True Grit

Every year I look forward to attending the "Courage in Journalism" awards, given annually to a few women who demonstrate true fearlessness in the pursuit of truth. The event is a lesson in humility and a reminder of what price some journalists pay for their ideals. This year’s ceremony, held last night at the Beverly Hills Hotel, was no exception. The winners far outshined presenters Meg Ryan (looking bedraggled) and Angelina Jolie (looking the star). The award went to a group of six Iraqi women who write in the Baghdad bureau for McClatchy newspapers. Four attended, only one of whom still lives in Baghdad, the others having had to flee after having family members killed and their lives threatened. Hoda Ahmed, who still lives in Baghdad, told me afterward that she perseveres despite the risk to herself and her family, so that the outside world has a more human understanding of what her countrymen are like. "We are not terrorists. My children are not terrorists," she said, in British-accented English. But terror is her life. She tells no one outside her immediate family what she does for a living. When she leaves to work every day, she says she is going to care for her elderly parents across the river. There were security guards at the event not just for Jolie, but for Lydia Cacho, a Mexican journalist who has been continually threatened by powerful businessmen and politicians in her home country for exposing pedophile rings. Her stories were stomach-turning. Serkalem Fasil, an Ethiopian journalist jailed and charged with treason for writing about the regime, could not be present because of security issues; despite acquittal, she faces new charges. (I had no idea Ethiopian journalists face these kinds of risks. Fasil was pregnant when arrested in 2005 and had her child prematurely in prison, caring for him in a cell infested with rats and roaches.) Finally, the indomitable, silver-haired Peta Thronycroft of Zimbabwe brought the room to its feet as she spoke about covering the corrupt Mugabe regime in a lonely, 30-year quest to enlighten readers. She described colleagues fleeing the country, friends and neighbors distancing themselves for fear of being tainted by association. Her work, she stated unemotionally, "has not made a bit of difference." Perhaps. And yet she vows to continue. As the evening ended, I spoke to Thornycroft as she rummaged around at her table. "I’ve got to get Angelina Jolie’s placecard or my granddaughter will kill me," she said, finally finding it. "My daughter will be very upset to learn that Brad Pitt wasn’t here."