International Press Freedom Awards Shine Spotlight on Endangered Journalists

Sony boss Howard Stringer, Tom Brokaw add a lighter touch with jokes about Comcast-NBC Universal deal.

NEW YORK -- Journalists around the world threatened by imprisonment and murder were in focus here Tuesday night at the 20th annual International Press Freedom Awards Dinner benefiting the Committee to Protect Journalists.

But the pending acquisition of NBC Universal by Comcast and the continued cost cuts at news divisions also came up in early speeches, and they actually added somewhat of a lighter note to the event.

NBC News special correspondent Tom Brokaw filled in as host for NBC News anchor Brian Williams, who had to leave town for assignment.

Sony Corp. chairman and CEO Sir Howard Stringer, who chaired the benefit at the Waldorf Astoria, mentioned that he had been nervous about the original plan to have Williams as host given that he recently saw the anchor roast outgoing NBC Universal CEO Jeff Zucker.

"I thought, my god, I hope I still have a job when I [get to] the stage -- because I haven't seen Jeff Zucker since," Stringer quipped.

He then accidentally referred to Brian Williams as Brian Roberts -- the chairman of Comcast -- causing a round of unintended laughs.

But Stringer got right back to business, saying Williams can be very funny, even though he didn't find it funny to see Williams leave for NBC during Stringer's time at CBS News.

Brokaw later briefly picked up on Stringer's slip of the tongue, though, saying that NBC staff have a different name for Comcast boss Roberts now. "We call him his majesty," he said to laughs.

Stringer in his opening remarks also called this the best and worst times for journalists, even when they are not in danger of being harmed. New opportunities are balanced out by such negatives as budget cuts seen by many news divisions in recent years. Journalists "could use a Committee to Protect Journalists from their management," Stringer said to laughs and much applause.

But the focus of Tuesday night's outing of news people was on the dangers to freedom of information and media practitioners' lives in the Philippines and many other countries.

International Press Freedom Awards went to journalists in Venezuela, Ethiopia, Iran, Sri Lanka and Russia.

The Burton Benjamin Memorial Award went to Aryeh Neier, president of the Open Society Institute, for a lifetime of achievement in the cause of press freedom.

Presenters included Christiane Amanpour.

JS Tissainayagam from Sri Lanka, who was honored at last year's dinner while in prison and who was freed early this year after CPJ efforts, finally could receive his award Tuesday night. While making serious appeals for press freedom in his country, he managed to open with a line that saw the crowded hotel room break out in laughter and applause.

"Ladies and gentlemen, my apologies for being late," he said.

According to CPJ, with 71 journalists killed for their work, 2009 was the deadliest year it has ever recorded.