Grace Under Fire: Honoring Fearless Women Journalists

The International Women’s Media Foundation honored three remarkable women journalists at the Beverly Hilton in Los Angeles last week for their commitment to seeking the truth even when it put their lives at risk. The Ms. Blog had a chance to speak to those inspiring women—hailing from the Democratic Republic of Congo, Serbia and Syria—after they received their 2014 Courage in Journalism awards.

Among them was Solange Nsimire, editor-in-chief and publisher of the newspaper Le Souverain in eastern Congo.

“Becoming a journalist came almost as a consequence of being a woman in my country,” she said after she took the stage to accept her Courage in Journalism award.

Nsimire has faced death threats to herself and her family. Despite this, for years, she has pushed to expose crimes against humanity, violence against women and corruption by the Congolese government.

In a country that is known as the “rape capital” of the world, the DRC is probably one of the most volatile countries in Africa when it comes to women’s rights. That is what compels Nsimire to continue reporting in the face of danger.

When you decide to be a [woman] journalist in DRC, you aren’t able to escape from the weight of customs and traditions that make women underlings, the lesser. When you have a voice, you are seen as impossible, difficult, dangerous. The challenge is to stay stronger than your fear.

Nsimire, whose staff must take a four-day journey to Uganda just to print the newspaper since there are no printing presses in eastern Congo, feels her work has served as encouragement to other media outlets to fearlessly report the truth.

Change is a process, and in a way, we’ve managed to revolutionize the press because other outlets are following suit. There were subjects that other media outlets wouldn’t even approach before, and now there’s hardly any taboo subjects left. There’s a greater space that has been created for the voiceless.

When asked what was the most pressing issue facing women in her country, Nsimire said:

Rape and sexual violence, coupled along with poverty. … Women fight to give their families an opportunity to survive. You see one woman selling a basket of bananas. She will use that to feed her family, send her children to school, keep them healthy … When raped or brutalized, she becomes demoralized and weakened, her whole life is destroyed. Rape is killing the life of the Congo.

Next up was Serbia’s Brankica Stankovic, editor of the investigative news magazine Insider, who has spent her career disclosing the criminal collusion between the government, businesses and the Serbian mafia. The threats towards her intensified when she ran an investigative exposé on how local politicians had been working with youth gangs to incite violence and inspire fear in their communities. Shortly after, at a soccer match, an effigy of Stankovic in a bra and underwear was thrown around the stadium by gang members while they chanted, “Stankovic, you whore.” The effigy was eventually pummeled and stabbed. She now lives under 24-hour protection and can’t even take out the trash without her four bodyguards accompanying her. When asked how she deals with the perils of her work, she said:

I think I have managed to keep my sanity. There is no going back or giving up now that I have gone this far. Over time, you learn to deal with the fear that is connected to your work and push for the public interest. It’s not only our jobs but our lives that are lived under these conditions. … You have to have an awareness that regardless of what you go through, you have done something that is very important for the country and for the people.

Finally there was Arwa Damon, CNN’s senior international correspondent, a self-described “girl next door.” She was born in Boston to an American father and Syrian mother. She now splits her time between in New York and an enclosed compound in Iraq. Traveling throughout Turkey and Morocco as a girl and being fluent in Arabic would put her in a unique position to eventually become a Middle East war correspondent:

I didn’t grow up saying I wanted to be a journalist. … I didn’t really know what I wanted to do. Then 9/11 happened, and I saw that East-West collision and felt I had to do something about it, try to be some kind of cross-cultural bridge because I’m so the American girl next door. I look and sound familiar, so it’s easier for me to speak about foreign concepts in a digestible way to an American audience.

Damon said that in a field like war correspondence, it can be difficult to measure positive impact since sometimes change can be a long time coming and very incremental. She especially can feel helpless when the atrocities she reports on in the current civil war in Syria don’t have the immediate effect of foreign interference or relief coming to the stricken nation:

Sometimes you feel like you’re reporting into a dark void, and it makes you question yourself as a journalist. … You feel like you’re fighting a losing battle but you do have these small moments here and there that keep you going. You can’t afford to not keep going because then what would the world be? There’s a lot of evil out there already, and a lot of accountability that needs to happen.

And as for dealing with the psychological effects of the violence and brutality she sees, she said:

You don’t know how you’re going to react to your first bombing, to your first death that happens in front of you. You can prepare as much as you can, but you don’t know until you’re in that situation. I’ve been doing this for so long that a part of me is gone, but that’s the sacrifice I’ve made and that I’m willing to make. It pales in comparison to the people whose stories I’m covering had to go through.

That’s why it’s so humbling for her to be in this group of women who actually call these unstable countries home:

I go to these places because I choose to go, and we’re all driven by the fundamental sense of purpose and need to do something. But they have to live with those dangers every day, and they never get a break. That just blows my mind. The challenges they face and the realities they face are so different from mine.

On top of her war reporting, Damon is set to launch INARA, which is Arabic for “ray of light” and stands for International Network for Aid Relief and Assistance. The goal of her upcoming nonprofit will be treating foreign children with unique medical problems that mainstream relief agencies can’t handle.

The IWMF also took a moment to recognize fallen reporters.

Anja Niedringhaus, a German photojournalist for the Associated Press, was a recipient of the Courage in Journalism award in 2005 for her efforts to document the effects of conflict in the Middle East. This year, the Pulitzer Prize-winner was killed while on assignment in Afghanistan.

IWMF paid tribute to her and and honored her mother, Heide Ute Niedringhaus-Schulz, who was flown in from her bucolic farming town in central Germany to attend the event. The organization also announced the creation of the Anja Niedringhaus Courage in Photojournalism Award with a $1 million grant from the Howard G. Buffet Foundation. Its purpose will be to honor other women photojournalists who follow in Niedringhaus’ footsteps. When asked what she hoped her late daughter’s legacy would be, she said:

She believed she could change the world, taking pictures. She wasn’t going to give that up. I want her to be remembered for her work, the images she captured and the stories she wanted to tell.

Photos of IWMF and Vince Bucci  


Associate editor of Ms. magazine