By Siobhan Benet
Thursday, October 18, 2001
Three fearless reporters covering internal wars in Colombia, Spain and Sudan do their jobs in the face of death threats, bombs, menace to their families and even rape. Each was honored Tuesday in New York for courage, courage, courage.
NEW YORK (WOMENSENEWS)--Now that terrorism has struck the United States and violated its perceived invulnerability, U.S. journalists, especially women, understand far better what their female colleagues in conflict-roiled countries must endure, surmount and explain every single day as they do their jobs and tell the story.
At an event to honor brave foreign women journalists, CNN anchor and correspondent Judy Woodruff summed up the past month's revelations and realizations and put it this way: "I want to thank you for being here at a time of war. As journalists, we are finally wrestling with the same conflicts that have confronted our colleagues in other countries."
Woodruff opened the 12th annual International Women's Media Foundation's Courage in Journalism Awards at the Waldorf Astoria Hotel. And what U.S. women journalists recently have lived through, covered and tried to make sense of--the terror on Sept. 11--is on an apocalyptic scale what their colleagues overseas live through and report every day.
Moreover, those honored Tuesday have been personally threatened with death and the death of their families. One's home was bombed, while she and her two sons were inside. Another was repeatedly jailed. A third was raped by captors because she persisted in reporting on the violence tearing her nation apart.
The awardees are Jineth Bedoya Lima, 27, a reporter covering rebels for El Espectador in Bogota, Colombia; Amal Abbas, the only female editor-in-chief of a newspaper in Sudan and Carmen Gurruchaga, a Basque journalist now living in Madrid whose coverage of the violent Basque separatist movement in Spain has aroused its ire.
In addition, Colleen "Koky" Dishon, who began her career over 60 years ago at the Zanesville, Ohio, Sunday Times Signal, was presented with the Lifetime Achievement Award.
Anne Marie Lipinski, Vice President/Editor of the Chicago Tribune, introduced Dishon.
"When Koky took over the women's pages, she ran a banner across the top of the section which read 'closed for remodeling.' Koky radically changed the notion of women's pages....she placed stories on politics and coverage of political rallies right next to the wedding announcements."
"I am 77 years old, yes I am," said Dishon with a defiant laugh when she accepted her award. "And I never thought I would live to see the day when a woman was the editor of a daily newspaper."
Dishon became the first woman on the masthead of the Chicago Tribune after revolutionizing its women's sections to include coverage of issues. She also created 16 different sections for the Tribune, breaking ground that most newspapers followed.
The International Women's Media Foundation, founded in 1990, works to advance the role of women in the media around the world. The foundation's premise is that, without the voice of women, there is no free press. Over the past 12 years, 38 courageous female journalists have received Courage in Journalism awards. The award is $2,000 and a trip to New York.
Playwright Anna Deveare Smith presented the first Courage in Journalism Award to Jineth Bedoya Lima of Colombia, saying she "covers the most dangerous beat in the world."
Colombia, she said, has the worst record of deaths of journalists in the world. Over the past 10 years, 51 journalists have been killed. In this year alone, seven journalists were killed.
Bedoya Lima covers the conflict between the Colombian government and paramilitary groups, such as the Revolutionary Armed Forces or FARC. Bedoya's reports earned her ongoing harassment and death threats.
Those threats were made very real on May 25, 2000, when Bedoya Lima went to a Bogota-area prison where she expected to interview a paramilitary leader about rumors that she was on his hit list. She was. While waiting for the interview, Bedoya Lima was kidnapped at gunpoint and forced into a van where she was raped repeatedly. Later that evening, she was found, hands still tied, in a garbage dump by a taxi driver.
Bedoya returned to her job two weeks after her abduction and she continues to report the paramilitary's attacks and atrocities. Although many Colombian journalists have fled the country in fear for their lives, Bedoya is determined to continue reporting.
"For 14 hours, I had a 9-millimeter aimed at my head. My life was plunged into a nightmare that has not yet subsided," she said, speaking through an interpreter.
"This award not only acknowledges the conditions for journalists in Colombia. It is also the acknowledgment for hundreds of women who have suffered rape and humiliation like I have but who continue to live their lives."
"My purpose in this life is journalism," said Bedoya Lima. "I fell in love with my career and it has given me my greatest satisfactions, but also my greatest sadness."
Diane Sawyer of ABC-TV presented the Courage in Journalism Award to Spanish journalist Carmen Gurruchaga Basurto. Gurruchaga is a political reporter for El Mundo, the Madrid-based daily national newspaper. Gurruchaga has come under fire, literally, for exposing the Basque separatist group, ETA, which has waged a campaign of violence and harassment against the journalist since 1984.
"Carmen Gurruchaga has reported for two decades on the terrorist activities of the ETA in her Basque homeland. Over the past three decades, 800 people have been murdered and many journalists have been put on hit lists," Sawyer said.
For Gurruchaga, "Courage is fear that has said its prayers, an expletive and kept on writing," said Sawyer.
Gurruchaga, who was originally based in San Sebastian in the Basque Country, was forced to move both her home and her office several times. But after a bomb exploded in her home in December 1997, she and her two young sons relocated to Madrid.
"My first thought was this--they have destroyed our life," Gurruchaga recalled. "But I did not give up. In Spain and in the Basque Country, being a journalist may cost you your life."
Although Gurruchaga remains on the ETA's hit list, she continues to report on the group's activities for El Mundo. Gurruchaga is also a regular commentator for Spanish national television and radio.
"This award allows me to be here and report on the state of terror in the United States and to compare it to the terror reign of the ETA," said Gurruchaga.
"The first thing a journalist should do is fight for freedom of expression and the right of people to be informed. A society is not free if its media are not."
The third courage award was presented to Amal Abbas, who was unable to attend the ceremony due to family problems. Journalist Maureen Bunyon accepted her award.
Two million have died during Sudan's civil war, and four million have been forced to flee the country, Bunyon said. "For the past 12 years, Sudan has been under despotic rule. Amal Abbas, who is outspoken and brave, is truly the voice for her people."
Amal Abbas, a journalist for over 30 years, has been editor-in-chief of the Khartoum-based independent daily newspaper Al-Rai Al-Akher for the past two years. She is the only female editor-in-chief of a newspaper in Sudan, and the job has not been easy because of her persistent reporting on corruption in government.
Since she took over, Abbas has faced constant harassment and censorship. In January, she was sent to prison and held for 36 hours because she published an article charging a judicial authority with misappropriating funds. A month later, she was sentenced to three months in prison and fined the equivalent of about $6,000 (in U.S. dollars) for publishing allegations that local authorities in Khartoum had squandered public funds. She spent 17 days in Omdurman Women's Prison and was released pending a decision on her appeal.
Although Al-Rai Al-Akher faces frequent suspensions by Sudan's National Press Council and, like all other newspapers in Sudan, is under daily scrutiny from government security police, Abbas remains undaunted.
"I believe that journalism is a holy mission in serving humanity, goodness and freedom," Abbas said in a written statement read on her behalf.
"For the same purpose, I feel compelled to continue, regardless of the threats and difficulties that I may face."
"I am so happy that there are organizations like the International Women's Media Foundation," Abbas said. "They help journalists to not feel so alone."
Siobhan Benet is a journalist in New York and content manager for Women's Enews.
International Women's Media Foundation: