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Support It | Chapter Ten

Case Study: How Speakers Boost Free Expression at Annual Awards Galas


Awards dinners honouring courageous journalists help the winners, organisations and press freedom. Here’s how:

  • By raising substantial money to fund operating and program costs for the Committee to Protect Journalists and Canadian Journalists for Free Expression
  • By deepening reporters’ understanding of situations faced by counterparts around the world
  • By connecting journalists with international reporters on the ground in another country
  • By giving international journalists someone they can turn to for help and to publicise human rights situations
  • By introducing international journalists to potential employers in North America
  • By providing good media coverage of press freedom issues since the events target journalists

Since 1999, Canadian Journalists for Free Expression (CJFE) has held an annual gala dinner to honour journalists who face threats and persecution for doing their job. To Julie Payne, CJFE manager, one of the best things about the event is that it connects Canadian reporters with international journalists, and that both parties benefit from the solidarity of their fellow journalists across the globe.

“When you have someone going back to a country where they could be put in danger again, it's important that you've helped them find international contacts that they can turn to for help and to publicise the situation,” says Payne.

Meanwhile, Canadian journalists develop a deeper understanding of situations faced by their counterparts in different parts of the world, and they gain personal contacts for reporting on the ground.

Often, the connections made by CJFE and the Canadian and international journalists continue beyond the gala. For instance, 2011/12 award winner Luis Horacio Nájera of Mexico was forced to seek asylum in Canada after reporting about drug trafficking and corruption in Ciudad de Juarez. He told CJFE he was having trouble finding journalism work in his new country and that he wanted to use the trip to Toronto to meet with potential employers.

CJFE arranged for him to stay in the homes of several journalists and NGO workers in Ottawa and Toronto, who introduced him to many new contacts. The organisation also helped set up meetings with top media houses.

The gala also raises a substantial portion of the organisation's operating and programmatic costs. Besides a huge army of volunteers, CJFE also relies on the support of two major Canadian broadcasting organisations that either sponsor the reception or create the videos presented during the ceremony.

The Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) also holds a successful annual awards dinner honouring courageous reporting. Robert Mahoney, CPJ's deputy director, says it makes a big difference when the appeals to support CPJ are made by the journalists themselves. “It puts a face on the statistics. If you make an appeal to people on the basis of an individual, it will resonate much more than if you make an appeal based on statistics alone,” says Mahoney.


Both CJFE and CPJ have honed the reputations of their events over many years, which helps draw large crowds. And since each event is repeated annually, the organisations are saved from having to start from scratch each year. Nonetheless, the events always require months of planning. In January, just a few months after CPJ's awards dinner has passed, the group begins to think of the next one. The organisation performs rigorous background checks on the candidates and informs awardees by June. Winners receive packages that offer advice on what they should bring to New York, where they will be staying, and so on. A CPJ staff member will also call the award winners to explain the purpose of the award, what will be expected from the recipient, and what the winner can expect from the organisation.

Mahoney says that while all trip-related expenses will be covered, “we make it clear that this is not a monetary award; rather, the award is designed to further freedom of expression in their own country.”


Securing visas for the award winners is always a difficult and delicate undertaking, says Payne of CJFE. The organisation first sends an introductory letter to the Canadian embassy in the award winner's country explaining what CJFE is, why the individual has been chosen for the award, and why the award is important for championing the cause of press freedom. Often, CJFE will communicate with the embassy on a regular basis. Persistence is key, says Payne.


When it comes to speeches, both organisations stress the importance of rehearsing. The staff at CJFE have the award winners read their speech aloud to ensure each speaker stays within the allotted time frame (usually from two to seven minutes each), which is very important considering the number of guests scheduled to speak. Plus, Payne points out that most of the reporters being honoured are used to telling the stories of others. Telling their own stories can take journalists out of their comfort zone and makes rehearsing even more necessary.

The award winners are also reminded that they do not need to provide a great deal of background information in their speeches: their stories are told both in the gala publication and in videos which are shown immediately before they are presented with the award.

CPJ staff listen to their awardees' speeches a few days in advance so they have time to help shape them and ensure they will resonate with the audience. One of the key points staff members stress is to keep it simple. “Some journalists will have a lot of amorphous experiences they want to talk about,” says Mahoney. “We try to get them to narrow in on one story or anecdote.”


The speeches tend to hit home when they highlight emotionally powerful stories while avoiding overly complicated information about legal systems or political history. “You have to appeal to the audience on an emotional rather than an intellectual level,” says Mahoney.

This does not mean, however, that a speech need be overly sentimental. For example, Mustafa Haji Abdinur, a journalist from Somalia who was honoured by CPJ in 2009, captured the attention of the audience by very matter-of-factly talking about the day he walked out of his office with a colleague and watched as his colleague was shot dead directly in front of him. Wrapping up his speech, Haji Abdinur said, “Friends, if a journalist is killed, the news is also killed. Please don't forget us.”


Since both awards nights are targeted toward journalists, each organisation reaches out to larger audiences through the media. CJFE has discovered that the week of their event is so hectic they simply don't have time to respond to media requests and set up interviews. As a solution, they work with a public relations company which donates its services to handle those arrangements.

Getting the media to recognise the work of CJFE in their articles can be difficult, notes Payne. Often, the only coverage the organisation will get is that the name of the event or award will be mentioned. Since the event was originally called International Press Freedom Awards, articles that mentioned the awards sometimes wouldn't include the name of the organisation at all. CJFE solved this problem in 2010, by changing the event's name to CJFE Gala: A night to honour fearless reporting.

CPJ's event also requires effective logistical planning around press interviews and meetings. Each award winner is assigned a staff member who can ensure the individual arrives on time to media interviews and other side events. CPJ also arranges meetings with U.S. congress people and diplomatic ambassadors representing the award winner's country, giving the awardees the opportunity to influence U.S. and international government interventions on press freedom.

Mahoney recognises that downtime is scarce, and the schedule can be arduous. Although the awardees find the trip “mind blowing and exhausting,” Mahoney says the journalists are awed and greatly encouraged by the number of people they meet who are curious about and supportive of the press situation in their country. CPJ tries to keep the momentum going by continuing contact with the awardees after they have returned to their country of residence. “They become our eyes and ears on the ground,” Mahoney says.

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