A first prize in the 2007 Akintola Fatoyinbo Africa Education Journalism Award presented me with the opportunity to get away from my hectic schedule in Kampala and earn a most longed for two-week rest in the beautiful Mozambican coastal capital, Maputo.
The 10 days in Maputo, and another four in Johannesburg, have not just enabled me to slow down; they are also affording me a number of fascinating and inspiring chance encounters.
On May 3, for instance, I was among the hundreds who gathered at the Joaquim Chissano International Conference Centre to witness the presentation of the 2008 UNESCO/Cano World Press Freedom Prize to Mexican Journalist Lydia Cacho Ribeiro.
This particular ceremony was graced by several dignitaries, including Mozambican President Armando Guebuza, former President Joaquim Chissano and the UNESCO Director General, but it was Ms Cacho who – rightly – took centre stage.
When the 45-year old journalist stepped up to make her acceptance speech, it turned out to be so powerful that it earned her a standing ovation from nearly everyone in the hall.
“By honouring me tonight you are recognizing the talent of my teachers, of the hundreds of women, men and children who have trusted me with their personal histories, their tragedies and their triumphs. Somehow they knew I would honour their trust by doing my job as a journalist,” she said.
The inspiring thing about Ms Cacho’s story is that she has faced several hurdles in her career, but did not lose her resolve. In her 18 year journalism career, Ms Cacho has been the target of repeated death threats because of her work, especially when she reported about a peadophile ring that included powerful figures in Mexican politics. Her car was sabotaged and she was the victim of police harassment.
“When I was tortured and imprisoned for publishing the story of a network of organised crime in child pornography and sex tourism, I was confronted with the enduring question of the meaning of life. Should I keep going? Should I continue to practice journalism in a country controlled by 300 powerful rich men? Was there any point to demanding justice or freedom in a country where 9 out of every 10 crimes are never solved? Was it worth risking my life for my principles? Of course the answer was… yes,” said Ms Cacho.
But her works have also earned her international acclaim. Besides the $25,000 World Press Freedom Award, she was awarded the Francisco Ojeda Award for journalistic courage in 2006 and, in 2007, the Amnesty International Ginetta Sagan Award for Women and Children’s Rights.
In a moving speech, Ms Cacho told the reasons why she has persevered against the odds. She told of having been contented to keep the promise she had made to the little girls who were abused by pedophiles and child pornographers, and who asked her to tell their stories. She called on other journalists to uphold the virtues of their calling.
“As journalists we should never become messengers of the powers that be. Nor should we surrender to fear and self censorship,” she said.
Three days later, I stood at the very podium that Ms Cacho had used; it was my turn to deliver my acceptance speech for the Africa Education Journalism Award to the 600 delegates and more than 50 education ministers attending the 2008 Biennale on Education in Africa.
Ms Cacho had raised the bar so high with her speech; I did not try to emulate her. I only spoke about the need for politicians to always keep it in mind that the decisions they make can change or ruin the lives of their people. I asked them to ensure that even the ordinary persons in the most remote part of their country get a fair deal from their governments.
For my own speech, I did get a resounding handclap from all in the Joaquim Chissano International Conference Centre that evening. Whether the politicians took the words to heart is another matter. The task for me now, and several other journalists, is to continue to make sure that the politicians are accountable to the people who entrusted them with the duty of making the policies that guide the destiny of their country.
This is no easy task; but Ms Lydia Cacho Ribeiro has once again reminded us all that it can be done. (Publised at BENON HERBERT OLUKA`S BLOG)