The Newseum honored four international champions of free expression at a special evening celebration April 19. The inaugural Newseum Free Expression Awards brought together a New York journalist, a Kenyan activist, a Saudi sheikh and a Russian punk rock band to highlight the importance of protecting and defending expression in the face of oppression.
The event’s host, “CBS Evening News” anchor Scott Pelley, welcomed the audience of supporters to “a fantastic, inspiring, exciting evening,” adding, “It’s humbling to be here with tonight’s honorees.” Pelley said that the tireless work of the award recipients should serve as a stark reminder that “truth can be a dangerous business.”
New York Times reporter James Risen was honored with the Free Press Award in recognition of his seven-year legal battle against the U.S. government to protect the privacy of sources for his book “State of War.” Risen thanked the Newseum for this “amazing honor,” and recognized two American journalists he felt might deserve it even more: James Foley, who was killed by ISIS terrorists in 2014, and Jason Rezaian, the Washington Post reporter recently freed from Iranian prison after 544 days.
“They faced a lot more danger and threats than I ever did,” Risen said.
The Religious Freedom Award honoree, Abdallah bin Bayyah, was unable to travel to the event; his son, Sheikh al Mahfoudh bin Bayyah, and Shaykh Hamza Yusif, president of Zaytuna College, accepted the award on his behalf. Yusuf conveyed bin Bayyah’s gratitude for the honor and shared his hopes that it would encourage others fighting oppression around the world, because “we are all one human family.”
Kenyan activist and photojournalist Boniface Mwangi accepted the Free Speech Award for his efforts to promote free expression through Pawa254, a creative collective of journalists, filmmakers and activists. Mwangi has been arrested, beaten and blackmailed for his work, but demonstrated the strength of his convictions in his acceptance speech.
“It’s an easy thing to be quiet when things go wrong,” Mwangi said. “But you need to raise your voice.”
Nadya Tolokonnikova, a member of Russian punk protest group Pussy Riot, accepted the Arts and Entertainment award via video filmed during a visit to the Newseum earlier this year. She spoke eloquently about her imprisonment for the band’s artistic activism against Russian president Vladimir Putin and provided the evening’s most poignant reminder: “If you don’t protect your freedom every day, you can simply lose it.”
The Free Expression Award honorees were nominated and selected by committees chaired by experts in each field of free expression, including actress Glenn Close, Freedom House president Mark P. Lagon, Washington Post executive editor Marty Baron, and minister and author Oliver “Buzz” Thomas.
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