Jason Rezaian, a U.S. citizen and reporter for the Washington Post, spent 545 days in an Iranian prison for simply doing his job. Each year, dozens of journalists are wrongly imprisoned across the globe with few opportunities for the public to provide help and support. Press Uncuffed is a student enterprise created through the University of Maryland’s Do Good Challenge to raise awareness and spark a conversation about press freedom. The team accomplishes this goal by developing and selling products to remind others that journalists suffer worldwide. “Dozens of journalists are imprisoned across the world each year just for reporting the facts and no one is talking about it,” stated co-founder Kirsten Craft’16, a MPP-MBA student focused on finance and nonprofit leadership. To further their impact, Press Uncuffed donates proceeds from sales to the Committee to Protect Journalists, a nonprofit organization that promotes press freedom and defends the rights of journalists.
Craft and her team learned about Rezaian and other journalists with similar stories through a class taught in the journalism school at the University of Maryland by Pulitzer Prize winning journalist and Knight Chair of Public Affairs Dana Priest. A key course assignment asks students to write a feature story about a journalist in prison. The students on the future Press Uncuffed team went to great lengths to learn about these journalists, with some even getting into direct contact using creative strategies such as encrypted tweets. Students completed the course with a desire to do more.
“For a long time we thought that we were only kids and that there was nothing more that we could do, but with the help of Professor Priest we were able to really expand our networks,” explained Craft. During the Challenge, the team partnered with 21 high-profile organizations including HBO and the New York Times and raised over $50,000 to fund production of their product: clear plastic bracelets featuring the names and countries of nine journalists that were currently imprisoned. The bracelets are clear to remind consumers about the importance of transparency; shaped like a cuff as a signal that journalists are still being unjustly held; and hard to put on, because as Craft notes, journalists’ work abroad is never easy. Ultimately, Press Uncuffed won the venture track of the 2015 Do Good Challenge.
“During the Do Good Challenge we fully funded our production costs. Winning the Challenge gave us more flexibility as we planned for the future and allowed us to eventually make a much larger donation to the Committee to Protect Journalists,” explained Craft. Since the Do Good Challenge, two of the journalists the team had been supporting (including Rezaian) were freed from prison and Press Uncuffed was credited as contributing to their release. Their bracelets are available for purchase online through Investigative Reporters and Editors and in person at the Newseum. Press Uncuffed is also establishing new sales contracts with other bookstores.
“Competing in the Do Good Challenge taught me many important lessons, but the most important was that I could make a difference before I had all the answers,” revealed Craft. She thinks this is something most students struggle with and felt that the Do Good Challenge was the first academic experience that motivated her to make her own decisions and find her own right answers.