Colvin award-winning Rukhshana Media founder: 'Exposing the truth can result in death and torture'

Colvin award-winning Rukhshana Media founder: 'Exposing the truth can result in death and torture'

Zahra Joya, founder of Rukshana Media, at the British Journalism Awards

“We don’t simply do journalism these days, we are also covering the loss of our own rights, of our own freedoms.”

This was the powerful message shared by Zahra Joya (pictured), who founded Rukhshana Media, an online news outlet about issues affecting women in Afghanistan, in November 2020.

Rukhshana, which worked with The Guardian in the UK to tell powerful stories from female journalists amid the return of the Taliban this summer, won the Marie Colvin Award at the British Journalism Awards 2021.

The prize was launched in memory of the late Sunday Times foreign correspondent Marie Colvin who was killed reporting on the plight of people in the besieged Syrian city of Homs in 2012. It recognises outstanding, up and coming journalists of Colvin’s calibre.

Since starting Rukhshana a year ago Joya has been forced into exile in the UK as press freedom in Afghanistan comes “increasingly under attack” – especially against female journalists.

Scroll down to read Zahra Joya’s British Journalism Awards acceptance speech in full

One of the Guardian pieces produced with Rukhshana saw an anonymous young female journalist describe how her life had been “obliterated” since the Taliban took her city and she was forced on the run. She wrote: “All my female colleagues in the media are terrified.”

In a speech that gripped the room at the British Journalism Awards on Wednesday night, Joya described how she had a “small and simple goal” when she started Rukhshana – to “create conversation among Afghan women about their lives and dreams, by informing them about issues that impact them”.

“I never would have imagined then that I would be here today, running Rukhshana in Taliban-controlled Afghanistan,” she said.

“Today, my colleagues at Rukhshana, as well as my journalist friends at other outlets in Afghanistan, are working in an extremely difficult situation. Exposing the truth can result in death and torture. Yet they continue to work in the face of these awful challenges.”

Joya noted that almost 260 media outlets closed during the Taliban’s first 100 days in power this year – meaning five every two days.

She added: “At Rukhshana Media, we tell the stories of the women and girls who are living in a regime of gender apartheid in the 21st century at a time where women can’t even choose their own clothes.

“At Rukhshana Media, we want to tell what it means to lose not only your rights, your job, but also your social identity. We don’t simply do journalism these days, we are also covering the loss of our own rights, of our own freedoms. And this is hard, and it is painful.”

Rukhshana is run by a small team of female reporters and volunteers and tells readers it is “fast, accurate, and unbiased coverage of women’s issues”. It is named in the memory of a woman who was killed for leaving a forced marriage, as a constant reminder of the perils facing women in Afghanistan.

The awards judges said Colvin would have been “thrilled” by what Rukhshana was doing: “by the novelty of women banding together to provide different perspectives of male-dominated Afghanistan in the face of death threats and intimidation; by their tremendous courage in continuing to report as the Taliban took over despite the obvious risks highlighted by the 22-year-old journalist on the run; and by the new ground they’ve broken in the Women Report Afghanistan series, touching on the uncertainties facing divorcees, single mothers and female police officers.”

Since the Afghan government and the Taliban took over in August 2021, grave concerns have been shared about the safety of journalists, and female journalists in particular. An Afghan who worked for the BBC said his country was the “worst place in the world” to be a journalist.

The Taliban soon issued instructions to media including warnings against criticism of the regime or stories contradictory to Islam.

Read Joya’s acceptance speech in full:

It is an honour for me to stand here tonight and accept this award on behalf of my colleagues at Rukhshana Media. This award comes as press freedom in Afghanistan is increasingly under attack.

I want to thank The Guardian, particularly editor-in-chief Kath Viner and rights and freedoms editor Annie Kelly for partnering with us, for helping to amplify the voices of Afghan women, and for nominating our work for the British Journalism Awards.

I started Rukhshana Media one year ago. We had a small and simple goal: we wanted to create conversation among Afghan women about their lives and dreams, by informing them about issues that impact them. I never would have imagined then that I would be here today, running Rukhshana in Taliban-controlled Afghanistan.

Today, my colleagues at Rukhshana, as well as my journalist friends at other outlets in Afghanistan, are working in an extremely difficult situation. Exposing the truth can result in death and torture. Yet they continue to work in the face of these awful challenges.

Nearly 260 media outlets were closed during the Taliban’s first 100 days in power. This means five media outlets were closed every two days. Hundreds of journalists lost their jobs. Many, myself included, left the country and went into exile. Others are still running for their lives.

Women journalists are particularly at risk. They are disappearing from the Afghan media landscape because they are women and they work in the media.

As you all might know, the media and women are at the centre of the Taliban’s aggressive policies. The Taliban has released two media guidelines restricting and dictating what the media can cover in Afghanistan. And almost all women are banned from employment, at least until the Taliban release a “framework” that might allow their return to public life. Millions of teenage girls are banned from attending school because of their gender.

At Rukhshana Media, we tell the stories of the women and girls who are living in a regime of gender apartheid in the 21st century at a time where women can’t even choose their own clothes. At Rukhshana Media, we want to tell what it means to lose not only your rights, your job, but also your social identity. We don’t simply do journalism these days, we are also covering the loss of our own rights, of our own freedoms. And this is hard, and it is painful.

Thank you for recognising us.

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