- The Washington Times - Thursday, November 20, 2003

Cuban journalist Manuel Vazquez Portal will not be available to receive the 2003 International Press Freedom Award that the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) will present to him and other reporters on Tuesday.

He is in a prison cell in Santiago de Cuba, passing time on a dirty mattress without blankets or pillow under a ceiling that leaks when it rains and with a toilet that’s more of a “hole regurgitating its stench 24 hours a day.”

Mr. Vazquez, 52, writer, poet and founder of the independent news agency Grupo de Trabajo Decoro, described the conditions in a letter from prison in June.

He was arrested in March when the Cuban government conducted a massive crackdown on the island’s tiny independent press and other opposition figures.

In April, after a summary trial, Mr. Vazquez was sentenced to 18 years in prison. Another 27 reporters, writers and activists received sentences from 14 to 27 years.

Frank Smyth, Washington representative for CPJ, said there seems to be no reason why Mr. Vazquez was targeted, but that his opinion columns have been consistently critical of the regime.

Most of them have been published in the Miami-based news Web site CubaNet and, while in prison in June, his wife, Yolanda Huerga, smuggled excerpts from his prison journal that were printed in several publications.

CPJ is demanding that Fidel Castro’s regime release Mr. Vazquez and the others.

The group’s executive director, Ann Cooper, said the award is a way of giving moral support to Mr. Vazquez and other independent reporters.

The 2003 award also honors the work of three international journalists and an American correspondent.

Aboubakr Jamai is the publisher of two publications in Morocco that investigate government corruption, corporate impropriety and taboo political stories.

The government closed both papers in 2000. When Mr. Jamai relaunched them with new names, he and a colleague were convicted of defamation.

Mr. Jamai said the monarchy there concentrates all power, so everything related to the government is sacred.

“It’s extremely difficult to report. … To do our job is to defame the king,” he said.

Another journalist to be honored is Musa Muradov, editor in chief of Chechnya’s only independent publication.

Two of his reporters have been killed, and threats have forced him to edit the newspaper from Moscow.

Another award recipient, Abdul Samay Hamed, is a writer and publisher in Afghanistan. He founded an organization to promote writer’s rights and a magazine about political and social problems. In April, two men attacked him with knives in reprisal for his criticism of Afghan warlords.

John F. Burns, chief foreign correspondent for the New York Times, will receive the CPJ’s Burton Benjamin Award for lifetime achievement. He has covered war zones as Bosnia, Afghanistan and South Africa at the height of the apartheid and has won two Pulitzer prizes.

The awards will be presented Tuesday in New York.

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