Distant voices: the Amnesty media awards for human rights journalism

Writing in 1992, two years after the death in Iraq of The Observer journalist Farzad Bazoft, the writer and fellow journalist John Pilger paid tribute to a reporter "who died pursuing his craft with the kind of independence and courage that is rare".

In a notorious move even for the despicable government of Saddam Hussein, the 31-year-old Bazoft was hanged on 15 March 1990 after being arrested, accused of "spying" and given a sham one-day trial behind closed doors. All these years later his terrible fate is still a chilling reminder of the risks some journalists take in the course of their work.

In the year that Pilger recalled Bazoft's tragic death, Amnesty International set up its media awards to help recognise journalists who pursue human rights-based work. In that year, 1992, Amnesty awards were given to The Yorkshire Post's Robert Holmes, Yorkshire Television's Peter Gordon (it was clearly a good year for Yorkshire-based journalism ...), Marie Claire's Christina Lamb, the Radio 4 Today programme's Alan Little, and the Independent on Sunday's Robert Fisk.

Nearly a quarter of a century later, the Amnesty media awards are still going - as indeed are several of these journalists (it's interesting, by the way, to realise how some of these names still loom large in the world of human rights journalism; if the Amnesty award played even a small part in encouraging their career paths, then all to the good).

So, powerful, revelatory reporting, high-profile journalists, awards and wider recognition. It all sounds rosy enough, but this sometimes comes at a very high cost. According to the Committee to Protect Journalists, a staggering 1,153 journalists have been killed since Pilger published that Bazoft tribute back in 1992. That's an average of about 80 journalists every year - a quite terrifying mortality rate.

In recent years a large proportion of the journalists who've died were trying to report on Syria and its descent into the world's biggest bloodbath and worst humanitarian disaster. Syria was the deadliest place on the planet for journalists in the years 2012, 2013 and 2014 (this year, because of the Charlie Hebdo attack, France has been slightly more deadly but who would bet against yet more journalists dying in Syria before the year is out?).

Given the malign dominance of Syria it's perhaps only fitting that quite a few of this year's Amnesty media awards entries concern that country. There's Anders Fjellberg & Tomm W Christiansen's riveting feature article The Boys Who Could See England, about two Syrian asylum-seekers who apparently drowned in the English Channel. There's Channel 4's very powerful Dispatches documentary Escape From ISIS, about the rescue of Yazidi women and girls who'd been abducted by the Islamic State armed group in northern Iraq and taken to Raqqa in Syria (I blogged about this when it was broadcast in July). And there are numerous entries concerned with the enormous Middle Eastern and European refugee crisis that the Syria conflict is generating. 

In his book Distant Voices, John Pilger, scourge of the mainstream, rails against the conformity of much modern journalism. But he also praises "outstanding independent journalists", even those who actually do work in the mainstream media but try to plough their own furrow. The Amnesty media awards are for exactly these kinds of journalists.

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