The past year was just as daunting in terms of press freedom and its toll on journalists and journalism as in years past, but the mood in the room managed to be festive. Perhaps journalists have grown numb to the bad news, or at least decided to honor those journalists who were tenacious and even lucky enough to walk away from scenes in Syria, China, Southern Africa, Nigeria, Honduras, Afghanistan and many other dangerous and difficult places to tell the story, when so many of their compatriots have not.
The 74th OPC Annual Awards Dinner started on the thirty-fifth floor of the Mandarin Oriental where guests mingled around two well-stocked bars, rounds of hors d’oeuvres and celebratory image panels that honored this year’s recipients, all courtesy of party sponsor, Lenovo. The room became loud and elbow-to-elbow with people dressed in tuxedos and cocktail dresses. Jamie Doran arrived wearing a tartan kilt and Fabio Bucciarelli wore aviator sunglasses, but they were award winners so shaking up the status quo seemed a part of their job and gave a rebel quality to the room.
The candle that is lit at the beginning of the dinner honors those journalists who are killed or missing in action. This year’s tribute was again a moving one with Diane and John Foley lighting the candle for all journalists and in particular, for their son James Foley who has been missing in action in Syria since Thanksgiving Day 2012. The Foley family has launched an internet campaign freejamesfoley.org to raise awareness for their son’s situation and to urge the Syrian government to release him. The Foleys are all-too familiar to concerns of journalist safety and press freedom as James was also taken for a month by the Libyan government in April/May 2011.
The Hal Boyle Award winner submitted her work to the judges anonymously, one of two winners of the night to do so. (The other was CNN for the David Kaplan Award, which remains "anonymous.") Upon winning, the Los Angeles Times identified the journalist of the winning entries to be Raja Abdulrahim. Judge coordinator Arlene Getz wrote in the introduction to this year’s winners, "Not since the Cold War have there been ‘Anonymous’ entries to the OPC awards. In 1969, the Robert Capa Gold Medal went to an anonymous Czech photographer who covered his country’s upheavals. Only after the collapse of the Soviet Union was the name of the photographer revealed." Abdulrahim took the award and went off stage without giving an acceptance speech. It was unclear if her leaving without speaking was intentional for her safety or a shyness that gave way last minute, but it turned out that it was only a misunderstanding at the podium and she was called back up to accept her award and address the audience. "I’d rather sneak into Syria than talk in front of a crowd," Abdulrahim said.
She relayed an experience she had a year before when she spent the night in a Jordanian jail trying to get into Syria and was caught by a Jordanian soldier. "Aside from having a rifle shoved in my face, it was a pretty easy experience," she said. She shared a cell that night with a brothel madam who said that if she was taken to jail, don’t go to cell block 3, those women are dangerous, they will cut you. "Luckily the next day I was released thanks to help from the U.S. Consulate," she said. "But [my experience is] one of the most minor of hazards that journalists face when reporting on Syria. The challenges that we face in Syria underscore what the activists that we rely on face daily. The activists sometimes look at us and say, ‘we know why we’re here but why are you here?’ And I think for any journalist who’s inside Syria and sees the situation and desperate need for coverage on the ground knows that answer."
Thomas Nast Award winner Rob Rogers from the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette put together a slideshow of his work and wanted to illustrate how at odds cartoonists can be with editors and so he drew different brains. On the first illustration, Rogers showed that the largest part of the cartoonist’s brain is "toilet humor," whereas the smallest part of the editor’s brain is "sense of humor."
The Feature Photography Award was won by Oded Balilty of the Associated Press for his photos of an ultra orthodox wedding outside of Tel Aviv. "I’ve been covering the Israeli-Palestinian conflict for the AP for over a decade. If you would have asked me do you believe you’ll be in New York getting an award for wedding pictures, I would have said it would never happen," he said as the audience laughed. "This is the first time I’ve won something for work that is happy and it’s very important for me that we can show from the same office the conflict but also the other side of life in Israel."
Another astonishing winner was Alberto Arce for the Robert Spiers Benjamin Award for reporting from Latin America. Arce is a one-man reporting team for the Associated Press in Honduras, one of the most violent countries in the world. "Everybody says I’m brave, but I think my editors are brave because they invest in having a person in a place where nobody cares," he said. "The challenge for me is to put a small village on the mosquito coast on your map."
Tom Brokaw, intrepid NBC News anchor from 1982 to 2004, received the President’s Award with a standing ovation. "These are evenings of renewal for our profession," he said. "I was struck tonight of the sense of nobility, honor, courage and importance that these winners represent." He said that the winners, hailing from a varied background, men and women, reflect a changing tide in a type of reporter that was not on the ground twenty years ago. Technology and "borderless" states have excelerated the news cycle and what it means to be a foreign correspondent. "We were reminded last week in Boston that it is a world without borders. Where is overseas? We are caught up in wars that are stateless. we are also dealing with other profound changes in the economic make up of this world — smaller planet with many more people. In my travels today, I find people have an enormous appetite for wanting to know not only what happened but what it means."
William J. Holstein served as dinner chair and filled the room to capacity selling tables and Arlene Getz of Thomson Reuters served as Head Judge.