A Lifetime of Bravery: International journalists discuss women in media with Dean Susan King

By Beth Hatcher

In a conversation that examined the pressures and issues female journalists continue to face around the world, UNC Hussman School of Journalism and Media Dean Susan King spoke with three past Courage in Journalism Award winners during a virtual talk held by the International Women’s Media Foundation (IWMF) on Oct. 27, 2020.

King co-founded IWMF 30 years ago, an organization which provides professional opportunities, safety training and support for women journalists around the world.

The “A Lifetime of Bravery: Then and Now” talk featured former Courage in Journalism Award winners Catherine Gicheru, Claudia Duque and Janine di Giovanni.

The award recognizes journalists who report on controversial topics, work in environments hostile to women and share difficult truths. So far, the IWMF has recognized more than 100 journalists in 56 countries with the award.

The women discussed how the award changed their careers, what has changed for women journalists in the past 30 years and what the future holds, including in the United States, where King said recent years have seen American journalists labeled as “enemies of the people” and facing harassment on a scale comparable to that of journalists who are persecuted in other countries.

“U.S. journalists are feeling an even more deep sympatico,” King said referring to the courage long required of foreign correspondents. King asked the award winners what advice they had for American journalists.

“Keep doing what you do,” said Duque. “Don’t be afraid … when they attack us, it’s because they are afraid of our power.”

Duque knows firsthand about the oppression of journalists. A Colombian journalist and human rights defender, she has spent a career shedding light on corruption in her native country, facing persecution and atrocities including being kidnapped, illegally surveilled and forced in exile three times.

Di Giovanni, who has reported on more than 15 conflicts and humanitarian disasters around the world, likened the current situation in America with dangerous conditions she has seen in other parts of the world, noting a similar breakdown in the pillars of democracy — human rights, rule of law and freedom of expression — that she has witnessed in unstable regions internationally.

“But the most dangerous one for me is lack of trust in the press,” she said.

Women’s voices are an important part of any healthy press, all the panelists agreed, whether in reporting on conflicts or in creating peace. Also, female journalists were often given access to information on sensitive subjects — such as sexual violence — that male journalists weren’t.

However, women journalists around the world still face gender-specific threats in doing their job, from sexual harassment to a lack of representation in leadership positions.

This reinforces the need to keep speaking up and keep moving forward, which receiving the Courage in Journalism Award encouraged each of the panelists to do.

“[The award] kept me going and inspired me … to do my best so that another woman will get that backbone … that drive to stay in the business,” said Gicheru, a Kenyan journalist who currently serves as managing editor of the Star newspaper in Kenya.

King probed the panelists for how they care for their own health in a profession that deals constantly with trauma. “How, in bearing witness, do you also protect yourself?” King asked.

Gicheru said a great support system, both professionally and personally, grounded her. For Duque, her daughter kept her going, and for di Giovanni it was the craft of journalism itself that gave solace, being able to write and share about the events she witnessed.

To help women journalists cope with trauma on the job, the IWMF offers programs like Hostile Environment Training, studies on online harassment and emergency funds for needs such as  trauma, mental health services and legal support, among others.

The support of IWMF, not only in its programs, but in the vibrant community of female journalists it creates, also strengthens and sustains the panelists in their work, at a time when the work has never been more critical, they said.

“Right now journalism is so important,” di Giovanni said. “Right now more than ever we need to use our voices … we have to keep writing … we have to keep on bringing more young people, more young women into our fold and passing the baton on to them.”

King reflected on the conversation after its end: “What I’m struck by is how much journalists have in common no matter what country they’re from,” she said, as she noted the importance of a strong press around the world. “If the public understands what’s going on in the country, those countries will be stronger. Democracy can’t happen without a free press.”

“A Lifetime of Bravery” was part of the  IWMF’s Press Freedom Speaker Series, a series of virtual conversations bringing together thought leaders and experts to take on some of the most pressing issues in journalism and democracy at large.