A Colby College-trained editor, Elijah P. Lovejoy died in 1837 defending his press and his right to oppose slavery with his printed words. Earlier this week at Colby a National Public Radio correspondent recounted how she has reported the struggles of men and women for political freedom in Iraq, Afghanistan, Egypt and Libya.
Soraya Sarhaddi Nelson told of the hazards and revelations of her reporting on Middle East wars and the Arab Spring rebellions. She received the 59th annual Lovejoy Award for courageous reporting and an honorary doctor of laws degree before an audience in Colby’s Lorimer Chapel.
Working as a woman in countries where women can’t drive or walk without a male escort has had advantages as well as disadvantages. Women correspondents face the threats of groping and assaults, she said. She found that Arab women welcomed the chance to confide in her, but fundamentalist Egyptians and most Taliban officials refused to be interviewed by a woman.
Still, on some occasions, Arab men seemed at ease speaking with her because women were said to pose no threat in a hostile environment.
In April, she wore not only the shapeless loose garment with a slit for the eyes, as required of all women, but also a black screen covering the eye slit. This was when she accompanied some Saudi women demanding the right to vote. Standing among them “like a silent black ghost,” she recorded on a concealed microphone their effort and its rejection.
But they told her afterward that they felt empowered “with a voice they never felt they had before,” even though the minor election was only for municipal committees to advise Saudi mayors. Ms. Nelson called it “a nod to the West, if you will, so the Saudis could say, ‘Hey, look at us, we’re moving toward democracy.’’’
In February of last year, she was embedded with a Marine patrol in Afghanistan that was ambushed by the Taliban. A 23-year-old Marine friend “took a bullet to the head less than 50 feet from where I was curled up in the dirt,” she said.
She was tear gassed covering the “Day of Rage” in Egypt when President Hosnai Mubarak was driven from office. She was arrested in Iraq in 2004 and held for six hours until she talked her way out of threatened execution. She was the only Western reporter present in Najaf, where the Mahdi Army run by the radical cleric Muqtada al Sadr was in control and U.S. Marines circling the city were preparing to attack.
Fortunately, her father’s background as a native of Iran persuaded some Iranians there to argue for her release.
“Extreme danger inevitably leads to soul searching about why we do what we do and whether it’s even worth it,” she said. She publicly thanked her husband and son for their patience and understanding and concluded, “It’s been worth it, both for myself and those informed by my work.”
She and Colby are to be congratulated for this sterling example of courage and dedication in the Elijah Lovejoy tradition.