Many past and present scholars believe journalists serve as watchdogs of the public, shining a spotlight on corruption, crime, and community disturbances for the good of the population. However, there exists many places in the world where those in the highest seats of power act against the journalist, hoping to silence their alerting bark.
Although dangers of all kinds await a journalist in the struggle for free expression, female journalists, who continue facing outdated prejudices and oppression, subject themselves to the greatest dangers while in search of the truth.
The College of Media & Communication honored two female journalists for their bravery and perseverance in the field, recognizing their commitment to free speech with the Excellence in International Journalism and Human Rights Award. The recipients were Zeina Khodr, an award-winning senior correspondent for Al-Jazeera English, and Adela Navarro Bello, the award-winning general director of Zeta magazine in Tijuana, Mexico.
The awards were presented February 24 during the graduate student research symposium entitled On Being an International Female Journalist. The symposium, co-sponsored by the Thomas J. Harris Institute for Hispanic and International Communication and the Department of Journalism & Creative Media Industries, emerged from an idea in a college graduate course. Lyombe Eko, Ph.D., professor of journalism and creative media industries, taught the course and organized the subsequent event.
“It was an opportunity for the students to see real-life people who live these things on a daily basis,” says Eko. “[Some people] frame female journalism as if it's a crime, as if reporting while female is a crime. There are just so many horrible stories of a female journalist who has been victimized or attacked, so I wanted the students to have practical examples.”
Eko began the symposium by introducing Khodr, who is based in Beirut, Lebanon, while reporting for Al-Jazeera. She has covered numerous wars and political conflicts in countries across the Middle East, including Syria, Libya, and Egypt. She reported on the ISIL/ISIS takeover of a third of Iraq and Northern Syria, as well as the migrant/refugee crisis in Europe, and much more.
Khodr began her address with a stout message for the watchdogs of the world.
“I don't think journalism is about gender,” said Khodr. “Whether you're male or female, you face risks when you're on the ground, when you're covering war. You can be killed by a sniper or an airstrike, and it doesn't matter whether you're a woman or a man. In the bigger picture, what it means to be an international journalist is the same thing. It's a commitment.”
The dangers Khodr spoke of are very real in her daily life. While covering the ISIL/ISIS takeover in Syria, Khodr and her cameraman were taken by ISIL members when trying to cross a border. The ISIL members allowed Khodr to pass on one condition: they got to use the camera to create propaganda for their cause. Khodr and her cameraman followed an ISIL leader through the city, gathering shots of him holding babies, touting his weapons, and shouting for freedom.
Even in such perilous moments, Khodr has never lost sight of her duty.
“We have a responsibility because we are telling people stories,” said Khodr. “We are speaking on the reality of the people who cannot speak—and maybe that sounds like a cliché—but it's reality. In many instances, this is what gives you the strength to continue.”
The second honoree of the symposium, Adela Navarro, covers a different kind of war, but one with equal danger every time she's on the job.
Navarro and her dedicated team report on organized crime, drug trafficking, human trafficking, and corruption in Mexico's border cities. In January 2010, United States law enforcement notified Navarro of death threats against her from the Tijuana drug cartel, resulting in the Mexican government assigning seven soldiers as her bodyguards.
She has no intentions of letting any threats stifle her work.
“Every time a journalist self-censors, the whole society loses,” said Navarro, as she addressed the symposium audience. “Doing investigative journalism in my country means looking for enemies. If corruption in government is investigated, the highest-ranking public official considers the journalist his adversary. If drug tracking is investigated, the criminal wants to kill the messenger in order to preserve their impunity. This is not a new scenario. And yet, there are journalists in Mexico who never give up practicing freedom of expression.”
In her address, Navarro added a similar note of gender indifference as Khodr. To them, journalism is only about the truth.
“I agree with [Khodr],” says Navarro. “This is not a matter of gender. When a death threat comes, you are not male or female. You are a journalist, and they are trying to silence you.”
Following Navarro and Khdor, the symposium divided into two sessions. Three graduate students from the symposium's parent course presented case studies they conducted during the Fall 2020 semester. The presentations focused on the harrowing lives and sacrifices from female journalists across the world.
Julie Grandjean, a doctoral student in the College of Media & Communication presented on Anna Politkovskaya from Russia, who was murdered in 2006 for her coverage of the war between Chechnya and Russia, and Yoani Sánchez from Cuba, who was abducted and arrested multiple times for her coverage of the Cuban government.
The comparative case study from Grandjean was conducted under the framework of governmentality, the idea that each nation has a mentality of governance impacting freedom of expression.
“The government, when it has big influence over the media, can control not only the narrative but also the journalist,” says Grandjean. “The government will try to silence anyone who does not follow that narrative. And if the government isn't officially involved in these acts, other people will do the silencing.”
While working on her case study, Grandjean sifted through dozens of newspaper articles concerning Politkovskaya or Sánchez, searching for the different narratives used to tell their stories.
“In the Russian newspaper Politkovskaya worked for, they were very nice and friendly, and about a third of the time they used her name, they used a nickname,” says Grandjean. “So, it was oddly personable and personal. Make of that what you will. When I looked at articles from The New York Times, they really condemned her death. They tried to implicate the Russian government and the senate. Two very different articles from two very different places. Again, make of it what you will.”
Grandjean's own experience as an international student who has formerly lived under a communist government has a deep appreciation for the work of journalists like Politkovskaya and Sánchez.
“They're putting their lives on the line so we can get the information,” says Grandjean. “We need people who are that brave and that willing. We know it's dangerous, they know it's dangerous, and yet they're so willing to sacrifice their lives so the rest of the world can have the information.”
Each student presenter shared Grandjean's sentiments, including Natalie Stanislaus, a master's student in the college.
Stanislaus presented a comparative case study examining the narratives on the lives of Anja Niedringhaus from Germany and Anhar Kochneva from the Ukraine. In the case of Niedringhaus, there was yet another tragic death to examine. However, the ways in which a tragedy like this is presented to the world struck Stanislaus the most.
“From both [Eastern and Western] countries, the representations of these women were actually harmful in very different ways,” says Stanislaus. “They normalize gender violence. For example, German and American perspectives valued the reporters, but the problems the women faced were always the problem of the country [where the women were stationed]. No one else's. Then from a Russian news outlet, they simply said women were not equal to men.”
Stanislaus says complacency is just as harmful as the act itself when it comes to gender violence. Impassioned by her research, Stanislaus was grateful to share her work and listen to the stories of Khodr and Navarro.
“I can do all this research, talk about these women and what's happening to them, but it's so much more powerful to get the perspective of someone who's been there. They are strong, powerful, incredible women.”
When asked if she would consider being an international journalist, Stanislaus preferred to leave that work to dedicated women like Khodr and Navarro. Her work for the symposium, however, has driven her to further her research agenda, assessing the problem from the other side.
The lives of many international journalists are filled with peril, but they greet that peril in commitment to the truth. They greet it with a vigor and determination uncommon among any gender. They do it because they love it, battling the forces of oppression one word at a time.