by LISA CHIU
Journalists must struggle to get the story, remain objective, and meet deadlines. But for a group of women honored last week by the International Women in Media Foundation, they must also fight government repression, face jail and torture, and even risk their lives.
“I was tortured for 20 hours. They had a gun to my head. They tried to make me jump in the ocean,” said news reporter Lydia Cacho as she described being jailed for libel in Mexico. She writes for Comunicación e Información de la Mujer, a women’s media outlet in Mexico.
“They insisted that if I got lost I would be another journalist lost, and no one would care,” she said.
Cacho received the Foundation’s Courage in Journalism Award along with Sahar Issa of Iraq. The two spoke in a panel discussion with the Foundation’s Lifetime Achievement Award winner, Peta Thornycroft of Zimbabwe, at the National Geographic Society in Washington on Oct. 25, days after receiving their awards. CNN correspondent Zain Verjee moderated the panel.
After her torture in jail, Cacho, 44, paid a fine and was set free. She later won a countersuit against the government for corruption and violation of her rights. She has spent most of her journalism career reporting and writing about pedophiles and the prostitution of young women in Mexico.
Issa decided to report for the McClatchy Baghdad Bureau after the death of her son who was shot and killed in crossfire in 2005. She has also had to claim the body of her nephew, who was killed in a market bombing. There were many times in Issa’s work when she would utter a final prayer, believing that she would be killed, she said.
“Everyday in Iraq could be my last day. The way we deal with it is I try not to think about it once I’ve made the decision to walk this path,” Issa said. “Living in fear has become quite commonplace in Iraq, not just for journalists but everyone.”
When she faces a life-threatening situation, her first thought is her children, she said. Issa won the award along with fellow reporters Huda Ahmed, Shatha al Awsy, Alaa Majeed, Zaineb Obeid and Bain Adil Sarhan. Their bureau keeps a blog of their work.
Because Issa could be in danger if she is identified, the Foundation asked that she not be photographed. Most of her family members and friends don’t know what she does for a living. They just know she works at a company, she said.
Lifetime Award winner Thornycroft, 62, said she always makes a plan that protects herself and allows her to continue to report the news in Zimbabwe. She is an independent journalist covering politics and economics, and always strives to write unbiased articles, she said.
“In a society where the press is so repressed as it is, one of the most difficult challenges is to make sure the information is correct and people are getting the true story,” she said. “I’ve hardly ever lived in a democracy; I don’t really know any other kind of life.”
Thornycroft continued reporting in Zimbabwe even after a media crackdown required all journalists to be citizens of the country. To continue to write, she renounced her British citizenship and became a citizen of Zimbabwe. Thornycroft grew up in Zimbabwe and has reported on apartheid in South Africa.
When moderator Verjee asked if she felt her work has made a difference, Thornycroft said it didn’t.
“I haven’t made a difference at all. It’s an extraordinary situation to be in. Normally journalists can influence events or bring things to attention,” Thornycroft said. “I’m constantly heckling on about the appalling way people are treated there. But I don’t make any difference.”
Courage Award winner Serkalem Fasil, 27, of Ethiopia, could not accept her award as she faces legal jeopardy after being jailed and released for editing articles critical of the Ethiopian government. During her previous arrest for publishing articles critical of the Ethiopian government, Fasil was beaten by police while she was pregnant and later gave birth to her son in prison. Fasil awaits an Ethiopian Supreme Court ruling next month that will determine if she will face trial.
The only way Mexico’s Cacho continues her work is the thought that others in her country face worse experiences, she said.
“Mexicans every year are fleeing the country to the United States because they have no money and no way to feed themselves and their families,” Cacho said.
“The tragedies of my fellow countrymen and women are worse than mine. I try to tell their stories because I have a voice and they don’t.”