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Tue, Feb. 25

Tiempo-Times receives a Freedom of Information Award from Arizona Newspapers Association

Associated Press President and CEO Louis D. Boccardi has a passion for keeping government records open to the public, and he made its importance crystal clear to journalists and media officials last week.

The Arizona Newspapers Association and the University of Arizona Journalism Department awarded Boccardi and the Associated Press the 2001 John Peter and Anna Catherine Zenger Award for Freedom of the Press and the People’s Right to Know. Boccardi accepted the award during a banquet Thursday night in Tucson.

Western Newspapers, Inc. and Tiempo-Times owner, Joe Soldwedel displays two plaques he accepted from Arizona Newspapers Association and employees of Western Newspapers, Inc.

Three Arizona media representatives also accepted the ANA’s annual Freedom of Information awards at the dinner, including Western Newspapers, Inc. President/co-owner Joe Soldwedel. 

John Peter Zenger founded the New York Weekly Journal in 1733. According to an Encarta Encyclopedia account, when his writings began to oppose and poke fun at many of the popular views in New York, the governor ordered Zenger’s arrest on charges of seditious libel. For nine months he edited his paper from a jail cell, while his wife Anna kept the presses running. In 1735, lawyer Andrew Hamilton successfully defended Zenger in trial, charging the jury to decide whether the publication was defamatory or seditious. The case had great influence on the public’s perception of freedom of the press.

Soldwedel launched a new publication, the Tiempo-Times, in Yuma last year for the sole purpose of investigating the county’s law enforcement agencies after officials refused to cooperate with efforts to obtain public records information. Late last year, the Tiempo-Times began investigating complaints about law enforcement and police officer discipline in Yuma County. City and County governments in the area have released some documents, but have gone to court to avoid releasing others. 

In a statement for the awards banquet's program, Soldwedel said that although the Times has been able to obtain thousands of pages of documents, "We've only scratched the surface."

Blake Dewitt, vice president of Western Newspapers, Inc. also stated in the program that the case "will more than likely have a huge impact on the future of the people's right to know and freedom of information in Arizona."

Soldwedel thanked his family and co-workers; reporters Joani Woelfel and Rich Robertson, who went on special assignment to investigate and write for the Times; and the people of Yuma County, who called the paper with their concerns about local law enforcement.

“My deepest thanks to the ANA Foundation and the U of A. This (award) really does mean a lot,” Soldwedel said.

Prescott Newspapers, Inc.'s Publisher Kit Atwell presented Soldwedel with a plaque of appreciation from Western Newspapers CEOs and staff, thanking him for being someone “who isn’t afraid to take risks on people, and help them reach their full potential.”

Darryle Purcell, Managing Editor of the Mohave Valley Daily News in Bullhead City, fought a similar battle when he wrote about legal struggles between his newspaper and the City of Bullhead over the release of public records relating to an investigation of the police department there. Purcell’s fight began when he requested a report made by a Maricopa County Sheriff’s Dept. of a complaint against the police department. Despite the requests of the police chief, a local weekly paper, and the News for the document, the city elected to sue the News rather than provide the information.

In one of his columns about the battle, Purcell wrote, “The only thing that will make our officials look any more foolish than their own documented words in some of these reports is their present actions to hide public information and run a secret government by the people, for the people, in spite of the people.”

Monica Alonzo-Dunsmoor, reporter for the Daily News-Sun in Sun City, carried on a battle to obtain public records in the communities of Surprise and El Mirage for investigative purposes. Her subsequent stories brought the dismissal of the El Mirage City Manager and the resignation of the human resources director of Surprise, after she showed that the city manager used a city vehicle to travel to casinos and allegedly gave herself pay raises without authorization. The HR director resigned after stories about alleged sexual harassment. The City of Surprise blocked efforts to obtain records about a past investigation, but Alonzo-Dunsmoor obtained them from the Maricopa County Sheriff’s Dept. She continues her investigation, despite city officials’ threats that her efforts would result in the city “shutting down” to her as a reporter.

“I know there are higher paying jobs,” Alonzo-Dunsmoor said, “but there’s no payoff like getting to the truth.”

Dr. George Davis, senior vice president for academic affairs and provost, University of Arizona, told the audience of more than 200 that news gatherers are often hampered by the public officials who are unfamiliar with public information laws. He introduced Louis Boccardi as a man whom many consider “the most important news executive in the world.”

“He has defended the right and duty of the process to provide the American people with information about their government in controversial situations,” Davis said.

Boccardi said he is humbled by the tributes to him and the to the Associated Press. He characterizes AP reporters, particularly those who work oversees in war and strife-ridden areas, as people who “want freedom of information enough to risk everything for it.”

While the effort is often self-sacrificing, Boccardi said he is well aware that the public often perceives the media instead as self-serving.

ANA Director John Fearing presents Joe Soldwedel with a 2001 Freedom of Information Award

“People are as wary of us in the media as they are of the people we cover,” he said. “We recognize clearly the disconnect between the public service we think we are performing and the view of critics who think we serve no one but ourselves. But we serve under the protection and the inspiration of the First Amendment.”

Boccardi lauded the sacrifices of the 24 journalists who have died while serving with the Associated Press, nine in the last decade.

“The danger to reporters is global,” he said. “They are beaten, shot, detained by police and harassed. These are not risks anyone takes for the sake of a prize or promotion.”

Boccardi said risks to journalists working the U.S. are less, but the battle by government officials to control the flow of information is just as fierce.

“The only reason for the commitment to this guerilla warfare is that it helps to keep government power in check and the people’s business in the public eye,” he said.

“It matters to everyone. We must never cease to remind everyone how much it matters to them. We are not exercising a news media right. We are performing the service the people of the U.S. said they expected of us when they ratified the First Amendment.”

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