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Golden Pen of Freedom Awarded to Iranian Journalist Akbar Ganji

n Iranian journalist who spent the last six years in jail for criticising the Iranian authorities has been awarded the 2006 Golden Pen of Freedom, the annual press freedom prize from the
World Association of Newspapers.

Akbar Ganji, a leading investigative journalist who is now one of Iran’s most renowned dissidents, dedicated the award to "all Iranian dissidents and freedom-fighters."

"And in this category, more than anyone the prize should go to those who fought for freedom and human rights and were as punishment slaughtered during what came to be known as the "Serial Murders," he said, referring to the murders of dissident intellectuals by Intelligence Ministry agents in the late 1990s. Mr Ganji wrote extensively about these cases, implicating leading conservative figures from the ruling establishment in the murders. The Ministry said "rogue agents" were responsible for the killings.

The award was presented Monday during the opening ceremonies of the World Newspaper Congress and World Editors Forum, the global meetings of the world’s press, which drew more than 1,700 newspaper executives and editors to Moscow, Russia. The awards ceremony was the first opportunity for Mr Ganji to address an international audience since his release from prison in March.

Mr Ganji dedicated his prize to others as well -- prisoners who were executed while serving their sentences in 1987, journalists who have been tortured and paralyzed, dissidents deprived of their social rights and imprisoned, and Iranians who have been forced into exile "only because they dared to think and live differently."

Akbar Ganji after his last release in March 2006

Mr Ganji was arrested in 2000 following his participation in a conference in Berlin in which political and social reform were publicly discussed. He was convicted in 2001 of "insulting religious edicts and figures, threatening national security and dissemination of propaganda against the Islamic regime."

He spent most of his term in solitary confinement. He was tortured, and went on months-long hunger strikes, prompting both UN Secretary General Kofi Annan and US President George Bush to call, in vain, for his early release. When he was released on 18 March, he weighed only 48 kilograms (108 pounds).

In presenting the award, the World Association of Newspapers and the World Editors Forum called on the Iranian regime to respect the right of its citizens to freedom of expression.

"Though he is out of prison, Ganji is not yet free," said George Brock, President of the World Editors Forum, who presented the award. "Free political discussion is harder now than it was when his sentence began. The reformist movement is on the wane. Hard-liners have taken over Parliament and ultra-conservative President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad is puring reformists from government. Iran’s judiciary has closed down more than 100 pro-democracy publications in the past five years, including the papers that Ganji wrote for. It is unlikely that any newspaper would risk publishing Ganji’s writings today."

The award citation from WAN said: "Akbar Ganji fights for freedom of expression in Iran but his efforts are watched around the globe. His remarkable resistance to repression and his streadfast refusal to be silenced, at great personal cost, is an inspiration ot journalists everywhere. It is through courageous journalsits who do not capitulate -- even in the face of long prison terms and even death -- that freedom advances."

Read Mr Ganji’s full acceptance speech here.

WAN, the global association of the newspaper industry, has awarded the Golden Pen annually since 1961. Past winners include Argentina’s Jacobo Timerman (1980), South Africa’s Anthony Head (1986), China’s Dai Qing (1992), Vietnam’s Doan Viet Hoat of Vietnam (1998), Zimbabwe’s Geoffrey Nyarota (2002), and Uzbekistan’s Ruslan Sharipov (2004). The 2005 winner was journalist Mahjoub Mohamed Salih of Sudan.

The Paris-based WAN defends and promotes press freedom world-wide. It represents 18,000 newspapers; its membership includes 73 national newspaper associations, newspapers and newspaper executives in 102 countries, 11 news agencies and nine regional and world-wide press groups.


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