Lasantha and NYT Journalist Win National Press Club Press Freedom Awards

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Monday, August 3rd, 2009

Slain Sri Lankan editor Lasantha Wickrematunge and a New York Times reporter held captive for seven months received the National Press Club's 2009 John Aubuchon Press Freedom Awards. The awards are bestowed on one international journalist and one American journalist who embody the principles of a free press. They were honored at the Awards Dinner on August 3.

Lasantha Wickrematunge was editor of The Sunday Leader in Sri Lanka until January, when a commando hit squad on motorcycles assassinated him in his car on the way to work.

David Rohde of the New York Times was held captive by the Taliban for seven months before escaping from a compound in Pakistan in June.

"David Rohde and Lasantha Wickrematunge have demonstrated extraordinary commitment to journalism," Club President Donna Leinwand said. "Rohde risked his life, and Wickrematunge gave his life to give their readers the truth. They represent the best in our profession."

Wickrematunge's paper investigated graft and human rights abuses by the Sri Lankan government. He had been attacked before, and predicted he would be killed for exposing the truth in an essay that he instructed should be made public only upon his death. "I hope my assassination will be seen not as a defeat of freedom but an inspiration for those who survive to step up their efforts," he wrote before his death.

The Taliban kidnapped Rohde, his driver and a local reporter last November while Rohde was in Afghanistan working on a book about the history of U.S. involvement there.

The Board of Governors said that Rohde displayed extraordinary courage not only in bravely escaping but also in doggedly reporting about Afghanistan under perilous conditions. He won a Pulitzer this year for his reporting in Afghanistan and Pakistan and, in 1996, for documenting the slaughter of Bosnian Muslims at Srebrenica; he was also held captive back then, by Serbs.

Wickmaratunga and Rohde represent the many reporters who dig for truth in the face of personal jeopardy. "Because of the courage of these men and people like them, press freedom is kept alive around the world despite determined efforts to squelch it," the board said.