Mexican journalist, Lydia Cacho
Last night I went to an event called the Courage in Journalism Awards where the International Women’s Media Foundation honored eight women journalists who have risked everything to report the truth they saw around them.
Since awards nights like this inevitably function also as fundraisers, the affair was suitably glitzy, featuring a dinner held in one of the ballrooms at the Beverly Hills Hotel, with actresses Meg Ryan and Angelina Jolie somewhat incongruously introducing several of the awardees. Yet none of the Hollywood flash could obscure the heart of what took place.
The women celebrated included a fresh-faced 27-year-old Ethiopian reporter and newspaper publisher named Serkalem Fasil, who was arrested, beaten and charged with treason for criticizing the government’s conduct in the 2005 parliamentary elections (she has since been released).
Also honored was a particularly remarkable Mexican woman journalist named Lydia Cacho who now is followed everywhere by four bodyguards because of the very credible threats made against her after she wrote a meticulously documented book alleging that certain wealthy and prominent Mexican politicians and businessmen were pedophiles involved in a ring of child pornography and prostitution. (Her description of things confided in her by some of the six and seven year old little girls who are among the victims made it clear why she does the work despite the risk.)
Yet, the most vivid moment of the night was when the award was presented to six Iraqi women journalists who work in the Baghdad bureau for McClatchy news service.
Right now Iraq is the most dangerous place in the world for reporters. 32 journalists and staff have been killed last year alone. Since the beginning of the war in 2003, 153 reporters and news personnel have been killed—80 percent of those Iraqis. Yet, still women like these six who continue to go the places that the Americans and the rest of the international news corps can’t go, and do the bring back the interviews and stories that the Americans and the internationals can’t touch.
We were forbidden to photograph the Iraqi women, four of whom were present at the dinner, because if anyone in Baghdad got hold of the photos their lives and the lives of their families would be in grave danger. One of them has already had her husband, daughter and mother-in-law killed by insurgents. A second woman was herself nearly killed by an IED. A third, Sahar Issa, has had her son killed in a crossfire, her nephew killed in a market bomb.
Here’s a fragment of what Issa wrote for a McClatchy story about the experience:
“We were asked to send the next of kin to whom the remains of my nephew, killed on Monday in a horrific explosion downtown, can be handed. From the waist down was all they could give us. ‘We identified him by the cell phone in his pants’ pocket. If you want the rest, you will just have to look for yourself. We don’t know what he looks like.’ Now begins the horror that surpasses anything I could have possibly envisioned.” – Sahar Issa
It was Issa, a head-scarved woman with an elegant bearing, who acted as the spokesperson for the other three when they stood up to accept the award:
“We live double lives,” she said….