3 Women War Reporters Risk Their Lives To Bring You The News

Photo: Courtesy of IWMF.
With a thousands of websites, endless tweets, and around-the-clock cable stations, we're so surrounded by news that it's easy to take it for granted. But someone goes out and reports on every story you read — whether it's from a red carpet or a conflict zone. This week, we spoke to three women who’ve dedicated their careers to the latter, risking their lives to cover stories from war-torn regions.
In 1990, the International Women’s Media Foundation started the Courage in Journalism Award to honor women worldwide who put their lives on the line in the pursuit of accurate reporting. This year, they’re recognizing CNN's Arwa Damon, an international correspondent who's reported from Iraq and Syria for over a decade, and Brankica Stankovic, whose work at Serbian television program Insider has exposed political corruption in the country. Stankovic continues to work as an investigative journalist, despite being forced to live under police protection. The third awardee is Solange Lusiku Nsimire, the editor-in-chief of Le Souverain, an independent newspaper that operates out of the Democratic Republic of Congo. Like Stankovic, she has received numerous death threats and attacks against her family.
Advertisement
All three journalists were honored this week at the organization's annual event in New York. We caught up with them to ask about their work, how they deal with a danger, and the advice they give to young journalists.
Photo: Courtesy of IWMF.
Solange Lusiku Nsimire
Editor-in-Chief, Le Souverain
Congratulations on winning the award. How does it feel?
It gives me courage; it reminds me that I need to keep working hard. And, it's a challenge to me because it reminds me that I need to keep going. I can't disappoint all those women that believe in me and who count on my work. I am also very proud that I can contribute to the creation of a free press in Congo.
What are some of the most important stories you've worked on?
The paper, Le Souverain, allows me to express my opinion with editorials and to analyze political currents by writing op-ed pieces in a free way. We are focused on corruption and injustice in my country.
Advertisement
How do you feel about international reporting on Congo?
I have to say that often I don't often agree with the way our country is depicted — the only major coverage we receive [in international press] is on the things that don't work. We're sort of thrown into a basket in which we are depicted as victims in places that are full of misery. I'd like to ask them to also look at the things that do work.
How do you deal with concerns about your safety when reporting?
I wouldn't say I deal with it very well, but I try to be careful. When you're at risk, you don't always realize it formally, though on some level you know. And, then you look for information that confirms that the threat is real. Often, I've been informed about some serious threats or risks by other people who send me information. And, then there's the UN mission in Congo that warns me because they have their own intelligence. On occasion they ask me to leave my home and go into hiding, or they reveal some plans that they've become aware of against my work or myself. I try to observe all the signals around me, and I try to have a careful attitude. When I realize the threats are actually true or a real risk, then I go in hiding.
Were there ever moments you felt like quitting?
Yes, it has happened, and they were the hardest moments of my career. It happened when people send me texts in which they told me, "Don't think you got away from us. We always have a way to get to you through your kids. We're going to harm your kids, if need be." Since then, I've always lived in fear for my kids, for my family, because I deeply feel that I shouldn't put my family at risk. I chose this profession, whereas my kids and my husband did not.
What advice would you give to young women who are starting their journalism careers?
My small words of advice to young women starting their careers is to arm themselves with courage...what you need most is a lot of courage, a lot of determination to continue fighting, and to promote the things you care about. You shouldn't start this career simply because you think it's glamorous. You have to do it because you want to provide a service to your audience.
Photo: Courtesy of IWMF.
Advertisement
Arwa Damon
Senior International Correspondent, CNN
How did you get into war reporting?
By accident. I’m Syrian-American, and I grew up in a very cross-cultural household. I was in New York when 9/11 happened, so I saw this East-West divide grow even bigger. I felt in this naive, idealistic way that since I look like the American girl-next-door, and I grew up in a very Middle Eastern household that is so entrenched in my identity, that I could be some kind of cross-cultural bridge. My idealism started me going, and it’s what has kept me going ever since.
We hear a lot about what's going on in Iraq and Syria. What do you think is the most underreported issue right now?
Syria is so reported on, yet my colleagues and I feel as if we are reporting into a dark void. The reporting is either not being listened to or not impacting the way it needs to be impacting. You look at what’s happening right now, and ISIS is obviously dominating the headlines, but the [Syrian] regime has killed more people than ISIS. There is a lot of frustration among the Syrians because a lot of what is happening with ISIS could have been avoided. There’s such a lack of foresight when it comes to US policy towards Iraq and Syria, and a lack of foresight when it comes stopping something before it reaches the extreme form of brutality. The writing was on the wall [for ISIS].
How do you deal with concerns about your safety?
The risks you take are very calculated. Obviously, nothing is guaranteed. And, you do need to have a certain healthy level of fear, because that keeps you from being reckless. You need to have a level of fear that doesn’t overtake you, but you need to respect the dangers around you. That fear and respect keeps you alert.
How has the situation in Iraq changed the lives of young women?
I’ll give you an example of a smart, ambitious young woman in her twenties. She had a great potential future ahead of her and a decent job, but ended up deciding to leave the country. She knew that if she wanted to fit into the society that her country was going to become, she was going to have to adhere to a way of life and principals that she didn’t believe in. This young woman was only able [to leave Iraq] because she was from a fairly well-off family. I’ve met incredible women in Iraq — total fighters who are braver than anything you can imagine. They have stood up to these religious and political leaders and really gotten in their face to demand their rights — sometimes publicly — and they’ve received death threats. It’s so heartbreaking to see these women’s souls being crushed by what’s around them.
Advertisement
Any advice for other young women pursuing careers as journalists?
In terms of women looking for courage, broadly speaking, it’s something you find within yourself and from the knowledge of a support system around you. I honestly don’t think of myself as a particularly brave person or someone driven by courage. I think I’m driven by a fundamental responsibility to do something, and that has put me in situations where my life has been in danger. I think for people looking to pursue journalism in war zones, you need to know that you will lose a part of yourself to what you’ve seen and what you’re going through. You will lose a part you can’t get back.
Photo: Courtesy of IWMF.
Brankica Stankovic
Journalist and editor, Insider
What are some of the stories you're proudest of working on?
I have been a journalist now for seventeen years. I'm proudest of the big stories: We investigated the causes and the consequences of the killing of the prime minister of Serbia, Zoran Đinđić, in 2003 and discovered the background of that killing. We investigated all kinds of things the secret service of Serbia is involved in — smuggling cigarettes and smuggling oil. During the sanctions, and during the war, the Milošević government was siphoning money from the people of Yugoslavia, and from the banks, to the island of Cyprus. We uncovered that the same money was brought back into the country under the name of privatization. We also investigated war atrocities, corruption in the government, and political killings of Serbians.
Advertisement
How do you deal with concerns about your safety?
What's important for us is that every sentence we air is backed up by fact. Considering the country we live in, we do an excellent job at this — in the past 10 years, it hasn't happened once that somebody disputed a story — and we talk about the most powerful people in the state.
What advice do you have for young women pursuing careers as investigative journalists?
I say every time that journalism is not a job. It’s life. You have to love it, and you have to live it. That is the only way to do it well. Of course, the most important thing is persistence and not giving up under any kind of pressure. My advice is that every journalist has to be aware of their own responsibilities, and never to forget the fact that journalists exist because of the public. In that sense, there is no compromise when uncovering the truth is in question.
Advertisement