Frontlines

Truthdig Gives Women in War Zones a Global Voice

By Aurora Almalvez August 1st, 2014

War reporting is no longer just a man’s game. In the 13 years since 9/11, women have rushed to report on uprisings and wars around the world. In an essay for the Columbia Journalism Review, NPR’s Cairo correspondent Leila Fade argued, “Never has [women’s] ability to do the job of war correspondent been less controversial, more a part of the natural order of things in the news business. … [T]he question of whether a woman can do this job is pretty close to obsolete.”

The news site Truthdig recently launched a project called Global Voices with a $40,000 grant from the NoVo Foundation. Global Voices will publish the work of women journalists for a U.S. audience.

The Global Voices reporters are a tough lot—they’re pulled from the ranks of winners of the International Women’s Media Foundation awards for courage in journalism. The reporters include Khadija Ismayilova, an investigative reporter from Azerbaijan who has taken on the dangerous task of exposing corruption within the president’s inner circle; Thai journalist Chiranuch Premchaiporn, who has faced a 70-year prison sentence for her reporting; and Sumi Khan of Bangladesh, who has kept working in one of the most dangerous countries for journalists despite being brutally beaten, stabbed, and forced out of reporting jobs.

In spite on the dangers, an international audience—and the threat of an international outcry—can sometimes give daring journalists a measure of protection. Zuade Kaufman, publisher of Truthdig, told USA Today that with Global Voices, “We hope to add another level of protection.”

At least since the days of Martha Gellhorn, who focused her reporting on the victims of war rather than the frontline, women have been aiming for wide-angle, big-picture stories. Besides spotlighting women, Global Voices adds another dimension to foreign news reporting by providing an international platform for local journalists. The move gives opportunities to locals with different perspectives compared to foreign correspondents who either parachute in, or are stretched thin covering an entire region in languages they don’t speak.

While there are many antidotes to the pitfalls of parachuting in, like the “immersive reporting” championed by Anjan Sundaram in a recent New York Times op-ed, Truthdig’s approach of tapping a local journalist with international chops is another way to avoid the stereotypical news churned out by foreign correspondents and wire services rushing their reporting.

The inaugural story on Truthdig’s Global Voices is by Zubeida Mustafa, Pakistan’s first female journalist to work for a mainstream media outlet. Her story, “How the Women of Pakistan Cope With War, Honor Killings and Prejudice,” gives an overview of the nation’s friction as women assert their power in a country where traditions run deep.

To get an idea of what it takes to work in Pakistan, we posed a few questions to Mustafa.

What risks (or issues) have you had to deal with to report a story?

I have been an opinion writer and not a reporter as such. I was writing editorials and op-ed pieces. Very often people who don’t agree with my views get nasty. But so far, no one has really threatened me physically. In the early years of my journalistic career some people reacted negatively to my pieces on female reproductive health, breast cancer, abortion, and even women’s rights. But I had the courage to face conservative opinion and a social boycott by those who thought I should not be writing all that. But society changed and a lot of what I wrote began to be accepted, which vindicated me.

But now extremist opinion has taken over. It is armed and doesn’t refrain from using force. That means it would not be happy with my liberal views of women, religious minorities, and culture. So far, I feel protected by two factors. First, I write in English, which only a small minority reads, and most of it is liberal. Secondly, I only contribute to the print media, which does not have the same reach as the electronic media. But the future may not be so kind, I fear.

It’s interesting Truthdig is focusing on local journalists rather than foreign correspondents. What would you say are the advantages of someone who lives there? Disadvantages?

I think Truthdig is doing the right thing. It was several decades ago, when some Third World leaders raised the issue of a North-South dialogue and a new information order, that it came to be recognized that a more powerful media could control information. The truth of this has been confirmed by the globalization of the media through 24/7 television and online outlets. This makes it important journalists from both sides of the divide should join hands to present the whole picture to the public. Truthdig should be congratulated for taking this step on an institutionalized scale.

Actually, the WIP (Women’s International Perspective), for which I have been writing for six years, has been doing the same but on a smaller scale. What I feel is that foreign correspondents in my country and elsewhere are handicapped by language and culture. Even when they have stayed for a long time in a country that is so different from their own, they cannot understand all the nuances of the local languages, lifestyle, and cultural norms. They have to rely on a local person not just for translating speech but also to explain the meaning of many actions and gestures that would be beyond their understanding.

But foreign correspondents have the advantage of objectivity and not being biased by indigenous beliefs and prejudices.

There are limitations to being a female reporter, but what are the advantages of being a woman while reporting in Pakistan? What perspective does being a woman offer in terms of coverage?

The disadvantages of being a female reporter are gradually vanishing. The hazards faced by men and women are now the same. The advantage women have is that they get easier access to female members of a family in our society. In many places, men would never be allowed. Since women have the advantage of having worked harder to gain entry into the world of journalism, they tend to know a lot about how men see things, and at the same time, they have a natural female perspective. I find their reporting more balanced and holistic.

Do you have any advice for young female journalists who would like to cover sensitive stories in difficult places?

Young journalists—both men and women—should go for any assignment with humility and not hubris. Even if they know a lot, there is still a lot to learn, which they will if they go with open minds. This means they should not be judgmental when talking with anyone and should show respect for their points of view. It is only when they write should they assimilate all the news and views that they have gathered and produce an objective and non-partisan story.

Image by University of Bristol
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