The 2009 Sakharov Prize for Freedom of Thought has today been awarded to MEMORIAL, their three representatives Oleg Orlov, Sergei Kovalev and Lyudmila Alexeyeva, and on behalf of all other human rights defenders in Russia.
First awarded in 1988, the Sakharov Prize is named in honour of the Soviet physicist and political dissident Andrei Sakharov who helped to found the organisation as a means to document Stalinist repressions of peoples. From the initial idea of establishing a monument, a museum, archive and a library, it has since expanded into an active civil rights defence society of activists.
The Memorial organisation aims to promote fundamental rights in post-Soviet states including Azerbaijan, Armenia, Georgia, Tajikistan, Moldova and Ukraine.
On its website, the organisation describes itself as a: "non governmental organisation spread all over the former post soviet states, it's a research centre, a community of human rights NGOs, Memorial is a number of regional associations of former prisoners of political prison camps and members of their families."
Upon announcing the winner, European Parliament President Jerzy Buzek said "We hope to contribute to ending the circle of fear and violence surrounding human rights defenders in the Russian Federation."
The Pole and former anti-Communist campaigner added that he felt "personal satisfaction" over the award as "a man who comes from Solidarity and who saw Poland fighting for truth and freedom, which it finally won in the 1980s."
Three Memorial staff, Oleg Orlov, Sergei Kovalev and Lyudmila Alexeyeva, will be invited to collect the prize, which comes with a €50,000 cheque, at the EU parliament on 16 December.
The other two finalists for the prize, Dr Izzeldin Abuelaish (a Palestinian obstetrician in Gaza who treats Israelis and Palestinians) and Dawit Isaak (a Swedish journalist, writer and playwright of Eritrean origin who has been a political prisoner since 2001) also received commendations from President Buzek at the announcement.
When it came to the voting this afternoon (21st), the overall title had been duly altered to include the other countries of the European Union, an alteration that reveals a certain sense of unity amongst all the groups.
However, when it came to the important votes, the chamber was divided - almost 50/50%. While the minor amendments of paragraphs were accepted, the overall draft resolutions were all voted down. Nine in all.
It is a result that illustrates that there is a general consensus that something should be done, but a disaccord as to how it should be done. The debate will certainly continue...
Press Freedom Index 2009
The timing of the votes could not have been more relevant as they came the day after the unveiling of the annual Press Freedom Index by the organisation Reporters Without Borders.
Revised every year and formulated on the basis of questionnaires completed by hundreds of journalists and media experts around the world, the 2009 results turned out to be rather gloomy reading for Europe.
In 2008, European countries represented 18 out of the top 20 countries in the World. This time around, they number only 15.
However, the top five countries of the world that respect the freedom of the press are European, namely: Denmark, Finland, Ireland, Norway and Sweden.
Appearing at the head of the list is somewhat of a coup for Denmark whose journalists have faced great criticism in recent years after the publishing (and republishing in solidarity) of the now in-famous Mohammad cartoons.
UK 20th, Italy 49th
Italy, whose press situation was the initial subject of the debate at the European Parliament plenary meeting in Brussels earlier this month leading to today's resolution, fell five places down to 49th.
Bulgaria is the lowest ranked European country at 68th out of 175 countries. Last place was awarded to Eritrea where many journalists were imprisoned in the last 12 months.
The biggest rise up the table was that of the USA, which climbed 20 places in the rankings, from 40th to 20th, in just one year. RSF credit this to the "Obama Effect" saying that Barack Obama’s election as president and the fact that he has a less hawkish approach than his predecessor have had a lot to do with this rise.
Since 2008, the United Kingdom's press freedom note improved by 1.5 points, ranking it at joint 20th alongside the USA.
The full table can be viewed here.
The organisation's secretary-general Jean-François Julliard said at the release of the latest table that press freedom needs to be defended everywhere in the world "with the same energy and the same insistence".
“It is disturbing to see European democracies such as France, Italy and Slovakia fall steadily in the rankings year after year,” he said. “Europe should be setting an example as regards civil liberties. How can you condemn human rights violations abroad if you do not behave irreproachably at home?"
Vincent Brossel from Reporters Without Borders says Europe should be setting an example of strong civil liberties around the world, but in many European countries press freedom is moving backwards.
"Important countries in Europe like Italy or France or Spain have really, have lost all their ranks especially because of intervention by the chief of states, like [Italian Prime Minister] Berlusconi or [French President] Mr. Sarkozy," Brossel said.
This year’s index reflects press freedom violations that took place between September 1 2008 and August 31 2009.