Just An Online Minute... No One Will Be Tortured, Strangled, Or Abducted For Reading This
Courage In Journalism Awards 2009, Waldorf Astoria, New York
October 20, 2009
How would you define courage in journalism? Is it insulting strangers through various social media tools? Is it the guts to post passive-aggressive tweets? Is it live blogging the news? Is it live blogging anything on TV? Or is it continuing to work, sometimes without pay and with an empty stomach, sometimes after being tortured and jailed, sometimes after having your throat slashed to silence you -- and most often, after continuing to be a target of your government because you want to give the voiceless a voice and tell the truth? Please, please pick the right one.
Yesterday, after the panel at The Samsung Experience, I dashed out into the sparkling sun and caught the D to Rockefeller Center. I got my fill of pigeon and tourist-watching and arrived at the press table at the Waldorf Astoria's 3rd Floor ballroom, checked in and meandered off to table 39, where my stomach jigged with happiness at the sight of salad (hadn't eaten yet and it was noon). If that's the worst hunger pang I'll ever have, I will take it. The recipients of The International Women's Media Foundation (IWMF) 2009 Courage In Journalism Awards have survived (and some haven't) far worse.
Presenters to the brave women who risk their lives daily included David Westin, President of ABC News,; Irshad Manji, Director of the Moral Courage Project at NYU; David Gregory, Moderator of "Meet the Press"; and Christiane Amanpour, Chief International Correspondent for CNN. I'm still hearing the echoes of the honorees' acceptance speeches today.
Abducted from her home on November 6, 2006, Agnès Taile was beaten, strangled, and left for dead in a ravine. She was deemed "Voice of the Opposition" for her broadcasts on Sweet FM in Camaroon. She was critical of their president. Reminder of how good Americans have it: George W. Bush cartoons with ears the size of sails do not result in strangulation. After recovering, Taile continued her work, reporting on the situation in Chad despite continued threats. "I could not list here all the injustices I have personally experienced since I was born, which have compelled my decision to become society's watchdog," she said, speaking (through an interpreter) of what drives her to give voice to the women who are silenced in Camaroon. "I am not ready to forget the innumerable miles I have walked in my quest for information, those nights and days of hunger, working for no pay, with the constant threat of unemployment... in the name of the freedom of expression I never cease to demand within the media."
Irshad Manji accepted an award on behalf of Jila Baniyaghoob, who, due to her tireless reporting of the Iranian protests, was jailed, along with her husband, Bahman Ahmadi Amoyee. While Baniyaghoob was freed, her husband remains in Tehran's Evin Prison operated by the Iranian Intelligence Ministry. Though this was her fourth arrest, she has never bowed to the pressure of censorship. While imprisoned, Baniyaghoob kept her spirits up and her mind working by remembering Iranian phrases like "whoever is in love has no fear of death since love has no fear of fetters or prison" and reading scrawling on the wall like "Dear god, either hear my plea or deliver my death."
Iryne Khalip of Belarus accepted her award seeming stoic, but struggling with emotion. Her home has been invaded, her family detained, and her friends "suddenly disappear one by one." "I simply want to tell the truth of what is happening in Belarus," she stated. Her speech was heartbreaking -- her struggle to understand how her country became a dictatorship in the wake of dashed "hopes for happiness, success, creativity and honor." She continued, her voice sizzling with her desire to plow forward: "Our voice might be silenced, however, I assure you I shall continue to write truth, and continue to talk openly about the situation in Belarus... To all who shout down to me, I will shout the news to you. Please. Listen."
Christiane Amanpour, in her introduction to Lifetime Achievement Award Honoree Amira Hass from Israel, echoed Khalip's assertion that "Dictatorships don't like journalists. They either destroy them or buy them out," but added, "More often than not, democracies don't like them either."
Let's talk about Amira Hass. She was serious. She began her speech with, "Allow me to start with a correction. How impolite, you'd rightly think, but anyway, we Israelis are being forgiven for much worse than impoliteness." The audience was silent, some chuckling. Hass explained that her Lifetime Achievement is "Nothing more than a failure. A lifetime failure...the failure to make the Israeli and international public use and accept correct terms and words -- which reflect the reality."
Maybe it's American culture that needs to end with a happy note, I don't know, but I felt Hass' bare, "I'm not doing a happy dance like things aren't still going down in my country" acceptance speech was sort of deflated by Judy's Woodruff's followup of, "well we beg to differ," that her award is definitely not a failure. It's OK, we don't need the sunshine brush. Hass' words were more powerful as they stood.
A couple of disappointments -- I had never heard of this organization or its awards until the evening before the event. Why isn't such an important recognition touted more, especially in our celebrity-news-obsessed culture where a balloon hoax or declaration of fake boobies garners more media attention than real issues and threats? Also, where was the rest of the media support? Is this a failure of awareness, or is there no interest in supporting women who risk their lives to report the news in countries that don't have the same freedoms that get abused in our country? Help me understand.
I do know The Guardian was there, as I met Kiki from DC, daughter of a Guardian employee! I also had the pleasure of meeting Joyce Barnathan, President of International Center for Journalists (ICFJ) and Dawn Arteaga, Communications director for ICFJ.
Send invitations to email@example.com!
*edited at 12:52 today to correct ICFJ acronym*