On October 24, the International Women’s Media Foundation honored four women journalists for risking their lives to cover the news. Adela Navarro Bello, general director of Tijuana’s weekly news magazine Zeta, reports on Mexico’s drug cartels despite the fact that her former colleague and editor, Héctor Félix Miranda, was murdered for doing so. Chiranuch Premchaiporn of Thailand faces a possible 20-year prison sentence for allowing comments offensive to the royal family to remain on her website, Prachatai. Parisa Hafezi, the first non-Western woman to serve as Reuters’ bureau chief in Tehran, has endured raids, interrogations and beatings from her government for critical reporting. And the BBC’s Kate Adie, who received a Lifetime Achievement Award, has reported from Bosnia, Iraq, Afghanistan, Rwanda, Sierra Leone, Libya and Tiananmen Square, to name just a few hotspots.
I had the great privilege to speak with Hafezi and Adie about their motivations, their experiences and the challenges of being a woman reporter in conflict zones. Though both women claim to have found their calling by accident, neither has ever thought for a moment about walking away.
Ms. Blog: I guess I want to start with why. What is your motivation to do something for which you have to risk your lives?
Adie: You don’t have to risk it. People can cover fashion shows and get stabbed by somebody. Journalism covers huge numbers of sins. A certain part of what you can call general reporting encompasses conflict, but you don’t usually specialize in it; it just comes with the turf. And you don’t have to go to war, you can always say no. You’re not a soldier. On top of that, you’re not meant to take too many risks because your job is to bring the story back. For me, quite simply, it was just part of the job. War is significant so you end up reporting it.
Hafezi: For me, why not? Everybody’s asking me that and I don’t see the point. Why not? This is my life. I love it; I’m doing it; I enjoy it; that’s the main point. When they ask me to go to some assignment I can refuse to do it if I feel frightened or I think I’m risking my life. Normally we don’t—we don’t refuse it—but it’s not because they put pressure on us. It’s personality. This is what we are. This is the job I do. I’m not an activist. I’m just a journalist. So why not?
Why journalism, then?
Adie: I just needed a job, when women first started to work. I wasn’t even brought up with the idea that you do a full-time job. I coincided with the expansion in Britain of the start of local radio. In a way that was easier to get into than anything else, because of its nature, and I joined my local station. I clawed my way in rather determinedly with no qualifications because it looked interesting. And then it just took off from there.
Hafezi: The same as me, I never chose to become a journalist. I’m an engineer, but when I finished my study abroad and went back to my country there was no job for a woman. And I never ever thought that I will work like this because I thought I will get married, I will have kids, I will have a life, an easy life. But when I became a journalist I started to like it. I loved it. And then I continued.
Ms. Hafezi, I understand that you, in particular, were mentored by a woman.
Hafezi: Samia Nakhoul. When I joined Reuters 11 years ago, my bureau chief then told me that wow, you remind me of Samia. And I didn’t know who Samia was. When I first saw her it was on TV when the U.S. attacked Iraq and she was wounded. I said, oh wow, that’s it. She worked hard and she gave support to all these women in the Middle East, and she had a huge fight to reach where she is now. She is the Middle East editor. I wanted to become like her. And she pushed me. She showed me the way.
Adie: There were quite a few women who worked at the BBC. It was a big organization when I joined. But I didn’t join as a reporter, and therefore I didn’t think about who might be doing something that I might want to do. There had been women, interestingly, in the BBC in the Second World War doing jobs as chief engineers and a lot of technical jobs because the men were taken off into the army to do radio communications. And some of them managed to hang on to their jobs at the end of the war. There was a great push to get them out. So there was a tradition in broadcasting as a young profession of having at least some women around. But there weren’t many in the journalistic side at all.
Did you have people who stood in your way?
Adie: There was verbal abuse from huge numbers of people. “I’m not working with a bloody girl.” It was as straightforward as that. I learned very early on you only fight the big battles. You don’t spend every day niggling about little things. Otherwise you exhaust yourself. And now it’s completely different. I think it’s wonderful that you get so many young men coming in now to the workplace and they’re expecting young women to be next to them.
[But] people forget very quickly. So I do a little bit of warning with younger women journalists, saying, “Don’t take things for granted. Don’t. You may have to stand your ground and defend it.”
Hafezi: My main battle was that it was very difficult for [Iranian men] to accept a woman as their bureau chief. Many people told me, “Oh from the beginning we were against appointing a woman.” Even once my mom, who was a great support to me, said, “Don’t you want to change your job and get something more feminine?”
I learned from Samia to do my homework. I tried to improve my knowledge about Iran, about the region, about the rules in Reuters. My theory was “focus on your job, do your job.” And the good thing was that Reuters acknowledged it.
How do you assess and deal with risks, physically and psychologically, when you’re reporting?
ADIE: You all have personal rules about risks; my rule was you go as far as you can knowing that you can bring the story back. It’s not your job to go and die or get injured or get stuck. I had one major incident where I broke my own rule, along with the cameraman. There had been demonstrations at Tiananmen Square in Beijing in ’89 for four months, and it had risen and fallen in intensity and numbers. Hundreds of thousands involved. The night the [Chinese authorities sent in the army] we got a call just before midnight. We [went] out for five-and-a-half hours [that] night, and we only saw one other cameraman, one or two photographers. Everybody else was gathered on a balcony at the hotel, which was a quarter of a mile from the square. We were all over the place.
There was a moment when I was standing in a little lane running down to the main road, and Chinese people were coming out of their houses. I had two people, [one] on either side of me; the cameraman was filming behind a tree. We hadn’t realized at that point just how dangerous it was. And I don’t speak Chinese, but these people were plucking my sleeve, and I looked at one and he’s trying to tell me something, and I said, “I don’t understand.” So I looked at the other one, wondering if he spoke English, and he wasn’t there. He was dead next to me. And when I turned to the one on my left, he, too, was dead. At which point you began to realize just what was happening [there was shooting everywhere by the army]. We then went to a hospital where we saw horrific scenes. Then we went back onto the streets, at which point the cameraman–we both reached the same point—we both knew we should not be on the streets. And we both said, “We’ve got to stay.” We stayed another two and a half hours, because one knows that the Chinese government will rewrite history and that its own people will have difficulty telling the story. In most instances you have to calculate how to bring the story back. It’s not easy; no one tells you where the line is.
Hafezi: When the bad earthquake happened in 2003, I was the first journalist that arrived there. And I was seeing thousands of thousands of dead people. It was 50,000 casualties. So for ten days I helped them. All of us did. And I remember that I had a satellite phone and when I arrived there, people who were still alive saw that I had a sat phone. They didn’t know it was a sat phone–they thought it’s a telephone. They had nothing. So they were really hitting me, beating me, to have the phone to call relatives. And they couldn’t because I couldn’t charge it. There was no electricity.
After ten days I went back to Tehran to my family to see [that] my kids are alive. For a long time I had this problem, psychological problem, dealing with reality. I had car accidents in my parking space just banging around. And ten days after that I went to a train explosion where 300 people were killed and after [that] there was another. In one month, three natural disasters. So sometimes I think that we cannot really be normal people.
Adie: There are so many variations on this. We went through a period of about three to four years, from ‘88-’92, which encompassed so many wars. We just went from one thing to another. Two massive great plane crashes, Lockerbie and another one in Great Britain. It included a complete ferry going down in the English Channel; it included the end of the Soviet Empire, the Berlin Wall, the revolutions in Czechoslovakia and Romania. And then they started the Gulf War. Oh, and Tiananmen Square in ’89. And the Armenian earthquake that killed 70,000 people. We just never stopped. And you did actually get a sense of, “Right, what is it this time? How many dead? Here we go again.” As a journalist, you have to sort of rise to the occasion for each one. It’s difficult.
Does it happen a lot that you step outside of the reporting to help people?
Adie: Everybody asks [that]. The answer is, first of all, you have no means. You don’t have an ambulance. You might have a very small first-aid kit that would help one or two people. Secondly, you don’t bring food to a famine. You maybe feed a little bit of food to one person, then you’d have a riot. There’s 500 people trying to get the food. If you’re a foreign journalist, you don’t speak the language. You didn’t bring the blankets, you didn’t bring the water, you didn’t bring the clothes. You didn’t bring anything. You don’t know what to do.
And when it comes to violence—when somebody is doing something to somebody else—the bottom line is you don’t have a gun. And a camera or the presence of a journalist does not shame people. They say, “Oh, you’ve got a camera? Look what I’m going to do to this person.” You have to be very careful. We are strangers, we’re birds of passage, most of us.
Has there ever been a moment when you came close to walking away? Is there a moment where you went, “Oh I really don’t want to do this?”
Adie: No. Never.
Hafezi: Never. You have to love this job. You have to love it. You have to enjoy it. And I do.
What would you ask each other?
Adie: I think I’d probably say to you, I don’t know quite how you do it. I went through, 30 odd years ago, prejudice against women in a democratic society which was changing its laws regarding the status of women. I worked subsequently in Saudi Arabia, Afghanistan, Iran and lots of other countries, and I am in awe of people who actually have to go home to the difficulties as well as face them at work. I don’t know how you do it, because it’s almost enough for me as a visitor to have to put up with it.
Hafezi: Well, I can ask you how did you do it? Because people like you are like mentors for all of us. For me, for example, it encourages me. I see that, OK, there are others who did it. So we can do it.
What would you say to young women who want to do be journalists like yourselves?
Adie: You have to decide quite determinedly whether you’re going to do what I call serious, worthwhile journalism, because you can end up doing gossip and fluffy stuff, scandal journalism—there’s a lot of money in it. So you have got to decide what you want to do and try to stick to that. Therefore you’re going to have to carve out your own life. Don’t expect it to come to you on a plate. And then it’ll be hugely satisfying.
Hafezi: If you want to do it, you have to love it. And you should be ready to sacrifice your private life. You may not, but if you want to do it properly you might. I am enjoying doing my job because I know that it will bring change in my country. I was not planning to do that–it just happened. As a single mother I had to fight for many things, and maybe my job helped because it gave me the strength to fight.
Photos from top to bottom: Adela Navarro Bello, Parisa Hafezi, Chiranuch Premchaiporn, and Kate Adie (left to right) by Vince Bucci/Picture Group; Parisa Hafezi by Reuters; Kate Adie by Steve Brock; Parisa Hafezi with presenter Robin Givens, by Vince Bucci/Picture Group; and Kate Adie with presenter Aaron Eckhart. Used with permission from IWMF.