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Ronald Koven, a long-time Paris-based journalist who struggled tirelessly for the freedom of the press, died on Friday Oct. 30 in Paris of complications following a long battle with cancer. He was 80.

Rony, as he was known to his friends and colleagues, had a long and distinguished career as a foreign correspondent for major U.S. newspapers, and was an ardent ambassador for press freedom around the world in his role as European Representative of the World Press Freedom Committee.

Guy Black, Chairman of the CPU Media Trust and Executive Director, Telegraph Media Group, writes, “Rony was one of the bravest Field Marshalls in the battles to protect press freedom over many decades. His commitment to free speech and freedom of expression was unrivalled. His tenacity in standing up for the free press – and shaming those who tried to undermine it – was exemplary. We have lost a very fine, and very brave, colleague, and also a dear friend.”

Mark Bench, Executive Director of the World Press Freedom Committee says, “No one that I know of had the depth of knowledge in the press freedom arena. Rony’s uncanny ability to see through the verbiage of resolutions of the numerous intergovernmental organizations and parse real meaning was crucial and greatly appreciated. ”

Koven had his eyes set on journalism from an early age. When still a student, he began working at a local weekly in Ohio, then later at Time magazine and The New York Times while at Columbia University.

In the 1960s, he was the “De Gaulle watcher” at the former Herald Tribune in Paris, then joined The Washington Post, where he was the Diplomatic Editor, the Canada correspondent, and the Foreign Editor. He returned to Paris in 1977 as The Post’s correspondent in charge of covering Latin Europe and the Maghreb, and reported extensively in the Middle East and Iran, from the start of the Islamic revolution. From 1981 to 1991, Rony was the Paris correspondent of The Boston Globe.

Current London Bureau Chief for The New York Times, Steven Erlanger, described those heady days working side by side with Koven for The Boston Globe. “I covered the Iran Revolution for The Globe and in early 1982, Rony got the first set of 10 books of secret papers taken from the American Embassy in Iran after the students took it over. The students pasted together much of what was shredded. I went to Paris and we sat together in his apartment, full of piles of newspapers, ate at the wonderful Szechuan restaurant near his place, and wrote world exclusive stories for The Globe about what was in the secret papers. We beat the competition into print by several days, which pleased Rony, and our editors, no end.”

In 1981, he became the European Representative of the World Press Freedom Committee, a position he held until his death. For the World Press Freedom Committee, he acted as a spokesman on press freedom concerns at UNESCO, the UN Human Rights Commission, the Council of Europe, European Union and the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe. After the fall of the Berlin Wall, he undertook an extensive program of aid to the emerging independent press in Eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union, including organizing and leading conferences and seminars, publishing training manuals, legal aid projects and providing targeted material help to news outlets and journalists unions and associations of the region.

Rony played an active role in the Anglo-American Press Association for several decades, serving as its president in 1991 and occupying various positions on its organizing committee. He also taught a course on “American Media and Society” at the Political Sciences Institute of Paris for a number of years.

Following news of his passing, OSCE Representative on Freedom of the Media Dunja Mijatović stated, “It is with great sadness I learned of the passing of Ronald Koven. He was a true and tireless advocate for free media at the OSCE and other international organizations in Europe. Ronald’s unique and inspiring voice will be sorely missed and he will remain a role model for journalists around the world.”

UNESCO Director-General, Irina Bokova, also expressed regrets. “Rony was one of the world’s greatest champions for freedom of expression and media freedoms,” said Bokova. “He was a man of tremendous moral stature, an outstanding advocate in standing up for the human rights and dignity of women and men across the world.”

Born in Paris in 1935 to a French father and American mother, Rony’s family moved back to New York when he was five years old. Rony’s father Marc, a fine jeweler, was also a painter and sculptor, which had a lasting effect on Rony as a connoisseur of fine art. Rony attended Brooklyn Friends, a fact he often cited as an important influence in his Quaker education.

He is survived by his daughters, Michèle and Martine, and by 2 grandchildren.

He will be sadly missed by his friends and colleagues.

-Ginny Power

Link to New York Times article:

Tribute posted by Mort Rosenblum on his FaceBook page “Reporting Unlimited”:

What All of Us Owe Ronald Koven

Some of our greatest journalists are hardly known outside a hardcore pack of committed, ethics-bound professionals. Ronald Koven, for instance. The attached piece by Steve Erlanger, a leader of that pack, is an old friend’s warm portrayal of Rony. Beyond that, there is much more to say.

Rony, an old Paris hand, was Washington Post foreign editor in 1979 when the International Herald Tribune owners – which included the Post – looked for a new editor. He helped convince a dubious board that an AP guy with an unruly mustache, named Rosenblum, was right for the job. He soon left the Post (I’ve often wondered if the previous sentence had anything to do with that; let’s assume no because of what follows) and came back to Paris. Rony reported for the Boston Globe, but his main mission was to stave off a global threat to news coverage everywhere.

At the time, the Soviet Union and “nonaligned” countries aligned to it waged war against press freedom within Unesco, the U.N. Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization, in Paris. Its Senegalese director general championed their goal: states should control news media and regulate foreign correspondents working within their borders. That would mean licensing reporters, censoring copy and the constant threat of expulsion.

The authoritarians argued that the world depended on Western news agencies, meaning global organization such as AP and Reuters, which could not willfully distort news because their clients covered the full ideological spectrum. Instead, the Soviet-nonaligned bloc countries wanted to define their own realities.

News executives from around the world fought back with the World Press Freedom Committee. Rony Koven was its pit bull and Joan of Arc. At the Trib, across town from Unesco, we weighed in, but he kept tabs on each sneaky maneuver. In 1981, publishers from North Carolina to West Bengal gathered in Talloires, in the French pre-Alps, for a showdown. Dark forces retreated, and soon after Unesco named a new director general.

After that, it was Rony. Year after year, he monitored inroads against press freedom. With essays, speeches and quiet diplomacy, he kept us all focused.

Today, the fight is infinitely more complex. “The Western press” is indefinable, let alone uncontrollable. Now it is not only the Kremlin that seeks to muzzle and mislead reporters but also the White House. This is no time to lose our Rony Kovens.