Summer 2006

What We Learned About the Courage of Women Journalists

By Judy Woodruff

It was 16 years ago when a group of American women journalists convened the first international conference exclusively for women journalists. Held in Washington, D.C., this gathering evolved, as it was taking place, from one in which we thought the focus would be on rapidly changing technology and gender barriers to job promotion to one in which the sharing of harrowing reporting experiences emerged to become its core theme. Many of our visitors spoke powerfully of difficult and frightening on-the-job situations that most of the American journalists could barely imagine.

These women's determination to press on with their work in the face of various forces of government harassment and antagonism, as well as threats of violence from openly hostile criminals and insurgent groups, inspired the International Women's Media Foundation to create its Courage in Journalism Award. In the intervening years, what we've discovered is that despite living and working in different countries on five continents, the courageous women who have received this award share much in common.

  • Like Carmen Gurruchaga, Jineth Bedoya Lima, and Jill Carroll, many of the award's recipients have reported from the frontlines of a war — in some cases several wars. In 1998 in Kosovo, Anja Niedringhaus, a German photographer, was blown out of a car by a grenade while caught in crossfire, and the next year NATO forces mistakenly bombed her and several colleagues at the Albania-Kosovo border crossing. Just a year earlier, her foot was crushed and broken by a police car while she covered demonstrations in Yugoslavia. Kuwait, Iraq and the Middle East have also been places that drew her to their stories of war.

  • Two of our recipients received their awards while imprisoned by their governments for what they risked their personal freedom to report. Christine Anyanwu, who was editor in chief of an independent weekly in Nigeria, incurred the wrath of her country's dictator, General Sani Abacha, and was sentenced to life in prison for stories her magazine published. Gao Yu, a newspaper reporter based in Beijing, was imprisoned for "leaking state secrets" and served six years in prison before being given a medical parole; she remains in poor health.

  • For some reporters, like Mabel Rehnfeldt of Paraguay, the violent response to their words spills over onto family members. In 1989, Rehnfeldt was attacked by an unknown man after she wrote an article about business/government scandals. About six years later, she and her driver were chased by a car with three armed men while she was in the process of investigating a gasoline smuggling ring. And in 2000, she was threatened with death. Three years later, as she continued her reporting, several people tried to kidnap her 11-year-old daughter.

In the face of such outright hostility, threats and physical danger, these women journalists have displayed exceptional courage. Recently, recognition has gone also to those women who have displayed moral courage as they stood up to subtle but hostile treatment by government officials who don't tolerate critical treatment in the press.

For those of us involved in their selection each year, their acts of courage remind us that in what they do these women risk not only their jobs, which is their livelihood, but also their lives and health and sometimes the well-being of those whom they love most. What we learn from each of them, as they speak to us about their struggles, is a common purpose that keeps them going, despite the risk. It is stunning in its simplicity: to report the news to their countrymen and women, who depend on the information for their lives and future well-being.

Judy Woodruff has covered politics and other news for more than three decades at CNN, PBS and NBC. She is a special correspondent for the PBS Generation Next initiative and the founding cochair of the International Women's Media Foundation.


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