October 22, 2004,
I know that it is very, very tough to be a journalist in Iraq these days. But this week I met three women who have shown courage as journalists not just on one assignment but throughout their careers as reporters and editors. They are the winners of this year's Courage in Journalism Awards, given by the International Women's Media Foundation.
The awards were handed out to women from Africa, South America, and the Middle East at a luncheon at the Waldorf Astoria. Recipients were Gwen Lister, founder and editor of The Namibian newspaper in Windhoek, Namibia; Mabel Rehnfeldt, an investigative editor for a Paraguayan weekly; and Salima Tlemcani, the pen name for an Algerian journalist who reports on the terror inflicted on her country by fanatic Muslim fundamentalists.
CNN's Judy Woodruff, an IWMF board member, was the master of ceremonies. She noted that women in media in America tend to "fret when a telephone call isn't returned." I might add that our best-known and highest-paid media queens are probably most stressed out when competing with each other to "get the get," the interview with the celebrity or newsmaker du jour that will ensure higher ratings.
In contrast, the women being honored have been targets of million-dollar libel suits, attacked by assailants, and faced threats to themselves and their families. Gwen Lister, the Namibian editor, named her daughter "Liberty" because she was imprisoned while she was pregnant. For Mabel Rehnfeldt, who covers political corruption, her most terrifying moment was when her eleven-year-old daughter was nearly kidnapped on her way home from school. And Salima Tlemcani has found herself on a list of journalist marked for death. Ten of the journalists on the list have already been assassinated. To protect her, the IWMF asked that no pictures be taken or published.
The winner of the IWMF Lifetime Achievement Award was Belva Davis, 72. Davis was the first African-American television reporter on the West Coast and is currently special-projects reporter with KRON-TV and the host of This Week in Northern California on KQED-TV.
She was introduced by Bill Cosby, an old friend. Cosby said that he and his wife used to watch Belva when they lived on a house boat in San Francisco. It was a time, in the '60s, he said, when African Americans who were role models had to be "perfect." "My wife said that Belva was the most relaxed 'perfect' woman she had ever seen."
Videos recounted the award winners' often-daunting experiences. Gwen Lister, a trim blond, noted that her paper, which has been firebombed in the past, is almost as unpopular with the current government as it was before Namibian independence. The cabinet has banned all government advertising and issued a directive prohibiting the purchase of the paper with government funds. Keeping the paper afloat financially, Lister admitted, was a challenge, but she says she is "undeterred."
Paraguayan journalist Mabel Rehnfeldt is currently battling the country's former president in a lawsuit and has created additional controversy with reports about sexual abuse and embezzlement involving one of Paraguay's leading bishops. She told the audience that a few months ago she was at her lowest point. She had been in an accident and was unable to walk. Her opponents declared that this was God's punishment for her reporting. She also said she did not have enough money to properly celebrate her daughter's birthday, even though she had been offered many pay-offs in the past. Then she was told she had won the Courage in Journalism Award. It was just the boost she needed to "go on."
Salima Tlemcani spoke about the viciousness of the Islamic militant groups who threaten her country and its people. And how they are especially cruel to women. "When these armed Islamic groups attack a village, they systematically rape and kill the women or they kidnap them and rape them," she said. Afterward the women have nowhere to go. Tlemcani's own life has been curtailed by her twelve years of reporting. She has cut off contacts with friends and siblings. You do it, she said, "when you realize you are a danger to every single member of your family."
Although some prominent women in print journalism Jill Abramson of the New York Times and Karen Elliot House of the Wall Street Journal, both involved in the event were in attendance, none of our media queens, neither Katie nor Diane nor Barbara, were there.
Television's Connie Chung, who was Dan Rather's co-anchor in 1993, did attend. Rather's problematic "scoop" about Bush's National Guard service seems quite a contrast with the stories that these women courageously report day in and day out. I'm also sure they don't have other journalists in their country defending them if they make a mistake, the way Rather has been defended by his superstar colleagues.
About Rathergate, Connie said, "I wish they had put me in charge of the internal investigation at CBS." Now that might make Dan, to use a Rather-ism, "as shaky as cafeteria Jell-o."
"I'd do a good job," she said. I'm sure she would.