Journalism that is independent of governmental interests and influences is as critical in the 21st century as it was in the days of the American Revolution when U.S. press freedoms were formed, says a prize-winning foreign correspondent.
Jonathan Randal, who covered war zones in Europe, the Middle East and Asia for decades for The Washington Post, The New York Times, United Press International and other news outlets, was in Tucson last week to receive the John Peter and Catherine Ann Zenger Award for Freedom of the Press.
John Peter Zenger was a colonial era printer in New York who was imprisoned in the 1730s by the British governor for "seditious libel," the telling of unflattering and critical facts and truth. Catherine Ann Zenger continued printing their newspaper, The New York Weekly Journal, while her husband was in prison.
Eventually, Zenger was freed on appeal, setting a precedent that lives today in press freedom - that the truth is an absolute defense against libel.
"It's important because what Zenger stood for is every bit as important as it was in the 17th century, and we've got to be very, very careful," Randal said as he recounted several run-ins he had with authorities for his reporting, including one with the international criminal tribunal looking into war atrocities in the former Yugoslavia.
Randal refused to testify about his interviews with someone accused of war crimes. He was threatened with sanctions but won on appeal with the backing of his former employer, The Washington Post.
"I'm an ornery critter, and I had been clear to the court that I had nothing to say," Randal said. "I had just arrived, I knew nothing about Bosnia. I asked tough questions. This man was silly enough to say things which he shouldn't have said. But that quite often is is true with nasty people."
The case set a legal precedent protecting war correspondents from testifying in international tribunals. The importance, Randal said, is that it protects correspondents so they can use sources to tell what is happening in war zones.
Winning the University of Arizona School of Journalism's Zenger award puts Randal in the vanguard of pioneering journalists across the last half century, something he called humbling.
"I looked down the list of previous winners, and I stand in awe," he said. "Tom Winship of the Boston Globe, Peter Arnett (of The Associated Press), another AP staffer, Terry Anderson, James 'Scotty' Reston (of The New York Times). These are not small figures. ... It's a really quite impressive list."