Editor Dawn Zaffar Abbas receives CPJ's Gwen Ifill Press Freedom Award

Updated November 22, 2019

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In July, CPJ had announced Zaffar Abbas as the recipient of the award. — Photo courtesy Signal Twitter account
In July, CPJ had announced Zaffar Abbas as the recipient of the award. — Photo courtesy Signal Twitter account

Editor Dawn Zaffar Abbas was awarded the 2019 Gwen Ifill Press Freedom Award by the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) on Friday for "extraordinary and sustained achievement in the cause of press freedom".

American journalist Lester Holt presented the award to Abbas at a ceremony in New York.

"There could be a no more deserving recipient than Zaffar Abbas," Holt said.

Addressing the ceremony, Abbas detailed his personal journey as a journalist and the challenges he had faced as well as the challenges faced by Dawn.

"I have spent almost 40 years trying to tell the truth. Surrender is not journalism, reporting the truth is," he said.

According to CPJ, the award, previously known as the Burton Benjamin Memorial Award, was renamed in 2017 to honour Gwen Ifill, a veteran journalist and former board member who died in 2016.

Notable past recipients of the award include Alan Rusbridger, former editor-in-chief of The Guardian who was awarded in 2012, The Associated Press's Kathy Gannon who was the recipient in 2015, and CNN's Christiane Amanpour who received it in 2016.

In July, CPJ had announced Abbas as the recipient of the award.

In a statement released by the CPJ to announce the award, it had observed that at a time when journalists and media in Pakistan were facing extraordinary pressure, Abbas continued to be a vocal supporter of steps taken to keep journalists safe. In 2015, he was elected as the chairman of Editors for Safety, a body of editors who work to provide protection to journalists facing threats.

"Zaffar Abbas is the embodiment of journalistic courage, which is why the board is so pleased to honour him with the Gwen Ifill Press Freedom Award," said Kathleen Carroll, chair of the CPJ board.

"Every day he fights to deliver facts to Dawn's readers in the face of pressure, obstacles, and blockades from the institutions in Pakistan that would much prefer to go about their business without scrutiny from the press or the public."

Abbas, who was named Dawn's editor in 2010, started his journalism career in 1981 as a junior reporter for The Star, a Karachi-based newspaper.

He started working with the Herald magazine in 1988 as an investigative journalist and later joined the BBC as the network's Pakistan correspondent in 1992. He joined Dawn in 2006 and covered the insurgency and civil war in Afghanistan during the Soviet occupation, post-9/11 events and their impact on the region which included the rise of religious extremism.

Abbas has been subjected to intimidation and physical torture more than once in his journalism career. He and his brother were attacked at their house by armed men in 1991 when he reported on the activities of the Muttahida Qaumi Movement. A few years later, when he was working at the BBC, the network's office in Islamabad was set on fire by militants and Abbas and his colleague were physically assaulted. The violence was said to be a reaction to two videos broadcast on the BBC regarding sectarian killings in the country.

In recent years, Dawn has come under increasing pressure and its circulation has been disrupted in several cities on multiple occasions after the paper published an exclusive report in 2016 pertaining to relations between the civil and military leadership. The CPJ statement, quoting Abbas, said that he and the reporter of the news story were subjected to hours of interrogation by members of intelligence agencies but refused to reveal their sources.

"Even discussing politics or serious conflicts can be a red line," the CPJ quoted Abbas as saying.