Colombian journalist receives award for courage

Award-winning Colombian journalist, Jineth Bedoya Lima, right, speaks to WKU students and faculty with translator Melissa Stewart on Tuesday, Oct. 4, at Ransdell Hall. Lima visited WKU to receive the first Fieischaker/Greene Award for Courageous International Reporting.

Emma Collins

An award-winning Colombian journalist and Nobel Peace Prize nominee visited WKU last Tuesday, Oct. 4, to receive an award for her courageous reporting in war-torn Colombia.

Jineth Bedoya Lima, a journalist from Bogotá, Colombia, was the first recipient of the Fleischaker/Greene Award for Courageous International Reporting. She has spent decades covering the 52-year long war between the Colombian government and the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC, one of the country’s largest rebel groups.

This award is one of several awards, including the International Women of Courage Award presented by the United States Department of Defense, that Bedoya has won in the past several years. During her speech Tuesday, she said awards such as the Fleischaker/Greene Award provide motivation for her to continue her work as a journalist and an activist.

“There is no greater award than one that we receive from those who will carry on with our arduous work of informing and communicating,” Bedoya said.

Bedoya said her career as a journalist began nearly 20 years ago when narco trafficking was very prevalent in Colombia. One of her first experiences was in Bogota’s La Modelo prison which housed members of the country’s various paramilitary and guerrilla groups. She was the first journalist to provide the prisoners with a chance to discuss the human rights violations they experienced in the prison, and Bedoya said it was the experience with La Modelo’s prisoners that persuaded her to combine journalism with social activism.

“I supported campaigns to teach [the prisoners] to read and write; I helped them produce a newspaper for the jail,” Bedoya said. “When I wasn’t in the combat zone covering the war, I went to the prison to give them writing, composition and photography classes.”

During her time at the prison, Bedoya said she discovered that members of the police and the army were working with prisoners in La Modelo to run the country’s largest illegal network of kidnapping and arms trafficking. Bedoya publicly criticized the illegal network in Bogota’s newspaper El Espectador, and members of the network retaliated.

While visiting the prison on May 25, 2000, Bedoya was kidnapped from the prison entrance and driven two hours outside of the city where she was tortured and raped by three of her captors. Bedoya said she survived the attack, but it was difficult for her to continue to live.

“I had two options: exile, the alternative that the Colombian state gave me, and suicide, which is what I wanted,” Bedoya said. ” A deep love led me to choose what saved my life: journalism.”

After the kidnapping, Bedoya said she refused to view herself as a victim. Instead, she continued to place herself in danger as a journalist, and she spent most of her time in combat zones covering the armed conflict.

“I lost count of the hundreds of dead that I saw in these decades, of all the stories that I found and wrote, of the immense pain that I tried to capture in my writing,” Bedoya said.

In August 2009, nine years after her rape and six years after her second kidnapping in 2003, Bedoya decided to publicly discuss her kidnapping and rape for the first time. She started a campaign No Es Hora De Callar, or It is Not Time to Be Silent, and became a voice for other women who were also victims of sexual violence.

Bedoya said the campaign has the support of Colombia’s most widely read newspaper, El Tiempo. It is also an internationally recognized initiative that encourages women to denounce all violence.

Bedoya said she believes sharing her experience as a victim of violence and starting No Es Hora De Callar was necessary to help her country.

“If I hadn’t raised my voice, if I hadn’t given my testimony about what happened, then I am sure the world would not know that today in Colombia sexual violence exists in the midst of the armed conflict,” Bedoya said.

Bedoya’s speech, which was translated by Spanish professor Melissa Stewart, received a standing ovation from the audience gathered in Ransdell Hall. President Gary Ransdell and Loup Langton, director of the School of Journalism and Broadcasting, described Bedoya’s visit to WKU as a true honor.

“We’ve had a lot of business on our campus this year, but the honor of being part of this ceremony tonight is something that I hold very dear and that’s very special,” Ransdell said.

Langton praised Bedoya’s commitment to the people of Colombia and her unwavering courage throughout her career.

“She embodies everything a journalist should aspire to hold: a sense of dedication, professionalism, fairness, a deep rooted caring for others, particularly those who are most vulnerable and, of course, great courage,” Langton said.

The award was given by the Fleischaker/Greene Fund for Excellence in First Amendment Issues at Western Kentucky University which was started in 2008 by Jon Fleischaker and Kim Greene. It was presented to Bedoya by Fleischaker, Greene and Ransdell.

“Jon and I have long been believers in the importance and the power of a strong and independent news media,” Greene said during the presentation. “Of course, a news organization can only be as strong, it can only be as effective as its individual journalists.”

Greene said Bedoya was chosen as the recipient of the award because of her commitment to the people of Colombia and because of the courage she has shown when faced with “incredible, personal peril.”

Bedoya was also nominated for this year’s Nobel Peace Prize. The winner was announced Friday, Oct. 7. Bedoya did not win; however, her fellow countryman, current Colombian president Juan Manuel Santos, did receive the award.

Santos recently negotiated a peace accord between FARC and the Colombian government. If passed, the accord would have ended the Western Hemisphere’s longest war. Instead, Colombians voted earlier this month to reject the peace accord.

Ariel Griffin, a sophomore from Madison, Mississippi, said she was also inspired by Bedoya’s commitment and courage. As a photojournalism major, Griffin said she aspires to be like Bedoya and focus on human rights issues.

“That’s what I want to do, you know, have a voice for people who don’t have voices,” Griffin said.

Griffin said hearing Bedoya’s story showed her the dangerous part of journalism, which is something she had never considered.

“It’s scary, but at the same time somebody has to do it,” Griffin said.

Reporter Emma Collins can be reached at 270-745-6011 and [email protected].