Journalists are key to civil society, keeping readers, viewers and listeners informed of events both local and international. At times, this work entails exposure to grave danger. World News Day, Sept. 28, is a global campaign to highlight how journalists can make a positive difference in spite of those threats.
The factors that motivate journalists to continue dangerous work are many and complex, but central to it all is moral courage. Simply put, to some journalists, doing nothing in response to the egregious behaviour of corrupt or genocidal politicians, human traffickers and drug cartels is worse than the repercussions that come from exposing such crimes. These journalists are driven by a moral imperative to risk their own safety and psychological well-being for the story – and the price paid for this steely determination is invariably steep.
Anthony Feinstein, a psychiatrist at Sunnybrook Health Sciences Centre and professor of psychiatry at the University of Toronto, is an authority on the psychological effects of conflict on journalists. In 2021 and 2022, The Globe and Mail worked with him to produce Moral Courage, a series featuring frank and intimate interviews between Dr. Feinstein and journalists working in hazardous situations around the globe. Read the full series below to learn more about the journalists’ work, their explanations as to why they felt compelled to pursue such an all-encompassing mission, and the personal consequences they faced.
Yakeen Bido, Syria
Yakeen Bido grew up in Idlib, one of the last Syrian cities to hold out from President Bashar al-Assad’s control. Her years of reporting from there gave the world a grim picture of Syria’s civil war. She spoke with Dr. Feinstein about the nightmares her experiences created, but also her determination to stay:
I will never leave, because I do not want to miss the smell of the graves – the smell of the dead, the pictures of the dead, of the dear ones who we have lost in this revolution. If I leave, then the hope of keeping Idlib free will disappear. For the hope of others – and my own hope – I must stay with my neighbours, with my family.
Candido Figueredo Ruiz, Paraguay
In his native Paraguay, Candido Figueredo Ruiz needed seven armed guards to watch over him in his work for the newspaper ABC Color. Those who sought to silence his reporting on crime and corruption shot at his home, phoned in threats and kidnapped his brother, but he persisted – until 2020, when he and his family left for the United States. He reflected with Dr. Feinstein on how he felt he was making a difference:
We could make the rich and powerful tremble. We were the stone in their shoe that made them uncomfortable. I had to hold on to this because if I sat down and thought about my situation, it would bring me down.
Khadija Ismayilova, Azerbaijan
Born in Azerbaijan during the Soviet era, Khadija Ismayilova saw her father barred from employment by the new nation’s authorities for speaking out against corruption. As an investigative journalist, she began digging into the misdeeds of the ruling Aliyev family and the wealth they had hidden offshore, as documented in the Panama Papers. Attempts at blackmail and intimidation soon followed. Asked about the risks of her reporting, she said the guilt of staying silent would feel worse:
You get a gut feeling before publication that something bad might happen, but your first thought is to get it out there – because if you do not publish, you feel very bad about it. You feel like you gave up; you were scared. This is not a good feeling to live with. It’s actually easier to spit it out.
Victoria Razo and Felix Marquez, Mexico
Photographers who met at university, Victoria Razo and Felix Marquez turn their cameras on social injustices in one of the Western Hemisphere’s most dangerous countries for journalists. Mr. Marquez spoke about the high murder rates in Mexico, the mass graves at Colinas de Santa Fe in Veracruz and how state officials reacted angrily to his reporting:
Turning away, doing something else would be irresponsible. I just cannot do it. I want Veracruz to change – not to be a negative statistic.
Ahmed Kabir Kishore – who, like many cartoonists, uses only one name professionally – has been imprisoned and tortured by Bangladeshi authorities for lampooning the South Asian nation’s corruption and mishandling of the COVID-19 pandemic. Dr. Feinstein learned about how Kishore gave up a naval career to pursue his love of cartooning, how he turned to social activism and the heavy personal cost that took on him:
Kishore’s moral courage has come at great personal cost. “I don’t belong to this country. I don’t belong to my family,” he said pointedly. He lives alone now, separated from his ex-wife – the couple divorced last year when he was in jail – and their six-year-old daughter. He no longer has contact with his five sisters and minimal contact with his brother. He believes their telephone calls are monitored, and one of his greatest fears is that his family will be targeted as a way of getting to him.
David Frenkel, Russia
Over the years, Russian police have tried to stop David Frenkel’s reporting through gaslighting and assault, such as threatening to put him in a psychiatric ward for refusing to give up the names of protest organizers. Dr. Feinstein spoke with him months before the Russian invasion of Ukraine, which brought even tougher crackdowns on civil liberties. Mr. Frenkel explained how he studied to be a physicist and came to journalism through his outrage at President Vladimir Putin’s rule:
For some people in Russia, it has become uncomfortable just to do your job. Being a scientist, it’s not enough. You do your job, you do it well, but it’s not enough to be a good person any more.
Stevan Dojcinovic, Serbia
The maxim “follow the money” has taken journalist Stevan Dojcinovic to dangerous places in his native Serbia, where criminal syndicates and corrupt politicians are fiercely protective of their secret schemes. Mr. Dojcinovic described growing up as Communist Yugoslavia tore itself apart, how an investigative journalist’s book took him on a new career path and how his efforts to hold public officials to account – “touching the untouchables” – puts him in danger:
When you finish a story, you have this nice feeling – it’s the perfect day. [But] tomorrow the nightmare starts.
Larysa Shchyrakova, Belarus
Larysa Shchyrakova was a thirtysomething divorcée, bored with her work as a secondary-school teacher, when a friend asked whether she’d like to work at Belsat TV, the only independent Belarusian TV station. At the time, President Alexander Lukashenko’s regime was not as repressive as it was when Dr. Feinstein spoke with her in 2021, or months later, when Belarusian forces joined in Russia’s Ukrainian invasion. But as civil liberties eroded, Ms. Shchyrakova found motivation in informing fellow citizens about what was going on, despite police intimidation and surveillance:
I am an honest person. Those who arrest me are the criminals. There are many respectable people in prison now, and I will be one of them. I am working for a better future – to lead a normal life and not to be afraid of the police, of persecution; to live in a normal democracy and be protected by the law.
Gwen Lister, Namibia
Gwen Lister was 13 when, riding a Cape Town bus in 1966, she gave her upper-deck seat to a Black woman – and was berated by other passengers for breaking the rules that kept white passengers on top and Black ones on the bottom. This, she told Dr. Feinstein, was the “aha moment” that turned her against apartheid and toward journalism, which she practised in the South African territory that would become an independent Namibia in 1990. She and Dr. Feinstein talked about how authorities arrested and tried her, how other white people in Namibia ostracized her and how she persevered:
When I asked Ms. Lister how she coped with it all, she told me she was too busy fighting battles to allow time for her emotions to get in the way. “I did not have time to say, I am hurt, I am afraid,” she said. Given the magnitude of the struggle, she regarded introspection “as something of a luxury.” She would go to bed wondering if a hand grenade would be lobbed into her garden. As a result, she slept brokenly, peeping through the curtains on the lookout for assailants. “I became used to it,” she told me. “They would not get me down; they were the cowards.”
Mohammad Mosaed, Iran
From exile in Washington, journalist Mohammad Mosaed spoke with Dr. Feinstein about the persecution that drove him out of Iran. He was barred from the nation’s anti-corruption courts (which, he learned, were extremely corrupt); his newspaper, Sharg, censored him, so he turned to Twitter; authorities arrested him in a way designed to traumatize him and his family; then, after being convicted in a court hearing that lasted less than 15 minutes, he fled to Turkey and then the United States. He said that, as long as he can still speak out, the Iranian government has not won:
“They cannot silence me,” he asserted. “If we cannot talk about the problem, how can we solve it?” Expanding on this further, he believes “the worst thing is to say what the government wants.” To do so means the regime “has broken you. After that you breathe and eat and sleep, but can do nothing more.”
Aye Chan Naing, Myanmar
When Aye Chan Naing left Myanmar in 1988, he was a dissident against a totalitarian regime who didn’t realize he wouldn’t come home until 24 years later. In Thailand, he became the protégé of a Swedish journalist, then built a career in Norway as co-founder of Democratic Voice of Burma, a non-profit radio station that could report on the military junta at a safe distance. Dr. Feinstein spoke with Mr. Naing about Myanmar’s moves toward democracy in the 2010s, how the autocrats took power again and how he feels about his work chronicling that history:
“My struggle is nothing,” Mr. Naing said as I took him step by step over the course of his life. “Millions have given more. I have paid a price, but I have been recognized. Others have sacrificed a lot more without recognition.” When he feels depressed by events, he admonishes himself: “I should not be complaining at all. Think of your country, not yourself. Our listeners needs us.”
Mwape Kumwenda, Zambia
Mwape Kumwenda once wanted to be a lawyer, but decided “solution-seeking journalism” was the better way to improve things in Zambia, where she advocates for women, girls and poor people living with the social ills created by misuse of public funds. It is largely because of her that sexual-assault survivors in Zambia can now turn to fast-track courts and police stationed in hospitals to investigate their abusers. She told Dr. Feinstein that social justice is a debt that journalists must pay to society:
As the Fourth Estate, we have a duty to provide checks and balances to those in authority to do the right thing. If we remain silent when faced by these issues, then social and economic injustices remain the order of the day. And then we too are guilty of not providing a proper service to the people. We owe it to them.