Woodruff: Being Thankful for a Free Press

BY Judy Woodruff  October 27, 2011 at 5:44 PM EDT

For the past 21 years, I’ve been privileged to be part of an amazing organization called the International Women’s Media Foundation. A group of women reporters and I came together to get it off the ground in 1990. With democracy seemingly breaking out around that time in several parts of the globe — Eastern Europe, South Africa, the Philippines — we wanted to reach out to any women journalists trying to create a free press in these countries emerging from under the yoke of oppressive governments.

We realized how fortunate we were, to work in a place where press freedom is written into our nation’s founding document. We believed we could offer our experience as counsel to women in far-flung places of the globe. And my friend, then ABC News correspondent Susan King, now a Vice President at the Carnegie Corporation of New York and about to become Dean of the Journalism School at the University of North Carolina, came up with the idea of presenting awards each year for courage to women journalists putting life and limb on the line in order to report the news.

Twenty-one years later, we have learned at least two things: that Susan King’s idea for this award was brilliant. And that WE have been enriched by the women journalists we sought to help, far more than the other way around.

Proof came again this week, as we honored — at ceremonies in New York City and Los Angeles — the three newest Courage in Journalism Award winners, along with this year’s Lifetime Achievement Award winner, long-time BBC war correspondent Kate Adie.

Adela Navarro Bello of Mexico told of how her editors at Zeta newsmagazine in Tijuana have been murdered, and how she has been threatened with death by her country’s notorious drug cartels. Time and again, she has been targeted, but she remains unbowed. “I don’t understand why reporters are afraid,” she told the IWMF. “If you’re not reporting on what is happening, you are an accomplice to these people.”

Chiranuch Premchaiporn of Thailand is facing a potential 20-year prison sentence because her government has strict laws regulating what can be reported on the Internet. Premchaiporn’s office at Prachatai, the online newspaper, was raided by the police in 2009 after it posted readers’ comments critical of the Thai monarchy. “The government singled me out to make me an example,” she said. “It’s important to inform people … we will continue writing.”

Finally, Parisa Hafezi of Iran was attacked by riot police with electric batons when she tried to cover the country’s violent protests two years ago. As the Reuters’ bureau chief in Tehran, she was later targeted for one of her reports, abducted by a group of men accusing her of being a spy, and subjected to countless threats and intimidation. “They see I’m strong. I’m not scared,” she told IWMF.

Meeting and listening to these three extraordinarily brave women journalists this week reminds us yet again how lucky we are to be able to work in a country with a free press. It’s not perfect; the American press is under enormous financial stresses these days. But we never have to worry that someone from the government will knock on our door late at night because they didn’t like a story we wrote or an interview we did. Adela, Chiranuch and Parisa do — and their indescribable courage is an inspiration to all who meet them.

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