IWMF: 2008 Courage Awards to brave women journalists from Afghanistan, Burma and Cyprus
~~ October 2008
Courage Award Winners
Death threats were common for Maria Jimena Duzan, who covered the Colombian drug trade for a Bogota daily. The threats turned real for crusading Russian journalist Anna Politkovskaya, who was assassinated in Moscow in 2006. These are just two of the 56 valiant women journalists who have received Courage Awards since the IWMF launched the program in 1990.
2008 Courage Award WinnersAye Aye Win is one of the only women journalists in Myanmar, Aye Aye Win works under the repressive military junta in her country.
Win, 54, is a correspondent for the Associated Press in Myanmar, formerly known as Burma. In order to avoid standing out as a journalist, Win occasionally wears clothes to blend in with people in different regions. Additionally, during a demonstration in 1996 when Win was covering a student protest, she changed her hairstyle so that she could not be recognized. This allowed her to evade security and cover the event.
Win has been called “the axe-handle of the foreign press” by other media outlets in Myanmar because she has helped open the door for foreign journalists to report on the country. Her movements are closely monitored by authorities; her house is periodically staked out by plainclothes police or military intelligence agents, and her telephone is often tapped.
She has been harassed numerous times by authorities and was interrogated in 1997 and 1998, when she was taken to the local military intelligence office. Win was not tortured physically, but because the interrogations occurred late at night, she said being summoned was especially unnerving and traumatizing. Win has also been threatened by the state-owned press, which usually carries articles or commentaries that reflect the views of the government. The official New Light of Myanmar newspaper issued a “last warning,” implying that she should cease reporting or they would kill her. The newspaper never mentioned Win by name but referred to her as a female “axe-handle” who works for a Western news media organization. Because she was the only woman journalist working for a foreign news agency, Win knew this threat was meant for her.
Win is known to argue with authorities who criticize her, but she says that as long as she remains accredited as a correspondent she will tell all sides of the story. For example, when pro-democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi was travelling around the country in 2000, few journalists dared to follow. Win joined Suu Kyi until she was barred from continuing. She was approached by two plainclothes police officers who recognized her and stopped her from crossing the river and following Suu Kyi. When dissidents and members of Suu Kyi’s party were arrested, Win sought details about the arrests from their family members even though they were watched by secret police. These activities put her high on the "watch list" of the authorities.
In the fall of 2007, Win put herself in great danger by covering violent demonstrations against the military government in Rangoon. She did not do this from the relative safety of her home or even a hotel room overlooking the protest sites as many journalists did; instead, she walked the streets while soldiers were firing at marchers and beating up innocent bystanders.
Win’s father, U Sein Win, was also a reporter in Myanmar; he was imprisoned three times in his pursuit of press freedom. It was during one of his stints in jail, in 1988, that Aye Aye Win stepped in to cover a pro-democracy uprising. She learned about journalism from her father and joined the AP a year later.
Win was first noticed by the government early in her journalism career – around 1989 – because she was the only woman journalist in her country. She became a target of the government in 1995 when she began to cover more political stories after Aung San Suu Kyi was released. There was a lot of tension between the government and Suu Kyi, and covering her political activities and the anti-regime protests became more dangerous.
Win’s husband, also a journalist, is also often heavily targeted by authorities. During a protest against economic hardship that erupted in Rangoon in August 2007 after the government raised fuel prices, Win’s husband was taken away and held in solitary detention for six days and questioned about his work as a journalist. Win had no word on his whereabouts, but she steadfastly covered the story, risking possible detention, imprisonment and even her own life.
In 2004, Win was honored by the Associated Press with the Oliver S. Gramling Journalism Award.
Win was born December 20, 1953, in Yangon, Myanmar.
Farida Nekzad, Afghanistan
Farida Nekzad is the managing editor and deputy director of Pajhwok Afghan News and vice president of the South Asia Media Commission. She frequently receives phone calls and email messages threatening her life. Despite working under tremendous pressure at a time when women journalists in particular are being threatened for their reporting in Afghanistan, Nekzad is committed to staying in her country to work toward a free press and greater equality for women journalists.
Farida Nekzad is a champion of press freedom and women’s rights in Afghanistan. She works under tremendous pressure at a time when women journalists are being threatened and killed for their reporting. Despite the danger, Nekzad is committed to staying in her country and continuing her work.
Nekzad, 31, works in Kabul, where she is the managing editor of Pajhwok Afghan News, Afghanistan’s leading independent news agency. Pajhwok provides daily news and features in English, Pashto and Dari to both Afghan and international audiences. In 2004, Nekzad was one of the news agency’s founders.
Nekzad frequently receives phone calls and email messages threatening her life. For instance, during the funeral service of her colleague, Zakia Zaki, who was murdered in June 2007, she received calls on her cell phone saying that she would have the same fate. The callers, who spoke different languages and called from different phone numbers, all said to Nekzad: “Daughter of America! We will kill you, just like we killed her.” They told her that if she continued to support America, foreign troops and democracy, she would be killed, adding that she would by murdered so gruesomely that no one would be able to recognize her.
After her news agency published a story in 2003 about a warlord who had evaded punishment for multiple crimes – including murder, rape and torture – Nekzad narrowly escaped a kidnapping attempt. She worked for two organizations at the time and took a taxi to get from one to the other. The driver starred at her in the mirror and started questioning her about her story, asking her why she wrote it and urging her to not write other stories. Nekzad told him to just drive, but he began driving fast and going the wrong way, so she opened the door and jumped from the moving car. Her arms and knees were wounded, but the car disappeared, so she was unable to identify it or the driver. Nekzad now frequently switches the car she drives, changes her schedule daily and sleeps in different rooms in her home to prevent ambush by potential attackers.
Nekzad first became interested in journalism when she was a teenager while watching interviews with Afghan officials on television. She was encouraged by a neighbor to try her hand at reporting. But when the Taliban took over Afghanistan in 1996, Nekzad was forced to withdraw from Kabul University to take refuge in Pakistan, where she stayed in exile for five years. She continued to study journalism for a period in India.
Upon returning to Afghanistan in late 2001, Nekzad worked as a producer and editor for various media outlets and also became a media trainer. She trained journalists at news media organizations such as IMPACS Radio in 2003 and the Institute of War and Peace Reporting in 2004. In 2003, she also worked as an IWPR staff reporter, covering politics, economic and social issues, women’s rights and the reconstruction of Afghanistan.
Nekzad hasn’t let threats interfere with her reporting; instead, she continues her job and her life as best she can. She says she wants to stay in Afghanistan to promote women’s rights and increase women’s presence in society. Nekzad, who is vice president of the South Asia Media Commission, is also committed to supporting women journalists and encouraging more women to become journalists.
Nekzad received the 2007 International Press Freedom Award by Canadian Journalists for Free Expression and will also receive an International Press Freedom Award from the Committee to Project Journalists in 2008.
She was born on November 1, 1976, in Kabul, Afghanistan.
Sevgul Uludag, Cyprus
Sevgul Uludag is an investigative reporter for Yeniduzen newspaper in Cyprus. Uludag lives in the northern part of divided Cyprus but through her reporting attempts to ease the segregation between the Greek and Turkish communities. In doing so, she has faced many obstacles, including death threats and violent attacks. But neither hate campaigns nor psychological terror keep Uludag from publishing her articles.
A journalist for nearly three decades, Sevgul Uludag, 49, is an investigative reporter for Yeniduzen, a Turkish Cypriot daily newspaper in the northern part of the divided island of Cyprus. She also writes for the Greek Cypriot newspaper, Politis, which is published in the south. In these papers as well as in the Internet magazine, Hamamböcüleri (Cockroaches), where she is a member of the team of editors, Uludag, who is of Turkish Cypriot heritage, tries to bring the two violently separated parts of Cyprus together and erase the divide of the population. Uludag moves toward this goal by illuminating the violence in Cyprus through her reporting.
In 2002, Uludag began to tackle the issue of missing people and mass graves in Cyprus. She devoted herself to uncovering the fates of thousands of people who disappeared during Greek-Turkish clashes in the 1960s and 1970s from mass executions, abductions and targeted assassinations. Uludag’s reporting started a public debate about missing persons, which is considered a taboo subject among Turkish Cypriots. In addition, Uludag called attention to the fact that both Greek and Turkish Cypriots saw themselves as the victims of the conflict, showing them that all Cypriots are both perpetuators and victims.
Uludag’s reporting eventually led to official searches and exhumations. But her investigations did not come without a price. For instance, a hate campaign against Uludag was orchestrated by military forces based in the northern (Turkish) part of the island through the newspapers under their influence. They ran stories calling her a spy and a traitor, as well as issuing death threats against her. Additionally, Uludag received threatening phone calls from those responsible for mass killings or their families when she was uncovering information about mass graves in Turkish Cypriot villages.
Persecution against Uludag began soon after she became a reporter in 1980. Previously, she had worked as a secretary in a bank. But when she switched to a job as a proofreader and liked the work, she decided to become a journalist. In 1982-83, a Turkish military car frequently parked outside her house simply because Uludag was writing about the taboo subject of why Cyprus should be reunified. Her phone was tapped, and her mail was often intercepted.
Over the years, the threats and intimidation continued. In 1996, a leader of the Grey Wolves, an extremist paramilitary group from Turkey known for violence toward Greek Cypriots, issued a death threat against Uludag. They threatened her because her brother-in-law, also a journalist, was killed, and the Grey Wolves were suspected in his death. Uludag was covering this possible involvement of the Grey Wolves for a weekly magazine. The group issued a death threat against her as well as what they called “the last warning,” which Uludag presumes to mean that they would kill her next time.
In 2000-2003, there was a concerted campaign against Uludag run by two newspapers close to the Turkish military in Cyprus. Nearly every day her photo was published along with accusations that she was a spy and a traitor who needed to be silenced. In April 2003, the daily newspaper Volkan, mouthpiece of the Turkish nationalist movement, published editorials and columns calling for her murder and asking its readers to “cut off the tongue of Sevgul Uludag.”
Uludag dodged an attempted attack in Nicosia at a checkpoint in November 2006 by a group of Greek Cypriot nationalist students. The students were connected with the fascist group Hrisi Avgi, which is the Greek Cypriot version of the Grey Wolves. Its members are against reunification of Cyprus and any kind of contact among Turkish and Greek Cypriots. When Uludag was crossing from the northern to the southern part of the island, she showed her press pass, but the students started shouting at her and rushed to hit her, only to be stopped by police. Although she made an official complaint together with the Cyprus Journalists Union and took a photo of the attackers, the police told her they could not find them.
In 2006 and 2007, Uludag received death threats from people in the city of Caoz where she was reporting about mass graves where Greek Cypriots were murdered. During the same time period, an extremist paramilitary group called the Turkish Revenge Brigade issued a statement threatening all those connected with the search for the missing people in their village, including Uludag.
Uludag has also received a death threat by mail from an extremist group in Australia. When they did not succeed with their threats to stop her from giving news to Special Broadcasting Service, one of two government-funded Australian public broadcasting radio and television networks, they started sending hate e-mail to her.
Uludag has published several books, including Oysters with the Missing Pearls, which brings together stories of missing persons and mass graves from both the Greek and Turkish sides of Cyprus. Oysters was originally published in Turkish in 2005 and has subsequently been published in Greek and English. Uludag’s most recent book, Orphans of Nationalism, was published in 2008. It contains stories of Turkish and Greek Cypriots killed by their own sides.
Also an activist for peace and gender issues, Uludag has trained various groups of women on issues of peace, reconciliation and gender. Together with women from both parts of Cyprus, she founded the non-governmental organization Hands Across the Divide in 2001, speaking out in public for peace in Cyprus.
Uludag was born October 15, 1958, in Nicosia, Cyprus.