Azerbaijan, Gaza, Ethiopia women win media awards

NEW YORK -- A columnist imprisoned under Ethiopia's controversial anti-terrorism laws, an Azerbaijani investigative radio reporter who had surveillance cameras planted in her apartment and a Palestinian blogger who has been beaten and tortured for reporting on abuses and protests in Gaza each received Courage in Journalism awards Wednesday from a women's media group.

The International Women's Media Foundation also honored 70-year-old Pakistani journalist Zubeida Mustafa with its annual lifetime achievement award during a lunch in New York on Wednesday. Honored as the first woman in Pakistani mainstream media, Mustafa worked to enact hiring policies favorable to women during her 30 years at Dawn, a widely circulated English-language newspaper.

Khadija Ismayilova of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty in Azerbaijan, Asmaa al-Ghoul, a freelance journalist in the Gaza Strip, and Reeyot Alemu, who was a columnist for the independent Ethiopian newspaper Feteh until her arrest in June 2011, won the courage awards.

Alemu, 31, is serving a five-year-prison sentence in Ethiopia for the communication of a terrorist act. The IWMF said the only evidence presented against her at trial were articles she wrote criticizing the government and telephone conversations she had regarding peaceful protests. She was initially sentenced in January to 14 years in prison but the sentence was reduced later this year when most of the terrorism charges against her were dropped.

Describing her as one of Ethiopia's only female reporters who criticized the country's political establishment, the IWMF said Alemu has rejected offers of clemency in return for information about her colleagues. For that, she was sent to solitary confinement for two weeks, the organization said. The IWMF denounced conditions in the Kality prison where Alemu is being held, saying it is known for rodents and keeping political prisoners alongside violent offenders. The organization said Alemu recently underwent surgery to remove a tumor from her breast and was returned to prison with no recovery time.

Elias Wondimu, an exiled Ethiopian journalist, accepted the award on Alemu's behalf and read a handwritten letter she penned from prison.

"When I became politically aware, I understood that being a supporter or member of the ruling party is a prerequisite to living safely and to get a job," Alemu wrote in the letter. "I knew I would pay the price for my courage and was willing to pay the price."

Ismayilova, 35, who reports on government corruption in her weekly radio program, received an anonymous letter earlier this year calling her a "whore." The package contained photos taken of Ismayilova in an intimate situation with her boyfriend and threatened to make them public if she didn't "behave." Ismayilova decided to go public with the blackmail. Days later, covertly filmed footage of her at home was posted online.

Instead of backing down, Islmayilova reported for Radio Free Europe about how Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev's family has allegedly profited from the construction of a new concert hall.

Islmayilova criticized the international diplomatic community for often overlooking human rights abuses in strategically significant countries like oil-rich Azerbaijan in the name of "short-sighted support of stability."

"Silence is what the regime needs," she said.

Al-Ghoul, 30, gained prominence in 2007 for an article criticizing Palestinian authorities at the height of the unrest between the rival Hamas and Fatah factions. Written in the form of a letter to her uncle, a Hamas leader, it was titled "Dear Uncle, Is This the Homeland We Want?" In the piece, she recalled her uncle using the family home to interrogate and beat Fatah members.

Her uncle disowned her and some of her family begged her to apologize, the IWMF said, but al-Ghoul continued writing. She has reported on the 2008-2009 Israeli bombardment of Gaza and abuses under the Hamas regime, including Hamas police forcing women to return to abusive husbands, the organization said.

Al-Ghoul has received threats and been tortured by Hamas security forces, the IWMF said.

Mustafa, the Pakistani journalist, covered issues that received little attention in her country and were sometimes considered taboo, including breast cancer, contraception and rape. She paid tribute in her speech to the Pakistani women who followed in her journalistic footsteps, saying that without them, she would not have "earned the title of pioneer."