A Voice For Women

Anna Schiller, Communication Strategist of the International Women’s Media Foundation (IWMF), is running around the lobby of the Cipriani restaurant in downtown Manhattan. She is carrying her Mac laptop and balancing giving instructions to interns, conversing with colleagues on procedures and speaking to the fellow journalist that are gathered for the 2014 Courage of Journalism Awards in New York City.

“I also love [about the IWMF] the fact that when you look at where the world is right now, and how far democracies have developed, there still seems to be something missing,” Schiller says tucking her long hair behind her ear as she is looking around her office, “It seems to be exactly that, the participation of women. The voices of women that are missing.”

The International Women’s Media Foundation is a non-profit organization whose 12th floor office sits on K Street NW. This organization busy itself working to empower female journalist both here in the United States and female journalist reporting in or from developing countries such as one of the Courage Award recipients, Solange Lusiku Nisimire, from the Democratic Republic of the Congo. Nisimire works for the independent newspaper Le Souverain where she reports on women’s rights that at times has cost her or her families safety. This staff of six full time employees and interns at the International Women’s Media Foundation dedicate their day to day work life to press freedom and women’s rights.

Currently among the ranks of reporters, women only hold 36% of reporter jobs, compared to the men who hold two thirds of these jobs as reported by the 2013 Global Report on the Status of Women in the News Media. It is low statistics such as these that push the women at the IWMF to further promote, protect and educate female journalists. It is this type of mission that is seen lived out when 551 female journalist gather in New York to celebrate some of the bravest in the news industry.

“The mission [of the IWMF] is so interesting because you do not ever have to argue with anybody about the need for that kind of mission.” Schiller said. “There are very few people who, at least not in the Western world, probably no one would argue against the merit of press freedom.”

The merit of press freedom is appreciated the most by the very female journalist that are sponsored by or supported by the foundation. Molly McCluskey, a freelance journalist, is a past fellow who along with seven other journalist travel to the Congo to report.

“[They] approached me, because they were looking for journalists from certain publications.” McCluskey said. “I [at the time] had a good relationship with Al Jezzera.”

This group of Western journalists started their work in Uganda. They had to participate in hostile training and pair up with fixers. (Fixers are people who make arrangements for plans such as travel, lodging and other aspects for traveling journalists). The theme for these specifically chosen group of female journalists was for backgrounds with non-profit work and finance. While they went through a series of checkpoints and had fixers, danger was still very prevalent for this group of female journalists.

“We are still eight white, Western journalist.” McCluskey said. “We stand out and garner attention. There is never a 100% guarantee that we are going to be [completely] safe. But, we sign off on that.”

While they had extra attention drawn to themselves because of their color, there was also an extra spotlight on them because of their gender. The very issue that the foundation fights against. This constant threat of multiple kinds for the women who chose to pick up their camera or pen and paper and report. Due to this, there is no getting around the extra dangers female journalists face.

For example the photojournalist Anja Niedrinhaus that lost her life in 2014 when she was killed in Afghanistan by a rogue policeman. Her colleague, Kathy Gannon tearfully shared the heroic passion that Niedringhaus had for capturing the story, no matter the risk at the 2014 Courage in Journalism Awards. It was this bravery that inspired the foundation to create the Anja Niedrinhaus Courage in Photojournalism Award that was sponsored by a donation of one million dollars from The Buffet Foundation. An extra gift of four million dollars was also bestowed by The Buffet Foundation at the Courage Awards. A gracious gift that Executive Director of the foundation, Elisa Lees Munoz accepted, speechless except for a giggle of surprise and gratitude.

“This award will be given every year to a woman photojournalist who follows in Anja’s footsteps,” Lees Muonz says, “To our knowledge, it is the only photojournalism award dedicated to women.”

According to the International Women’s Media Foundation Global Report on the Status in the News Media, women leadership is still sorely lacking in the working field, despite significant progress in the last few decades. Their extensive study found that women only account for 36% of top management positions, in contrast to the 73% that is held by men. However, women hold 41% of the news-gathering, editing and writing jobs in the news field. They are rising in number of women pursuing this career, however are still very low in numbers compared to men, and women face opposition in developing countries of having the ability to practice the act of journalistic reporting.

“Absolutely no getting around [this issue of danger].” McCluskey said. “Sexual assaults are prominent. This is an issue around the world. There is a tremendous need for people on the ground telling the stories. The IWMF [supports] the work on the ground because equality is not a realized goal [globally].”

The foundation works diligently to try and reverse this issue with education, support and recognition of female journalist in the United States and abroad in countries in Asia, Europe, Middle East, and other places.  The formation of  this non-profit organization was a product of well known and respected journalists who in the early nineties felt there was a lack of not only women journalist, but support for the few who were practicing the craft.

Since then, the foundation has continue to grow. With time it formed into an organization that in 1990 gained it’s 501(c)3 to become a recognized non-profit. It then added staff members who today total a number of six people today. Mary Lundy Semela serves at the Director of Development for the foundation. She oversees fundraising, which consist of writing proposals, solicit gifts from major individuals or pitch corporations for sponsorship. While the IWMF is a significant non-profit, it is still not well known. However, those in the journalistic world recognize and applaud the work of the foundation.

“People are very positive about our work – it’s hard not to be in favor of a free press,” Semela says. “We are formally involved – either through board members, past board members or programs – with most of the major news outlets in the U.S.”

This support from major names in the news industry, including those who sit on the Board of Directors such as Christiane Amanpour, (CNN)  Ann Curry (NBC), Norah O’Donnell (CBS) and others; keep alive the fight for helping those who give a voice to the voiceless, have their own voice recognized. Those journalists who are on the ground or working as freelancers without a news network’s support, truly see how this fight is needed.

“[There is] a tremendous need for people on the ground telling the stories,” emphasizes McCluskey.

When there are wins, no matter the size, for the female journalist worldwide, all at the foundation celebrate. They know that any small step towards equality is a step in the right direction.

“I love that we help get people the news – it’s a real luxury,” says Semela. “Only 14% of the press in the world is free right now – scary thought! I also love that its about leveling the playing field for women in journalism – all issues are women’s issues, and women are good at getting the story.”

While they continue their mission of equality with the help of all in the news industry, whether big names or less known freelancer, the IWMF embraces the rapid change that the news industry is experiencing in the 21st century. Digital media is becoming a norm in all aspects of journalist-whether print, television or radio-with the formation of social media. This now necessary tool for reporting has to be understood by a majority of journalists. It is how they are now reporting with audiences or even sources.

“I guess [the most important part of IWMF and its purpose is] because we are looking forward – to digital news outlets as an opportunity for women, for instance – and back, to a time when investigative reporting and long-form journalism were more of a norm,” says Semela. “When I was growing up, we knew we couldn’t comfortably join the dinner conversation if we hadn’t read the Sun Times (I grew up in Chicago) – it’s really important to know what’s going on in the world. Otherwise how can we all make informed decisions?”