The price of press freedom

Freedom to speak truth to power most always comes at some personal cost.

For Luis Horacio Najera, the price of truth telling has meant exchanging a journalist’s notebook and camera for a janitor’s broom.

By reporting information that would put his life at risk, he has been deprived of the opportunity to do work he has long loved.

For journalists, who are most often fuelled by great passion for our work, that’s a heartbreaking price to pay for freedom of expression.

Najera, 40, is a veteran Mexican journalist who fled to Canada in September of 2009 in the wake of death threats against him and his family for his reporting on human rights abuses in the Mexican northern border city of Juárez.

Local police warned Najera that he would be assassinated if he continued reporting on border violence and drug cartels.

Packing just a few suitcases, he fled his middle-class life as a journalist and arrived in Vancouver as an asylum seeker with his wife and three children, now 3 to 19.

“The threats were not just against me, but my family. That was too much. I knew I had no right to go on putting them at risk,” the former investigative reporter for Grupo Reforma told Star reporter Olivia Ward last week.

Najera was in Toronto to be honoured for “fearless reporting” by Canadian Journalists for Free Expression.

Other award-winners included his Mexican colleague, Emilio Gutierrez Soto, and Cameroon journalists Serge Sabouang and Robert Mintya — who had been imprisoned for their reporting until the day before the awards. Bibi Ngota, who was editor of the Cameroon Express and died in detention, received a posthumous award at the annual CJFE gala.

CJFE works to enhance public awareness and understanding of free expression and how it impacts our daily life. It also supports and assists journalists under threat and in distress.

The organization’s awards are given to journalists who have shown great courage and have overcome enormous odds simply to produce the news.

The awards gala, attended by hundreds of Canadian journalists, is always a greatly inspiring reminder of the importance of journalism’s vital role in the global struggle for freedom of expression.

Najera, who was hosted in Toronto in the home of the Star’s own fearless national security reporter, Michelle Shephard, a CJFE volunteer, visited the Star to share his experiences during a session with our intern journalists.

During lunch with Shephard and me, I was struck by the high price this journalist has paid for the courageous reporting for which he was honoured.

Like many other foreign journalists who come to Canada to escape persecution and threats to personal safety in their native land, Najera has been unable to find a job in Canadian journalism.

Though he has now attained refugee status and a work permit — and has worked hard to greatly improve his English — Najera told me he has been rejected or ignored by every Canadian media organization he has approached — even Spanish-language media.

That’s why he’s now working as a janitor, earning $900 to $1,110 monthly to support his family.

“After a series of short contracts as a painter, glazier’s helper and a salesman, a friend from the church who works as a janitor as well recommended me to his boss, who after several interviews and small assignations, gave me a small contract cleaning an office once a week,” Najera said.

“We receive food from the church, and sometimes we go to the food bank because of our low income. My wife works with me and every month she cleans a house as well.”

Najera was deeply moved by the CJFE honour. He said it made him “feel like a man again.”

Of course, what Najera wants more than recognition from Canadian journalists for expressing his dangerous truths is the opportunity to work among us in this nation where freedom of expression is a Charter right.

A reporter since the age of 19, Najera sees all around him stories to tell, photos to be taken. Sometimes, he told me, he shoots photos in Vancouver’s notorious skid row area just to feel some small measure of the rush of journalism.

“This is the work I love; this has been my job and my lifestyle since 1989 when I started as a volunteer in a small newspaper while I was a university student,” he said.

“Despite the fact that English is not my mother tongue, I think I still have the capacity to create, to develop and to increase my abilities in journalism and to contribute to Canada’s multicultural society.”

Najera has felt particularly discouraged by a few Canadian journalists who have told him to give up, pointing out how difficult it will be to find work in journalism given the unprecedented number of North American journalists who have lost their jobs to media restructuring in recent years.

But, once a journalist, always a journalist and even without an employer, this man is clearly a journalist. I don’t expect Najera will give up on his need to bear witness and tell truths in Canada.

And nor should he.

This column was originally published in the Toronto Sta on Dec. 4, 2010.

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