JOURNALISTS MAKE NEWS when they die in horrific circumstances, the details of which I need not outline in this day and age. Brooklyn-born Peter Mackler reported from Iraq, Afghanistan, Bosnia, Hong Kong, Singapore, Australia and Paris, but died quietly, in 2008 at age 58, after being felled by a heart attack in his Washington office. But after their initial shock, his journalist wife of 31 years, Catherine Antoine, and their two daughters were not going to let the passing of the Agence France Presse editor and reporter go unnoticed.
They need not have worried: Reporters around the world expressed their sadness and dismay. These were the young journalists, the seasoned veterans, whom Peter had touched, mentored, inspired–even bellied up to the bar with. And they were the ones who asked what they could do, where could they make a donation, leading Camille and Lauren Mackler to get their mother to found the Peter Mackler Award for Courageous and Ethical Journalism.
“It was more the girls than me,” Antoine says, stroking one of her cats in the sunroom of her Georgetown condo. “After Peter died, it was the girls who said, Let’s do something with Reporters Without Borders. Camille is an organizer–she’s now project manager for the award.” In her working life, Camille is an immigration lawyer; her sister, who designs the award’s program, is a graphic designer and contemporary art curator.
Now partnered with Reporters Without Borders, Agence France Presse and a small group of Peter’s close friends, the award has been presented to journalists who attempt to report facts in places where there is no freedom of the press. This year’s award will be presented at the National Press Club on Thursday, October 22, to Zaina Erhaim, a 30-year-old Syrian journalist who lives and works in Aleppo and who has in the past two years trained more than 100 citizen-journalists around her native country.
“She is a force multiplier,” Camille Mackler explained in announcing this year’s selection, the award’s seventh edition.
The same could be said of Peter Mackler. “This is some of what Peter was doing,” his French-born widow explains. “There are places you’d be crazy nowadays as a foreigner to go, or places where you just can’t get in.
“At the beginning of the so-called revolution in Syria, it was young people who wanted [Syrian president Bashar Al] Assad to give them the right to speak up and live their life. It became obvious that a big part of covering events was being done by citizen-journalists. And it became more and more. . . . Soon Zaina got hired by the Institute for War and Peace Reporting to train citizen-journalists.
“As Zaina says, there is reporting about bombing, about Russia, the U.S., ISIS, about international maneuvering. But her point is, We Syrians are still alive. We’re still here. We send our kids to school–okay, the schools are in basements, but the kids go to school. People fall in love, get married. We’re still here, we’re going to report.
“There’s something Peter Mackler-ish about Zaina,” says Catherine, who is managing editor of Radio Free Asia online. “She has the wish to teach, which was Peter’s passion. And the desire to stand up for what is right. That was in Peter’s blood. She’s amazing.”
But does the publicity surrounding an award get the recipients in trouble when they go home?
“So far, no. So far it has helped. We often don’t know precisely how.” The first year’s award went to a Sri Lankan journalist. “He was in jail and we got him out–it wasn’t only us, but it helped. The Sudanese recipient wrote to tell us it helped him, but I haven’t found out how.”
Catherine adds in her musical French accent: “This project started as a way for all of us to grieve for Peter. Today it has become a lot more than that. I am so glad we can help one journalist a year and push back on authoritarian rule somewhere in the world.”
Tickets for the Peter Mackler Award can be purchased at petermackler.org, $25 in advance, $35 at the door. National Press Club, 529 14th Street NW, 13th floor, Washington, D.C. 20045, 6 to 9pm.