing her job: holding authorities to account.

In 2018, Mays wrote a story about alleged drug use and prostitution on a San Francisco Bay boat cruise sponsored by a winery that is partly owned by Devin Nunes, the California congressman.

The story did not state that Nunes was on the boat or knew about the cruise, and it noted that Nunes did not respond to a request for comment. He never sought a correction and none was written.

After the story ran, Nunes sought to tar Mays and the Fresno Bee--online, in broadcast ads and with a 38-page mailer that assailed the paper and contained a photo of Mays. Just this week, he filed a defamation lawsuit against the paper.

Likewise, in 2017, the Fresno school board chief didn’t like a story Mays had written that quoted him. He called her the "ministress of propaganda" and "Mackenzie 'fakenews' Mays" on social media. He put her phone number on Facebook and encouraged those who agreed with him to go to her house--all of which emboldened other social-media trolls to verbally attack her and to make her worry about her security.

“Mays represents the best of local journalism, which is increasingly challenged,” said Barbara Cochran, president of the National Press Club Journalism Institute, the Club’s non-profit affiliate. “Mays persevered in the face of an anti-media scourge that is now all too common: online trolling, nuisance lawsuits and implied or direct threats. We have sometimes seen such verbal smears transform dangerously into physical attacks and even murder.”

The John Aubuchon Press Freedom Award is named after a former Club president who fervently advocated for press freedom.

The Club will confer the 2019 Aubuchon awards at its annual Fourth Estate Dinner on Oct. 17.

The National Press Club is the world’s leading professional organization for journalists and represents some 3,000 reporters, editors and professional communicators worldwide. The National Press Club Journalism Institute promotes an engaged global citizenry through an independent and free press and equips journalists with skills and standards to inform the public in ways that inspire civic engagement.