CAMBRIDGE, Mass. (April 21, 2006) — The 2006 Class of Nieman Fellows has chosen Atwar Bahjat to receive this year’s Louis M. Lyons Award for Conscience and Integrity in Journalism.
Bahjat was kidnapped and killed earlier this year while covering the Feb. 22 bombing of the Shiite mosque Al Askari in her hometown of Samarra. The Iraqi television journalist’s cameraman and engineer were also killed. Bahjat was 30 years old and a correspondent for Al Arabiya, the 24-hour Dubai-based Arabic-language news channel.
The daughter of a Shiite mother, who survives her, and a Sunni father, Bahjat’s dedication to impartial reporting bridged both sides of Iraq’s sectarian divide. As a symbol of her support for a united country, she wore a necklace with a golden pendant in the shape of Iraq. “Whether you are Sunni or Shia, Arab or Kurd,” she said in her last report, “there is no difference between Iraqis, united in fear for this nation.”
The Lyons Award is named in honor of Louis M. Lyons, a journalist known for his integrity. Lyons was a member of the first Nieman class in 1939 and served as curator of the Nieman Foundation for 25 years. The award carries a $1,000 honorarium. Twenty-five individuals, groups and organizations have received the Lyons Award since it was established by the 1964 Class of Nieman Fellows.
The 2006 Nieman Class said they gave the award to Bahjat posthumously because of the “impressive bravery” she demonstrated as she traveled to hospitals, scenes of explosions and family homes of the deceased, describing life as her country faced division and chaos. “Despite death threats,” the class said, “she used her pulpit to give a balanced picture of the fighting in Iraq and to emphasize the human losses. She represents the many Iraqi journalists who have given their lives since the conflict began in March 2003 and those who continue to face grave danger as they report the news in Iraq.”
“What motivated her was a sense of decency, not politics,” said Al Arabiya Washington Bureau Chief S. Abdallah Schleifer, who accepted the award for Bahjat at a recent Nieman Foundation dinner. “I’m also accepting this award for the 11 staff members of Al-Arabiya who have been killed in the war, and I accept it in the name of all the other Iraqi journalists who have been risking their lives, and I accept it for journalists everywhere in a world that seems more brutalized than ever.”
The Nieman Foundation for Journalism at Harvard administers the nation’s oldest midcareer fellowship program for journalists. Since 1938, more than 1,100 men and women from the United States and 77 other nations have come to Harvard as part of the fellowship program. The Nieman Foundation also publishes Nieman Reports, the nation’s oldest magazine devoted to a critical examination of the practice of journalism, and is the home of the Nieman Program on Narrative Journalism and the Nieman Watchdog Project, which encourages reporters and editors to monitor and hold accountable those who exert power in all aspects of public life.