MONROVIA – Liberia has once again been placed in the global spotlight, with one of her illustrious daughters— Mae Azango named as a juror on the prestigious United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization, UNESCO/Guillermo Cano World Press Freedom Prize selection committee.
Azango is a leading investigative journalist for FrontPage Africa Newspaper— Liberia’s largest daily circular, and Country Director of New Narratives a non-profit media developer that builds news organizations in Liberia and Sierra Leone. Azango reports mostly on rape, gender-based violence, and trafficking of women and children. In 2012, She was awarded International Press Freedom Awards by the Committee to Protect Journalists and Canadian Journalists for Free Expression.
Earlier that year, she went into hiding and eventually fled Liberia after her story on the practice of Female Genital Mutilation, FGM in parts of the country exposed the forceful recruitment and initiation of school-going young girls into the Sande Bush, where their genitals were cut off by Sande masters. But her work is credited for helping to halt the practice as the government, for the first time ever, placed a ban months later. She narrates the full events in her upcoming book, Fleeing the Cut. Her memoire of her experiences during the first Liberian civil war, Voice of the Trumpetess (2017) published by FORTE Publishing Int’l has received much acclaim.
“On behalf of UNESCO’s Director-General, I am pleased to invite you to become a member of the Jury of the UNESCO/Guillermo Cano World Press Freedom Prize for a term of three years, from 2022 to 2024. This invitation is recognition of your profound commitment to the principles of press freedom, as well as the considerable contribution you have already made to these ideals”, -the UN agency’s Communication and Information Sector Assistant Director-General, Tawfik Jelassi wrote in an official communication to Azango about her selection.
Established in 1997 by UNESCO and an independent jury of “eminent journalists and editors”, the Prize honours “a person, organization or institution that has made a notable contribution to the promotion of press freedom.” It is named in honour of the assassinated Colombian journalist, Guillermo Cano Isaza, who was gunned in front of the offices of his newspaper El Espectador in Bogotá, in 1986. The Prize gets its funding from the Guillermo Cano Isaza Foundation (Colombia), the Helsingin Sanomat Foundation (Finland), Namibia Media Trust and Democracy & Media Foundation Stichting Democratie & Media.
Ms. Azango joins five other well accomplished “independent members”, drawn from all six regions defined by UNESCO that represent all types of media including digital media. Other jurors include Alfred Lela, an Albanian and President of the jury, an Iraqi- Zainab Salbi; a Japanese– Yasuomi Sawa, a Dutch—Margo Smit, and a Chilean—Mauricio Weibel.
Azango and fellow jurors are to serve three-years renewable once. They will recommend one winner after deliberations. UNESCO’s Director-General will then make a final decision, “on the basis of the assessments and recommendations made to him/her by the jury.” The members of the Jury will also assist UNESCO in matters relating to media legislation, media ethics and the assessment of media in various countries, according to the agency.
Over the years, the Prize’s selection committee has benefited from the service of some of the best in the industry, like the Filipina and current Nobel Peace laurate, Maria Ressa, Hamid Mir (Pakistan), Mabel Rehnfeldt (Paraguay), Saouti Haidara (Mali), Miranda Patrucic (Bosnia and Herzegovina), Paul Steiger (United States of America), Fatuma Noor (Kenya).
Annually, the awardee takes away $25,000, making it one of the biggest and most sought after in the industry. But while journalists and media practitioners clamor, despots and leaders of repressive regimes can’t but consider the Prize a grooming ground of ‘radicals’ as evident in the persons of some past winners- the Mexican journalist Jesus Blancornelas (1999), who survived a 1997 assassination attempt for his exposés on corruption and drug trafficking, and the Chinese Gao Yu (1997) its maiden laurate, who was detained in 1989 following the Tiananmen protests, then released 14 months later because of health problems, only to be arrested several other times.
Azango is one of few Africans privileged to have been selected as a juror. In the twenty-four-year history of the award, ten African countries have had representatives, with Kenya and Mali being the only two with double representations (two different persons selected). The Prize has had five African laurates; an Egyptian Mahmoud Abu Zeid (2018),an EritreanDawit Isaak (2017), an EthiopianReeyot Alemu (2013),a Zimbabwean Geoffrey Nyarota (2002) and a NigerianChristina Anyanwu (1998).
Other notable laurates include the Colombian journalist Jineth Bedoya Lima (2020) for her work on sexual violence and conflict; the imprisoned Iranian journalist Ahmad Zeidabadi (2011); the journalist and human rights activist, Eynulla Fatullayev (2012) from Azerbaijan; the assassinated Sri Lankan journalist and editor Lasantha Wickrematunge (2009) and the murdered Russian journalist and Kremlin critic, Anna Politkovskaya (2007).
Azango’s selection to the jury comes at a time when Liberian journalism is under heavy criticism. The poor content across medium is unbearable. The low pay is shameful- as media houses struggle to pay their employees for months and in some cases, years. These journalists now have to chase the money wherever they can find, to survive. The allegations of pay-for-print are seriously affecting the credibility of the industry. This sometimes leads to self-censorship as some journalists fear reporting on those who allegedly give them money.
As we congratulate Mae Azango on her selection, it is our hope that some young journalists might be motivated to work harder and follow in the footsteps of the few journalists and media institutions that strive to uphold the tenets of the profession.