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International journalists honored with courage awards

October 25, 2011 | 12:35 pm

  Journalist Adela Navarro Bello of Mexico clutched nervously at the midsection of her orange dress. Parisa Hafezi, from Iran, admitted feeling short on the courage she required. Chiranuch Premchaiporn, from Thailand, needed a deep breath and lots of water.

For a few seconds at Monday's gathering in a ballroom at the Beverly Hills Hotel, these women seemed uncertain in the face of pressure, except for the fact of why they were there in the first place.

The three are this year’s recipients of the Courage in Journalism awards given by the International Women's Media Foundation, which staged its annual banquet to honor the winners.

"I am just a reporter, and my job is to write and not to speak much," said Hafezi, explaining her anxiety at the acclaim that accompanies the award. She's been unflinching in her work as the bureau chief for the Reuters news agency in Iran, where journalists have been jailed, harshly interrogated or worse in the wake of the contested 2009 election that returned a hard-line president to power.

Hafezi was beaten after she insisted on covering the story of anti-government protests from the streets. In another harrowing incident, unidentified men forced her car to the side of the road and took her to an unmarked building for another physically rough interrogation. Plainclothes agents also raided her home, an incident that she said still gives her two daughters nightmares.

"There have been nights when I have sat there with my bag ready, waiting to go to jail after writing a critical story," she said. "Many of my colleagues and friends left the country after the disputed vote. ... I had to stay. I had to cover news. I had to do my job and tell the world about what was happening."

She added: “Journalism is not just a job to me. It is my life. How can I quit my life?"

In Mexico,Navarro Bello works under death threats from the drug cartels that dislike the unstinting news reports in her periodical, ZETA.

The threats are not idle. Two close colleagues have been assassinated; in the last five years, 68 journalists in Mexico have been killed and 12 others are missing.

“In my country ...  it's possible to kill a reporter and nothing will happen to you," she said. But she added that won’t stop her work because "I've been poisoned with the truth."

Premchaiporn faces a possible 20-year prison sentence in Thailand for asserting the right to a free press online, through her publication, Prachatai. Her crime? Ten people posted comments critical of the monarchy.

"Thailand has cracked down on Internet freedom since the 2006 coup" that toppled the government, she said. "Because the Internet is the source for people to find information they cannot get from the mainstream media."

She added: "But the people are still getting the information out. It's impossible to control."

Those presenting the awards included veteran correspondent Martha Raddatz, who noted, "These women live on the front lines."

Also honored Monday with a lifetime achievement award was British journalist Kate Adie, who has spent decades moving from one hot spot to the next. She slept in a freshly dug grave while covering the Persian Gulf War. She stood her ground in Tiananmen Square as protesters fell dead around her and a bullet struck her elbow. 

"To some, reporting is a rather grim parade of the darker side of life," she said. "Indeed, my own monarch reminded me of this when her majesty started a conversation with me with the words: 'Ah, Miss Adie, I always associate you with rather ghastly things.'"

 

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-- Howard Blume in Los Angeles 

Videos: Excerpts from interviews with Courage in Journalism award-winning journalists Parisa Hafezi of Iran (upper video) and Chiranuch Premchaiporn of Thailand (lower video). They were interviewed by Sara Catania, editorial director of NBCLA.com, and Los Angeles Times staff writer Howard Blume at the KPFK-FM broadcast studio. Credit: YouTube

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