FrontPage Africa and New Narratives
CPJ International Press Freedom Award 2012
November 20, 2012
Waldorf-Astoria, 301 Park Avenue, New York City
Ladies and Gentlemen
This is my shortest speech ever, because I can talk non-stop for hours without knowing it, but I will try my best to keep it short and simple, (KISS) as journalism requires.
I am delighted and grateful that the Committee has chosen to recognize my work with this award. Speaking the truth about female genital cutting in my country has long been a dangerous thing to do. But I thought it was worth risking my life because cutting has claimed the lives of so many women and girls, some as young as two.
In Liberia, we have one of the highest rates of maternal death in the world and cutting is a big factor in that. But parents in our traditional societies were told that cutting was the right and “clean” thing to do. And that their daughters had no future without it. I knew if we started to talk about it and they knew the truth, many parents would choose a different path.
As a woman I knew that many women who went through this ritual of cutting as a child are still bitter and resentful. For example: the lady in my story is still living with the trauma of being held down by four women while the fifth lady cut her clitoris off with a knife that was used on 25 other girls.
The 14-year conflict in Liberia claimed the lives of as many as 250,000 people and left most of our people devastated and at the bottom of the poverty ladder. The war went on for so long because warlords were able to take advantage of the absence of truthful media to spread lies and propaganda that turned Liberians on each other. Sometimes they even turned on their own family.
We have learned the importance of independent, truthful media the hard way. We do not take it for granted. We understand that information is essential if we are to hold our leaders accountable and make smart decisions about our country.
I am very lucky to work at FrontPage Africa, of one of the few truly independent media houses in West Africa and a brave publisher in Rodney Sieh. Many other media houses would not have had the courage to publish this reporting. Together with New Narratives, the American media project that supports our reporting, we are really changing the face of Liberia.
As I usually say, when I was in hiding, I was like a bat hanging from every possible ceiling when night falls, because it was risky to sleep in a location for more than two days. I want to thank CPJ – especially Mohamed Keita and Peter Nkanga – for fighting along with me every day while I was hiding and living in fear and uncertainty.
They called every level of government and made sure that the world knew about my case. They led a campaign that included Amnesty International, Nicholas Kristof of The New York Times and the dean and students of Columbia Journalism School. They put so much pressure on the government of Ellen Johnson Sirleaf that they eventually came out with their first ever stand against female genital cutting. Since the story, several political leaders have felt confident to come out and speak against cutting. The government has promised to begin a campaign to sensitize people to the dangers of the practice and find other sources of income for the women who practice it. Without CPJ and that campaign, the government would not have taken the stance they took to change things for so many young girls in Liberia.
My biggest thanks go to my parents, Robert Azango, a Supreme Court associate justice who was killed by Charles Taylor’s rebels and my mother, Bertha Azango, who was an education advocate and changed the lives of so many children in Liberia. They are the examples that made me what I am today. I am sure they’re smiling down in pride at me tonight.
I would not have done this without my brave editor Joanna Devane, who fought ministers and police to win my protection. I had no friends in the police after exposing cases of police brutality and rape the year before. But Joanna pushed them all every day to do the right thing.
Had it not been for Dave and Susan Marcinek, who are in the audience here, none of this would have happened. They saw that women journalists are as powerful as males or an even better tool for bringing change in a country like Liberia.
I can boast that women journalists are hitting higher heights in Liberia, and are fighting to make a difference and prove male journalists wrong, that we are only good to go after soft news.
But I am not done yet! We have a lot of work to do in Liberia. We have to make sure the government sticks to their promises on cutting. You have better all keep watching and supporting my work. I hope I don’t have to face death threats to get your attention again!