Bravery, Press Freedom Impetus for Creation of Courage in Journalism Awards, a Founder Recalls

Every October, the Courage in Journalism Awards, sponsored by the International Women’s Media Forum (IWMF), honor brave women journalists from around the world and highlight the importance of freedom of the press and the courage needed in many countries to report the news.

In the 20 years since its creation by a close-knit group of prominent Washington-based women reporters, the Courage in Journalism Awards have recognized women journalists who are committed to reporting the truth on issues ranging from government corruption and civil strife to un-checked health disasters and humanitarian crises. 

As they go about reporting the news, these strong and committed women often face violence operating in regions where press freedoms are limited by authoritarian governments. 

Susan King, a former Washington reporter and anchor and a co-founder of the IWMF, recalls the fall of the Berlin Wall as the impetus for the creation of what would become the IWMF.  “As the countries of the Eastern Bloc and the former Soviet Union were wrestling with the messy transition to democracy and attempting to build a free press, we realized that we could add some momentum to a process already unfolding.”

“There was a palpable rush to a free press American style.  This sense of promise coming from journalists in newly free states was exhilarating and we wanted to build on it,” said King.  

Just as the new democracies were emerging in the East, recalls King, there was a sea-change occurring in the news business.  “The world was fast becoming a smaller place.  With 24-hour cable news programs and a new technology called the internet, there was information everywhere, all the time.”

It was in this climate that King and her fellow newswomen began to plan an international conference called News in the Nineties, the first-ever meeting with the specific aim of connecting female journalist worldwide.  The journalists who gathered from 50 countries recognized the need for an organization that would link women journalists around the world, and provide them with information, networking and training opportunities.

King envisioned that first meeting as a platform for recognizing the bravery of women journalists and acknowledging the risks, political persecution, physical injury and death women must often endure in their efforts to expose corruption and champion human rights.  That vision became the Courage in Journalism Awards, now celebrating its 20th year. 

When the newswomen were planning the initial meeting, remembers King, who is vice president of public affairs at Carnegie Corporation of New York, they were hard pressed to find a preeminent woman leader in the news business to be the keynote speaker.  As a sign of the radical changes in the newsroom over the past two decades, King recalls that “the only name that cropped up was that of Washington Post publisher Katharine Graham.”

Today, IWMF conferences look more like a “Who’s Who” in the global news business.