Women Journalists Risk Lives To Shine Light On Conflict, Corruption

03/18/2010 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

On Monday the International Women's Media Foundation convened at New York's Waldorf Astoria to honor the 2009 winners of the Courage in Journalism Awards.

The awards ceremony was full of many noted names representing western media companies, including Judy Woodruff of The NewsHour With Jim Lehrer and CNN's Christiane Amanpour. What seemed clear, however, was that while the financial troubles facing the western journalism market may be in the spotlight, the exciting and courageous journalism taking part in other parts of the world should not be overlooked.

Three journalists received Courage in Journalism Awards.

International Women's Media Foundation's Courage in Journalism Award winners Iryna Khalip (L) from Belarus, Agnes Taile (C) from Cameroon and 2009 Lifetime Achievement Award winner Israeli Amira Hass (R) at annual awards ceremony October 20, 2009 in the Waldorf Astoria Hotel in New York.

Agnes Taile from Cameroon was commended for her commitment and dedication to broadcast journalism. Her reporting began to anger the wrong people, often President Paul Biya. In 2006 she was abducted and almost killed. The incident seriously damaged her vocal chords and caused her radio station to cancel her show. Taile was able to recover, and was soon back reporting, heading to Chad in February 2008 to cover the conflict raging there. As she accepted her award, she finished with: "I will share with you an old saying: that which does not kill you will only make you stronger."

Iryna Khalip from Belarus was commended for her work in highlighting the corrupt and undemocratic processes of President Alexander Lukashenko. As Khalip put it, "Dictatorships don't like journalists." Indeed, Khalip has faced strong government opposition, including being beaten at a rally and watching as the free press in Belarus dwindled and was shut down. She now works for the Moscow-based independent paper, Novaya Gazeta, covering Belarus. Novaya Gazeta is banned in Belarus. It is also the newspaper of the 2002 Courage Award winner Anna Politkovskaya, who was murdered for her work in 2006.

One winner who couldn't make it was Iranian journalist Jila Baniyaghoob. Baniyaghoob had been arrested for her role in reporting political unrest and rioting after the Iranian presidential election earlier this year.

The lifetime achievement award went to Amira Hass, a reporter and columnist for Ha'aretz Daily, a newspaper based in Tel Aviv. Hass is one of the few Israeli journalists who ventures frequently to Gaza and the West Bank - in fact she lived in both regions.

The HuffPost talked to Iryna Khalip before the ceremony:

Why did you decide to become a journalist?

First of all I was inspired by the experiences of my father who was a wonderful, excellent journalist - way back in the times of the Soviet Union. Besides, I didn't want to go into a profession that would be too hard, like physics or chemistry, I wanted to do something exciting that wouldn't be too tough! I had no idea that it would be really interesting and really challenging but hard at the same time.

How did you get your career started?

I started my career at the time that the Soviet Union was still around. It was two years prior to the collapse of the Soviet Union, but it was the time of the perestroika. It was a very exciting time to go into journalism rather than propaganda. At first I thought that like my father I would write about theater, film, the arts, and be a critic, a movie critic or something like that. But then Belarus became a dictator state, and I had to start writing about things that are totally different than the arts.

Does writing about these different things bring its own problems into the mix?

Yes, it certainly does, but a person gets used to the idea of danger if you work in the environment of a totalitarianism state. I was arrested four times; they initiated criminal proceedings against me on three occasions. I've been beaten, I've been threatened, I've been intimidated, but this only proves that I'm doing something right.

As a woman, do you face more difficulties in reporting?

The fact that I am a woman does make my life more difficult. For example, certain young women who are arrested at rallies similar to me got raped in the police cells. And in that respect I was lucky. But I understand being a female does create additional difficulties. Now that I have a two-year-old son I have become even more vulnerable because I feel the responsibly for my son's destiny.

What work are you most proud of?

Paradoxically, on the occasions when I was arrested for my investigations I felt very proud as I came up with information that no one else had been aware of. It was a complete investigation with all the full disclosures. It proved that apart from writing short articles I am capable of conducting fully-fledged investigative research. It also meant that the authorities were afraid of what I was doing otherwise no one would have paid attention to me.

The fact that the authorities are afraid shows that a strong press can help change the situation?

Well, actually, strong and free journalism can do a lot - even under a dictatorship. In absence of free newspapers, because all of them had been shut down, we still came up with underground newspapers and publications, like they did in Poland with Solidarity. These papers are printed in underground print shops, volunteers, young people who just take a stack of publications and carry them door to door, put them in mailboxes, distribute them. It's very dangerous but it works.

There are people who are too lazy to look for alternative opinion and alternative news on the Internet but if they go to their mailbox and they pull out an alternative newspaper, they will certainly be sure to read it.

What does it mean to receive this award?

To me it is very important, it means that the United States recognizes my work, they do not think of Belarus as a black spot on the map that should be surrounded by barbed wire and forgotten. It means that there is a belief that Belarus has a future.