Giving the White House Correspondents‘ Association a Freedom of Speech award was an 'impressive moment of international solidarity' says Turkish commentator Sedat Ergin.
It is obvious that some things around the world are going in a direction that we are not accustomed to. Who would have thought that a leading European media institution would one day present an award to the White House Correspondents' Association to support American journalists' struggle against the US government?
This year, the "Freedom of Speech Award" by Germany's public broadcaster Deutsche Welle was given to the White House Correspondents' Association, which has received general praise for their firm stance against US President Donald Trump's nationalist discourse that targets the press.
The president of the German Press Association, journalist Gregor Mayntz delivered the laudation and started his remarks with a joke that went as follows: "What am I doing here. Standing here must be a mistake, a big misunderstanding." He then reminded the former recipients of the award. The first award in 2015 was presented to blogger and activist Raif Badawi, who is still under arrest in Saudi Arabia. Last year's award was given to the author of this column as the editor-in-chief of daily Hürriyet after its headquarters were attacked.
Sedat Ergin is the former editor-in-chief of the Turkish daily Hürriyet and last year's Freedom of Speech Award recipient
After making these references, Mayntz told the crowd that this was surprising for him. "A freedom of speech award for colleagues from the 'land of the free'... it’s hard to believe," he said.
The award was presented to the president of the White House Correspondents' Association, Jeff Mason. During his acceptance speech, Mason, who works as the White House correspondent for Reuters, could not refrain himself from saying that the situation felt a bit bizarre. "The freedom of speech award is not something that the WHCA would have ever thought or expected… How is it that the White House Correspondents Association came to a position ever to be considered for such an award?"
'We are not fake news'
The association, which Mason presides over, brings together the correspondents who cover the US president in the White House. The press briefing room and the journalists' small working space in the corridor adjacent to the office of the president’s chief of staff's office in the White House’s West Wing.
The White House Correspondents' Association is one of the first establishments that come to mind when one talks about journalism in the US. And President Trump is not at all happy with their presence in the White House.
Last January, a week before President Trump’s inauguration, a report came out citing anonymous sources that the Trump team was considering moving the press corps out of the press briefing room, said Mason in his acceptance speech. He talked about the effort they undertook not to leave the White House.
Because there is a president in the White House who is angry about the media, slams press members at every possible occasion, loudly accuses them of "writing fake news" and threatens them with cancelling their accreditation, Mason has found himself at the forefront of the camp that stands against the fight Trump wages on press members.
Mason's response to Trump's attacks on the media during the WHCA’s traditional dinner in April has already become a classic for US journalism. "It is our job to report on facts. We are not fake news. Freedom of the press is a building block of our democracy. Undermining that by seeking to delegitimize journalists is dangerous to a healthy republic," Mason had said.
Even in a strong and established democracy…
This kind of principled stance against President Trump has made the White House Correspondents' Association and its president a symbol of the resistance the US media is showing.
The most striking part of Mason's acceptance speech was when he read the first amendment of the Constitution of the United States enacted in 1789. "Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the government for a redress of grievances," Mason read.
"If receiving this award sheds light on the importance of press freedom around the world [and] if Deutsche Welle's choice highlights that even in strong and established democracies reporters‘ rights must be fought for… I humbly and gratefully on behalf of the White House Correspondents Association accept this award," said in his closing statement.
It was an impressive moment of international solidarity when hundreds of journalists coming from across the world to attend Deutsche Welle's Global Media Forum gave a particularly long standing ovation to Jeff Mason, at the former German parliament building.
Yes, we are going through an era where journalists even in the US, "the land of liberties," have to fight for their rights.
Who knows what else we will see?
Sedat Ergin is the former editor-in-chief and a current columnist for the daily Turkish newspaper Hürriyet and the recipient of the 2016 DW Freedom of Speech Award.