Mae Azango exposed a secret ritual in Liberia, putting her life in danger
When journalist Mae Azango wrote about a secret women's circumcision ritual in Liberia, she received death threats.
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That's especially true when Front Page Africa tackles hot topics. Last year, Azango reported on an alleged rape by a Liberian national police officer. He went free for three months, even after the allegations were made – until Azango's story ran. The paper also published investigations into corruption, teenage prostitution, and other explosive issues.Skip to next paragraph
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The editor and publisher, Rodney Sieh, says Azango plays an important role in these efforts. "She knows how to get things done. She knows how to tell a story; she knows people," he says. "She knows how to interview people … an asset that most people here don't have."
Whatever her natural talent, Azango says it's the role of human rights journalism in Liberian society that attracts her, despite the risks.
"You're the watchdog," she says. "When you see [an injustice], you talk. That's your duty. That's what I know to do."
It was not, however, an easy thing to be able to do. Liberia's 10-year civil war erased everything normal about life here. Azango, who was a pregnant teen when rebels took control of her village, nearly died during a difficult birth, complicated further by an incompetent midwife.
"But I didn't die," she says with calm resolve. "Maybe God kept me for a purpose. And I think the reason God kept me alive is to do what I'm doing … to write about these things."
Azango felt her delivery difficulties were a human rights violation, something she became determined to stop. Such drive is what distinguishes Azango from other journalists in Li-beria, says Prue Clarke, executive director of New Narratives, a media development organization that supports independent journalism in Liberia. Azango joined Ms. Clarke's organization as a fellow two years ago.
"It's all instinctual," Clarke says of Azango's talent. "She understands, 'This is an injustice; this is important. I have to expose this.' "
Last year, Azango turned her attention to female circumcision. The practice is considered sacred by many peoples around the world – and a human rights violation by others, including Western advocacy groups and the United Nations, which has been pressuring countries to ban female circumcision since 1997.
Several women Azango spoke to talked about the difficulties they faced in adulthood because they'd been subjected to cutting as children. Azango decided that even if the practice is accepted by traditional leaders, "It's a violation of [a girl's] rights…. If you grab her [and cut her], just as you grab her and rape her, it is a crime."
She published her first piece about cutting last winter. It didn't please Sande women, and Azango says several tried to discourage her from pursuing any further stories.
For journalists in Liberia, intimidation is a familiar weapon.
"The government has a combative approach to journalists," Clarke says. "It feels like it can bully them and they'll go away."
Front Page Africa has a record of standing up to such intimidation – its editor and publisher is currently facing contempt charges for reporting on alleged theft of international aid by members of the Supreme Court – and Azango, too, felt the need to stand firm. So she published her second piece in March, on International Women's Day.