Women journalists who persist in the face of danger, oppression win Courage Awards

byDana Liebelson
Oct 25, 2010 in Diversity

BBC reporter Vicky Ntetema was undercover, face to face with an infamous witch doctor in her native country of Tanzania. After skinning a live chicken and calling the journalist a “walking corpse,” the witch doctor offered his most potent remedy: a potion made from the body parts of an albino person. And for the right price, he said, he would commit the murder himself. After all, he had done it before.

"These things are in every homestead," he said, describing children and adults with the rare genetic disorder.

Ntetema wore her trainers that day, precisely so she could run away from danger. She had already set the emergency ring on her cell phone in case she needed to reach her driver immediately. But Ntetema didn’t use the code. Instead, she took her hidden microphone and went deeper into Tanzania to find more witch doctors -- and more confessions of targeted killings of people with albinism.

For this tenacity and determination to get the story, Ntetema was one of three winners of the International Women’s Media Foundation’s 2010 Courage in Journalism Awards. The awards honor women who have shown "extraordinary strength of character and integrity while reporting the news under dangerous circumstances." Another winner, Colombian investigative reporter Claudia Julieta Duque, was researching the murder of political humorist and journalist Jaime Garzón when she was abducted and robbed. She left the country, and upon her return, received more death threats, including phone calls with funeral music and screams of terror. She was forced to flee the country twice more, but returned determined to continue her investigation into what she believes was a state assassination of Garzón.

“I am a ghost when I'm not reporting. It's not really a life,” Duque said, speaking last week at a panel discussion at the National Endowment for Democracy in Washington, DC.

Although both women were able to come to the United States to share their stories this month, the third honoree was absent. Woeser, a journalist, poet and blogger from Tibet, has had her books banned in China and her blogs destroyed. She is under constant surveillance by the Chinese government, which has detained and interrogated her. She is now in self-imposed exile in Beijing, and Chinese authorities refuse to issue her a passport to come to the United States.

“I ask my boss to send me to this event every year, because when I head back to work, I stop whining about my job,” joked Cynthia Tucker, a Pulitzer Prize-winning columnist for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, who moderated the event.

Tucker asked Ntetema and Duque what inspired them to pursue such challenging stories.

“I just couldn’t believe there was this kind of racism in Tanzania,” Ntetema said. “Albino people are human beings. The only difference is color.”

Ntetema, who was educated in the former Soviet Union and worked in London, was told by locals she was too "Westernized" to cover witch doctors. Ninety percent of Tanzanians believe in witchcraft, according to a survey by the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life.

And although there have been more than 50 documented killings of albinos in Tanzania since 2007, the government’s reaction has been lethargic. Local police told Ntetema that if she disappeared during the investigation and the BBC asked them to find her, they wouldn’t go. They were too afraid. Even Tanzanian politicians reportedly visit witch doctors to sway election results.

Now, in part due to Ntetema’s coverage, over 170 witch doctors have been arrested, according to the BBC. And even though she must report behind a veil to mask her identity, she has decided to work full-time on the story of the murders.

Duque considers Garzón’s murder to be the biggest story of her life.

"It was the beginning of the end of freedom of the press in Colombia," she said.

More than 120 journalists were killed in Colombia in the 1990s, she said. The number of national and regional newspapers in Columbia has fallen by half since Garzon’s murder. Like Ntetema, Duque has had to negotiate with a government that is apathetic about -- or even a participant in -- the murders.

But Duque continues to persevere as an investigative reporter, covering child trafficking, paramilitary groups and human rights violations. She said at the event that she loves her country and will continue to work there despite the difficulties.

“Someone has to be there, and remember the story,” she said. “Why not me?”

Photo by the International Federation of Red Cross, Creative Commons Attribution License