The Swedish Embassy hosted a day-long event May 3 to mark World Press Freedom Day with a deep dive into the rise of censorship and global threats against women in media and politics.
“The need to defend women’s voices in the news media is critical,” said Elisa Lees Muñoz, executive director of the International Women’s Media Foundation (IWMF), which co-hosted the event with the National Democratic Institute (NDI). “At a time when threats to women journalists online and offline are increasing, we run the risk of an even less equitable media landscape.”
The two nonprofits, along with the embassy, organized a series of panels that focused primarily on safety and journalism. Jason Rezaian, the Washington Post’s Global Opinions writer, moderated a conversation on the escalating pressures independent journalists face, especially since Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.
A second panel took up the issue of violence against women in politics and public life, a subject NDI featured in its most recent report on southeastern Europe.
As part of the day’s program, the IWMF also presented its annual Anja Niedringhaus Courage in Photojournalism Award to veteran American freelance photographer Paula Bronstein. Her work, said the IWFM website, caught the jury’s attention because “she uses her vision to document humanity, bringing awareness to issues throughout the world focusing in many conflict regions.”
The award, which honors women who show exceptional courage in their work, is named after the late Pulitzer Prize-winning AP photographer, Anja Niedringhaus.
Honorable mentions were also given to Afghan documentary photographer Farzana Wahidy and American photojournalist Carol Guzy. Wahidy and the 2017 award winner, Stephanie Sinclair, sat down with Whitney Johnson, the director of visuals and immersive experiences at National Geographic, to cap the day’s events and discuss their careers.
Wahidy, a native of Kandahar, is the first female Afghan photographer to work with international media agencies. Long involved in training the country’s fledging press corps, she said the fall of Afghanistan in 2021—along with the impact of COVID-19—has had a devastating impact on press freedom in general.
“Photojournalism is so fragile in Afghanistan,” Wahidy said. “In 2018, it really started to get bad, but now there’s so much pressure on a base that’s not really there.”
Among many issues, she flagged the severe restrictions the Taliban recently reimposed on women, making it not only impossible for them to keep working as photojournalists, but also destroying equal representation of Afghan women and girls in the media.
The two women, whose work can be seen online, also talked candidly about how global issues have affected them personally. Wahidy, for instance, suffered severe panic attacks and nightmares in India following a difficult tour in Afghanistan in which several colleagues were killed.
Sinclair said she grew up believing she’d always have certain rights, but that these rights—such as education for girls—have disappeared in Afghanistan since the Taliban takeover last year.
“Afghanistan is the worst place on the planet to be a woman or girl,” Sinclair said. “It’s my right, at this point in my career, to take a stand on this particular issue. I feel very strongly that women and girls should be in school, and if that means that an editor doesn’t want to hire me because of it, then so be it.”
While both photographers were fairly dismissive when asked about the risks they take on the job—sometimes in active war zones—Lees Muñoz stressed the importance of uplifting women like Bronstein, Wahidy and Sinclair, and of taking attacks lobbed at journalists and politicians seriously.
“The need for a diverse and representative news media, one that reflects the communities on which they are reporting, is well documented,” she said. “Without our support, journalists are at even greater risk and trust in the news media will continue to decline.”