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Liveblogging WAM!2009: Women Reporting from the Global Frontlines

jpozners Icon Posted by Jennifer L Pozner

March 27th, 2009

Hi all, I’m going to attempt to liveblog the “Women Reporting on the Global Frontlines” panel - it’s the opening session of WAM!2009, the Women, Action and Media conference (of which WIMN is proud to be a supporting sponsor).

I’m going to do the best I can to just transcribe what these brilliant and brave panelists have to say, because their perspectives need no filtering or commentary from me. Please understand that I’ve heard a couple of these panelists speak in the past, and they speak *quickly* - so the following will be my best attempt but not a complete transcript. I know I will miss entire sentences, sometimes perhaps entire paragraphs. I may get a few words wrong, or out of order. Any mistakes are completely my own, and not made by the panelists. If you’d like to quote any of the women based on my partial transcript below, please get in touch with them directly or through WAM!/Center for New Words to confirm/verify that their quotes are accurate.

Huda Ahmed, Iraq
When I first got the invitation to speak here I wondered what to talk about – “wow, you come from Iraq, incredible!” as if you’re coming from an adventurous place… I hate to write and talk spontaneously to you. Woman to woman. Heart to heart. I don’t care where you came from – I care you are women, and you will understand, no matter what, no matter where you are from – African, auerope, middle east, china. We all went through similar cisumstances, diffeent places. I just realized that after I left iraq. I thought what happened in iraq could only happen there. I grew up through war. Iran/iraq war. Sanctions for 12 years, that’s still a deep wound in my heart. And then before 2003 there were air strikes from time to time. And then after 2003…

After I left Iraq, I looked at my country from a different view. It’s different inside conflict than when you are outside, and when you ommiunicate with people from different nationalities…

So I’m going to talk to you about my life. (not my whole life, don’t worry, not my childhood)

I’m going to talk about my start in journalism. I got my passion from my father. He had a small library in his house. Not just religious books but history, geography, etc., in Arabic and English…

…In 2003 everything changed in my life. I wanted so much in my life to have this change. It was occupation, not liberation. Maybe someone wants to debate that. But when the American, Coalition forces came, everyone thought it would be would be hit and run. No one dreamed it would be ablout toppling Saddam. I wanted to watch the world’s reporting, how would they write about the occupation. Are they going to write about what’s really happening? I worked for them as a stringer/fixer/translator, whatever you want to call it. we’d take care of teaching rreporters about the culture, religio, values, bringing interviews, bringing stories, making sure that they’re still alive, secure them.i was watching them, how they’d interview the people, what they’d ask them. The 1st thing they’d ask any Iraqi, the !st thing they’d ask them was, “are you shia or suni?” and I thought, “that’s your FIRST question?” we never ask that. We just ask, what’s your last name. and many times we just don’t care – interviewees would say, “what do you mean, shia and suni, I’m an Iraqi Muslim.”

I started to work with them and started to pick up skills. How you paraphrase a question a million times, how you respect the culture. Some reporters wouldn’t have an understanding of the culture, he history. You could count on one hand who spoke other than English. That was one of the big mistakes post-war Iraq.

I started to work – as the only one woman among 11 men in the Washington Post Bagdaha bureau. My bureau chief would say Huda, you can’t go, we’re going to send a man. I’d say why? They’d say because you haven’t been to that area, we’re sending a man. And I’d say, “he hasn’t been to that area, either.”

I got more experience and moved to McClatchy. I asked them, are you going to treat me as a journalist? Or, as a woman or man?

I can cover anything I want, go anywhere I want, and write whatever I want. And they said: OK! Thank god, the bureau chief was a woman. She said ok. McLCaltchy and Knight Ridder understood how important it was to have a woman as a bureau chief. They understood what mattered was having someone who could run the bureau, get the story done.

So I went to different places throughout the country. Iraqi women really wanted change. Before the war, Iraqi women – it was so progressive. She could go and work anywhere she wants. Get any job she wants. She was very equal to the men. It was a secular society. Saddam Hussein, though I don’t like him, he would use women to empower her because he knows that women women love her work, just like when she loves a man, she’s very loyal and faithful. So whatever served him, he would do. But after the war, women were shocked. Because we were rpogressive women, we wanted more. They had to fight for their rights. Becue I’m a journalist I couldn’t give my opinion, I could nly write about it. and I will in the future.

It’s still frustrating now in Iraq. Article 41 – personal status law – if you compare with the old constitution – the old one says everybody is equal regardless of gender, race, religion, sex – are all equal before law. In this new article in the new constitution, it says everyone is equal before law according to their religion.

The women are saying we want you to get us back to the very progressive personal status law that we had in 1959.

I’ve been still watching that with close contacts with them. I called a woman working for non-profit Iraqi women’s rights, saying I’m doing research for a story. She just wants me to convey to the world that we are fighting for their rights.

Jenny Manrique Cortes, Columbia
Elizabeth Neuffer Fellowship – she was a journalist who was killed in Iraq

For women journalists working in Columbia, two separate challenges – to live in the society and to step back and examine it and write about it.

In the provinces we deal with the most delicate…. Violence causes huge damages to society, not only [bodily] but to information…

It is daily work. There are daily deaths. Sometimes those corpses are your friends, your colleagues, your sources. The closer to your communities, the easier it is to be targeted.

My last work in Columbia was embedded with communities who had to leave everything instantly.

I traveled to [violence]

I interviewed people abused by power, women, children, men. Interviewed people without means to be heard. People require protection and anonymity. They always know who committed the crime. They know who executed civilians.

Everyone has a powerful reason to lie to you.

Big and small drug cartels… drug trafficking.

Our conflict is not ethnic, not religious. It will last until the drug traffic stops being lucrative, and the U.S. is it’s biggest client.

Old and new paramilitaries.

I was hired to be in charge of a weekly publication.

I never carried weapons but many times surrounded by them. I was not allowed to leave the newsroom without a bulletproof jacket. [Men not understanding why women are in this job.]

I was a stringer for foreign correspondants, and I had to teach lessons:
- I am not your driver. We really are local jorunalists
- I cannot rush you an interview with a local women
- some of my colleagues were raped by paramilitary

instead of the danger, many of us rejected the use of bodyguards, because you don’t know who is guarding your body – [are they trustworthy]

women are the first vicims of this war and in the cruelest ways
violence against women in Columbia is surpassed only by congo and darfur.

This is hard to write about

I went to find some of them to find only an arm, a head. Or an unrecognizable body charred.

Pieces of toys destroyed by soldiers looking for drugs

I received death threats in 2006 because I was invested in storie about paramilitaries in controlling a region, and imposing rule sbaout when they could take showers and how they could dress

They were still recruiting youngsters as sexual slaves

I was greatful journalist organiztion allowed me to come here to talk to you

I was lucky to have help covering trauma. Stories in countries where post-trauma will never come, while war is still going on.

Telling truth is frequently unpopular but is only way to heal wounds

Our president says terrorism hides behind anyone in opposition… human rights advocates, journalists, etc. – self-censorship is often…

Last time I was in Columbia I was interviewing hostages… I didn’t ask, what was your worst day in the ungle? I asked, what was the way you kept hope alive?

Nevertheless I am optimistic.

I came to realize that there’s a little thing we journalists can do, and that is to show resilience. How victims are courageous, women protecting each other, and children…

I always find stories absolutely inspiring.

Peta Thornycroft, Zimbabwe
I’ve never worked outside of Africa. Ive hardly traveled outside of Africa. I only work without a small portion of Africa, southern Africa. I started to run away from the Zimbabwe story. Then I started to report in the democratic republic of congo that saw life returning after so many years.

Then I returned to Zimbabwe.

I’m a daily hard news reporter. And in the shrinking world, the shrinking media, we’re losing more and more space, more and more time, there’s less and less opportunity to do what I do best – investigative journalism. I’m old enough that I come from the world where the word “I” was banned form my vocabulary, and you didn’t usually have a byline. So I am extremely uncomfortable with talking about myself.

I don’t have a television set. I have a sattelite radio and the betteries keep dying on me. So I’m extremely ignorant about the world [outside Africa] I can’t get over the TV in the hotel - I want to buy something called ‘fixit’ that you put across your car and it fixes your scratch. Then this afternoon I saw

I don’t know how many people there are there
I don’t know how many people are in exile
I don’t know how many people leave every year
I don’t know how much things cost
We’ve creted world records – greatest inflation in the world. Fastest inflation in the world. A guy in the bar would buy a beer, and bu the time he got around to paying for it it doubled in price. I’d been away for three days, and I didn’t know if a piece of chicken was 29 million or 29 billion.

A ay will start by trying to get a dial up telephone conection.
I will hope there’s electricity and water
By the time I make my breakfast I’ve got a connection
These are the things I am trying to have in a day: fuel, water, electricity, phone conection, and hoping I can make a cell phone connection – 29 calls for one quote.

Your world of women’s rights and the women’s movement, etcetra, the women in imbabwe are looking for calories for their children. They’re looking for survival. Their looking for currency – the banks, outside the bank hoping for enough currency to buy a loaf of bread – if there’s bread.

Six hours away, south Africa, is a democracy. Six years of my life, I lived in a democracy.

Last year in the lections of 2008, there was very little violence. Until I got a letter from a very brave person spelling out how mugabe and the generals were going to punish the people for voting against them. There was nothing we journalists could do to help them. We have so few resources. i don’t have a journalism liscence so I’m an illegal. And all we could do was write about it. it’s an orderly society, there’s no guns,

No maternity units, no banks, children haven’t been to school for a year, but it was an orderly society. But they don’t kill much so they know we write about it. and mugabe doesn’t like those headlines. So they’d beat people – on their backsides, because that was the longest and hardet you could beat people without killing them. People who will never be able to sit down again in their entire lifetimes because they have been beaten to a pulp.

But the killings did begin.

The united nations finally got on it’s backside and did something about the health sector so maternity units are

I saw recently that 4000+ US soldiers died in Iraq, and who knows how many Iraqis died. But the number 4000 stuck with me, because 4000 in Zimbabwe have died of cholera since November.

We practiced “sunshine journalism” in Africa after apartheid ended. I’m afraid to say we failed as journalists, to tell the story. We failed now again, because we’re delighted to see Mugabe’s power diminishing, but I’m afraid we’re going to do ssunshine journalism again.

A colleague, a ophotojournalist, is sitting in prison tonight, he was found in December, he’s scharged with terrorism by corrupt judges and a small number of policemen loyal to Mugabe. I don’t know if he will ever be out of prison again. Others have had their ears [cut off]. A country of such promise, highest literacy rrate, and we haven’t even got a street light. We haven’t got anything left. The transitional government saying, please help us, can’t pay teachers’ salaries. The west is saying, ‘prrove yourself first.’ There isn’t any money. There isn’t any mining, any farming. Everything is closed. Zimbabwe is really a tragedy is not the tragedy of the congo or darfur – it’s a very orderly society, if you drove from the airport you’d be looking for what I’ve described and you’d be hard pressed to find them.

From Latoya Peterson, Racilious blog:
At poytner, we just talked about what is the reality if newspapers should fail. But here it seems like we aren’t doing enough to help you tell your stories. So what do you need more…

Peta: We need training for young journalists. Our “Mandela moment” is over… We need jut basic stuff – is the sourcing there, accuracy, there’s nowhere for young journalits to do apprenticeships in radio, newspapers – there’s nowhere, it’s all gone. I’d appeal for help for young journalists to learn, and not only outside Africa but also at home.

Huda: especially for women in iraq, most of the newspapers, tv, radio there belond to political parties. So they are the voice of the parties. We need training for women in journalism – what is journalism? How to use camera? How to use photography, video, audio, how they can be independent journalists, how they can be objective. There is no being “neutral” or “objective,” because you live in the conflict. So need training on how to be “fair” journalist, [even if there is no way to do objective reporting] Not much has been happening to get justice for them – I recall the 14 year old girl who was raped and burned, what happened t the oldier? Oh, sorry, he had a mental disorder. He got six months? Ten months? What about that family? They were wiped out. So I want training for young journalists. They want independent media that doesn’t belong to political parties.

Jenny: we need [support for] trauma. When we are in the middle of the war and you see in war correspondents, they used to drink a lot, they are crazy with memories, with difficulty they turn to their own lives, they can’t stand simple things like buyng milk for babies when they have just seen babies dying. When a journalist prepares for war, they need to prepare for what they will experience.

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