Since 2006, the “Samir Kassir Award for Freedom of the Press”, funded by the European Union, rewards journalists from the Middle East and North Africa (the MENA Region) and the Gulf who, through their work, are devoting their lives to human rights and democracy despite the persecution and threats confronting them.
From Beirut to Algiers, via Cairo, Baghdad or Damascus, journalists from the MENA and the Gulf regions have, since 2006, been rewarded for their struggle on behalf of freedom of expression and freedom of the press in their country. Thanks to support from the European Union (EU), the Samir Kassir Foundation now awards three prizes each year to journalists for their work in relation to human rights and democracy at a time when we are witnessing a considerable decline in freedom in many countries.
One of the recipients of the award in 2018 was 35-year old Algerian journalist and author, Miloud Yabrir, for his opinion article “A seat in the dark”, which depicts the Algerian political system in a cinema theatre, the one in which the first Algerian Constitution was adopted and the twists and turns of the Algerian political film from that day to ours. This was an article full of emotion and bitterness which outlined the situation in Algeria with an extraordinary clarity, amounting almost to a premonition, as it was written almost a year before the beginning of the popular protests that brought about the fall of President Bouteflika after 20 years in power. “I submitted my article for the Samir Kassir Award to reach a greater readership. There is very little interest in Algeria, far less than it deserves given that it is a regional power bordering on Europe. The country receives very little visibility in the international media because its political system and decision-making centres are so opaque. Algeria was stuck in a rut politically, even though society was experiencing changes in every area. I wanted other people to read a different text about the Algerian experience and to do so in Arabic. The Samir Kassir Award with its reputation and its neutrality in the MENA region, where most prizes are financed and influenced by the Gulf states, gave me an opportunity to be heard”, Miloud stated.
In 2013, the Samir Kassir Award in the audio-visual report category was awarded to a young Lebanese student, Luna Safwan, just twenty-two years of age, for “The Daily Life of Syrian Refugees in Ersal”. The war in Syria was in full swing with its stream of dead and missing, the refugees fleeing towards neighbouring countries and all the horrors of violence and bombing. The report is moving and gives a very clear picture of the daily life of Syrian refugees in the makeshift camps in Lebanon and yet also manages to respect their privacy.
“I produced this documentary for a university project before posting it on YouTube. Afterwards it was broadcasted on the Lebanese and Syrian channels,” Luna explained. What was important about this documentary was that it was made without any external support. Luna did everything and financed it all. “I am honoured to have received the Samir Kassir Award, to be associated with him loudly and strongly,” the young journalist added. “The award gave me credibility as a journalist, especially as I was just beginning my career. I was a novice. It also helped to shed more light on important problems such as the rights of refugees. I took part in several round table discussions to speak about these questions”. In addition, the award doubled, indeed tripled my self-confidence. At a personal level, it has motivated me to try to do better and better each time. As if each project were an attempt to win another award.
The award also had a big emotional impact on Miloud. “My first time in Beirut was in 2015 to present my first novel at the Book Fair. My Lebanese editor, Rasha el-Amir, invited me on the first day to a restaurant opposite Place Samir Kassir, where his statue is, and my first photo in Lebanon is of me shaking his hand! Three years later, I found myself in Beirut again, this time for the ceremony of the Freedom of Expression Award dedicated to him and the exceptional path he followed. It was an opportunity for me to learn about another committed Arab intellectual and to meet and have discussions with journalists from various MENA countries. By promoting my article, the prize also consoled me personally and gave me the courage to continue to write and to hope for a better future”.
Samir Kassir’s fight is still being fought
Samir Kassir was born on 4 May 1960, the son of a Lebanese-Palestinian father and a Lebanese-Syrian mother. He spent his childhood in Beirut and moved to Paris in 1981 to continue his university studies, six years after the Lebanese war had broken out. At the beginning of the 1990s, Samir returned to Beirut to teach at the Political Science Institute St Joseph University and to join the An-Nahar newspaper’s editorial team. His articles and editorials are considered to have been the principal writings opposing the Syrian stranglehold over the Lebanon during that period. Samir Kassir was subjected to frequent threats and his passport was confiscated. On 2 June 2005, he was assassinated in Beirut, when a bomb placed under his car exploded. His death must be seen in the context of repeated attempts to gag Lebanese free thinkers after the Cedar Revolution, which began in 2005.
The Foundation and the EU
“Samir Kassir’s friends decided to create the foundation, which has a double goal, both journalistic and cultural”, Jad Shahrour, the Foundation’s representative, explained That. is how the Samir Kassir Foundation began its activities of denouncing violations of journalists’ rights and freedom of the press. The Foundation also organises the “Beirut Spring Festival” each year, the aim of which is to grant everyone access to culture.
The award, which began in the Lebanon, has been extended to include the other countries in the region. “The idea is not merely to commemorate the memory of Samir Kassir, but to continue his struggle and his dream” for liberty and democracy not only in Lebanon but throughout the MENA countries, Jad explained, adding: “The award testifies to a common struggle and language bringing together journalists in these countries”.
“What has boosted the activities of the Samir Kassir Foundation is the involvement of the EU in the project since 2006, financing and supporting this award aimed at press freedom in the region,”, he added. The award is fully funded by the EU. The funding covers not only the prizes but all the accompanying logistics, in particular the publicity campaign, the preparations and selection before the award is made and also the follow-up such as archiving, site maintenance and the network created.
In accordance with EU rules, the competition is open to journalists working in both print and audiovisual media.
Candidates may submit an opinion article, an investigative article or an audiovisual report on subjects relating to the rule of law, human rights, good governance, the fight against corruption, freedom of expression, democratic development and citizen participation.
“Over the last years, the topics dealt with by the journalists have reflected the problems in their countries such as corruption, the war in Syria, the atrocities committed by the ‘Islamic State’, human trafficking, etc.”, Jad clarified. More than 32 journalists of various nationalities have won the award in these three categories. The winner in each of the three categories receives an award of €10,000.
The prize really comes into its own after it has been awarded, as it gives the journalist who wins gravitas and credibility at local and international levels. “It also gives a broader dimension to the journalists’ cause. This expands from the individual to the collective. So, freedom, democracy, corruption... all these topics have been dealt with by now with mutual support and solidarity between journalists in the countries affected”, Jad stated.
For its 14th edition, the prize-giving ceremony will be held in Beirut on 30 May 2019. “Today, more than ever, freedom of expression and freedom of the press are in danger in our region. Every day, journalists are threatened, detained, arrested and some are killed because they express their thoughts freely. But the young journalists are standing their ground and helping to construct the rule of law, as can be seen from their enthusiastic participation in the Samir Kassir Award over the last fourteen years”, declared Gisèle Khoury-Kassir, the president of the Samir Kassir Foundation at the press conference launching this new edition.
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