NEW YORK–They are fired upon, urged to drive down mine-laced roads, beaten, thrown in jail, fined, threatened with death and denounced as traitors. The alleged crime these women journalists commit is nothing more, and nothing less, than to relentlessly write, broadcast and publish the horrible truths about civil war, repression, corruption and the widespread suffering of ordinary people caught in the crossfire of the powerful.
For their courage in both the line of fire and in the face of intimidation, three women journalists were awarded the eleventh annual Courage in Journalism Awards for personal bravery by the International Women’s Media Foundation: Zamira Sydykova, editor in chief of Res Publica in Kyrgystan; Agnes Nindorera, journalist and producer with independent Studio Ijambo in Burundi and Marie Colvin, the U.S.-born foreign correspondent for The Sunday Times in London.
Also, at the ceremony here, Flora Lewis, renowned foreign affairs columnist for the New York Times Syndicate, received a Lifetime Achievement award. Lewis covered post-war Europe for The Associated Press and later covered Eastern Europe for the Washington Post. She was Paris Bureau Chief for the New York Times, as well as European diplomatic correspondent.
The International Women’s Media Foundation was founded in 1990 in an effort to advance the role of women in the media around the world. Its work is based on the belief that no press is truly free unless women share an equal voice. Since 1990, 35 journalists have received Courage in Journalism awards for their extraordinary personal and professional qualities in seeking out the truth under difficult and often dangerous circumstances. The recognition carries with it a check for $2,000.
Government Fights Independent Newspaper That Exposes Corruption
Shortly after the fall of the Berlin Wall, Zamira Sydykova, a widow living with her two young sons in the remote former Soviet republic of Kyrgyzstan, founded an independent newspaper. In the heady era after the end of Soviet communist repression, she believed democracy meant that the people had the right to write and speak their minds without fear.
“I wanted to support our fledgling democracy with a free press,” she told the awards audience, speaking in Russian through a translator. “Without a free press it is impossible to convince people that they are free, but the people in power could not accept criticism.”
One of her first stories in Res Publica was an expose about the president’s foreign bank accounts. He sued her for slander and she was banned from journalism for 18 months. She ran stories about corruption in the state-run gold mining company. She was charged with criminal libel. She was convicted and sentenced to 18 months in a labor camp. After two and a half months, thanks to the protests of women on a hunger strike outside the presidential palace, she was released, but once again was banned from journalism for 18 months. Most recently, she was convicted and fined $5,000, more than her paper’s annual budget, for her news stories about the president of the state broadcasting company. She used her $2,000 award to help pay the fines.
“This award is a reminder to the authorities that we cannot be silenced,” Sydykova said, adding that her country is experiencing an upsurge in repression.
Richard Parsons, president of Time Warner, announced at the ceremony that, with the nod from Kathy Bushkin, the senior vice president of the AOL/Time Warner Foundation, that additional funds were on the way to keep Res Publica publishing.
Burundi Journalist Refuses To Side With Tutsi Or Hutu, Threatened With Death
In strife-torn Burundi, next door to Rwanda in Central Africa, Agnes Nindorera pursues stories of the conflict that has claimed 200,000 lives, including 64 of her own relatives.
Broadcasting her reports on radio, the most popular medium in Africa, she refuses to take sides in the conflict between Tutsi-dominated government forces and Hutu rebels. In a nation where ethnic tension is high, her station covers stories with a two-person team of reporters, Tutsi and Hutu. She also files stories for the Voice of America and Agence France-Presse.
Speaking in French through a translator, Nindorera described how she was ambushed by rebels, beaten by soldiers, detained without charges. Once, at 5:30 a.m., eight soldiers arrived at her home, demanding entrance. She was forced to stand by as her home was ransacked; all of her files and equipment confiscated. She was then arrested and held, without charges, until her brother managed to free her. Another time, she was encouraged by a group of men to drive down a road only to be warned away by a young boy who revealed the road had just been laced with land mines.
“Because of the violence in my country, almost anyone courts death, from innocent civilians to journalists seeking information,” Nindorera said. “I’ve been humiliated and treated as a traitor because I have not favored either ethnic group. I’ve been detained by the government to prevent me from discussing the truth of what went on.”
But she added that she believed balanced journalism was crucially important to her nation.
“The violence will not cease as long as the truth does not bring out the lies and manipulation by those who profit from the war,” she said.
Foreign Correspondent Covers Wars From The Standpoint Of The Helpless
For the past decade, Marie Colvin of The Sunday Times in London has covered virtually all of the world’s war zones and conflicts.
“It’s important to bear witness,” she told the audience, noting that 48 hours before she was choking from tear gas, crouching to avoid Israeli gunfire, on her way to visit a Palestinian friend.
“It’s hard to watch Israeli soldiers fire guns at teen-agers,” she said. She added what was most heartbreaking was that her friend’s nephew had left that morning to trade in his two guitars for a gun. “It is possible the next generation will be lost.”
In the past year Colvin, a native of Oyster Bay, N.Y., has covered conflicts in Kosovo, Chechnya and East Timor. She reports from the standpoint of the civilians, mostly women and children, who are disproportionately targeted in today’s conflicts.
“I cover the news from the point of view of those least able to get media attention,” Colvin said. “We have failed in our work if we don’t record the horrors.”
In East Timor, she camped with refugees in a U.N. compound besieged by militia. Other journalists left on what was said to be the last flight. The U.N. evacuated some local staff, but left behind 1,500 civilians, mostly women and children, surrounded by machete-wielding forces. Those abandoned faced certain death, Colvin said, so she remained behind with them, filing her reports for international media.
Within days, the U.N. changed its mind and agreed to evacuate the camp. It was only then that Colvin left, in the company of the 1,500 women and children she helped save.
Victoria Graham, Women’s Enews managing editor, was a foreign correspondent for The Associated Press.