Courage that goes to the heart of a free press

As tempting as it is to equate violence only with the Middle East right now, two women journalists visiting the United States from Colombia and Spain are a good reminder that the globe is full of hot spots.

Their stories are particularly compelling in light of recent events, as they are in the US this month to be honored for persevering in environments where they are targets of terrorist attacks.

Jineth Bedoya Lima and Carmen Gurruchaga Basurto - along with Amal Abbas, a journalist in Sudan - are the winners of the 2001 "Courage in Journalism Awards" from the Washington-based International Women's Media Foundation.

All three share the same sentiment - that despite being beaten, bombed, or jailed, they will continue exposing corruption in the government and the activities of terrorist groups.

"In Colombia, there are millions of stories to tell. Colombians are living in violence," says Ms. Bedoya, who through an interpreter explains that in the first week of October, the attorney general's wife was murdered, 60 people were kidnapped, and four villages were blown up.

Bedoya, who is in her late 20s, reports on the ongoing civil war at a time when few people want to cover it. Dozens of journalists have been killed in the country in the past decade, and in recent years, many reporters have chosen to leave. That she has stayed and continues to work is surprising even to those who perpetrate the violence.

Last year, she was kidnapped, beaten, and raped - reportedly by a paramilitary group unhappy about a story she wrote on the flow of guns into a prison.

She now takes some precautions, such as bodyguards and an armored car, but refuses to allow her phone to be tapped - wanting to preserve what little freedom she has left.

For her, the importance of staying lies not only in the truths she can tell, but also in a desire to give voice to the people who are caught in the war - from those who are jailed to the soldiers on the front lines.

"After everything those kidnappers did to me, journalism gives me the strength [to continue], not only as a professional, but also as a woman. That's what keeps me going - working - and I don't believe that going into exile is the solution for me," she says during a phone interview.

Nor is it the solution for Ms. Gurruchaga, a writer for El Mundo. She lives in Madrid now, but is originally from San Sebastian in the Basque country in the north of Spain. She has reported for decades on the Basque separatist group ETA, which has been fighting for an independent homeland since the 1960s.

Journalists are frequent targets of the group, which last year murdered an El Mundo columnist, and this year killed a newspaper executive. Gurruchaga, a political reporter who has written articles and books about ETA, says she's been receiving threats since 1984. In the ensuing years, ETA has thrown explosives into her office, and, in 1997, bombed her home when she and her two children were inside, prompting her move to Madrid. Today she lives like a target - always accompanied by bodyguards and never discussing her schedule.

"Writing against ETA can actually cost you your life, and it is a motivation to keep on writing and it is a motivation to keep on with freedom of expression," she says through a translator.

In the case of Ms. Abbas, it is not terrorists, but the government, that threatens her. She is the editor of Al-Rai Al-Akher in Sudan - another land in the grip of civil war - and is the only woman in charge of a daily paper there.

The ruling regime has little tolerance for criticism and regularly questions newspapers about their content. Since 1999, Abbas's publication has been suspended and banned, and she has been jailed several times as punishment for articles appearing in the paper, including stories about the misuse of public funds.

She was unable to come to the US to receive her award, but has told the IWMF that threats won't keep her from a profession that serves humanity. Despite government bullying, she says her paper reports what's true, fights corruption, and demands democracy and freedom.

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