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Female journalists face danger reporting the news

Iranian journalist Parisa Hafezi
Iranian journalist Parisa Hafezi Lorie Acio/CBS News

By Marissa Calhoun

NEW YORK -- Over the past 11 years, 41-year-old Iranian journalist Parisa Hafezi has been beaten, harassed and detained for what she describes as just doing her job. Hafezi is Bureau Chief for Reuters in Tehran. There, Hafezi is responsible for overseeing the day to day operations of a 14-person news division tasked with reporting, among many other things, the truth about the Iranian government. She is also one of four female journalists from news organizations all over the world being honored by the International Women's Media Foundation for her courage in the field of journalism.

Last week the International Women's Media Foundation held its 21st Annual Courage in Journalism Awards, recognizing Chiranuch Premchaiporn, who is facing 20 years in a Thailand prison after criticizing the monarchy on her website; Adela Navarro Bello who continues to report on Mexican drug cartels despite death threats; Kate Adie for four decades of reporting from the frontlines of war zones for the BBC; and Parisa Hafezi for enduring beatings and interrogation to report on the 2009 Iranian uprising.

Prominent guests in attendance included Princess Rym Ali of Jordan. U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton shared a special message honoring the occasion via satellite. Several journalists attended such as Arianna Huffington of the Huffington Post and ABC's "Good Morning America" anchor George Stephanopoulus, who introduced Hefezi.

Among the challenges Hafezi faces in her position, is the fact that she is a woman. Reached by phone last Wednesday, Hafezi said "because Iran is an Islamic country, with a male dominated culture, it is harder for a female journalist to fight on many fronts." Not only is Hafezi the first female journalist to work in Iran representing foreign media since 1979, she is also the only female journalist working for Reuters in the Middle East. Hafezi says that having laws in place to protect women in her line of work isn't enough. "It's cultural" said Hafezi, "and that culture needs to change."

While many journalists fled the country when violence ensued after the highly debated 2009 elections, Hafezi and her team decided to stay. In her own words Hafezi describes that decision: "I said to my colleagues, if you want, you can leave. I am staying so that I can feel the fear that the people feel and I can write about it."

Staying in Iran came with high stakes to Hafezi, who is also a single-mother to two young girls. Her home was raided in front of her kids after reporting that Iranian President Ahmadinejad favored a U.N.-drafted nuclear fuel deal in November of 2009. "My kids were scared -- they don't forget -- especially the little one," said Hafezi.

Months after raids on her home and work place, in February 2010, Hafezi was abducted one night by four men as she left her office and taken to an unmarked building where she was subjected to verbal and physical harassment and intimidation for hours.

"What upset me the most," said Hafezi, "was that they made accusations that I was involved sexually with former government officials. How else they proclaimed, would I have been previewed to top secret information." This experience, Hafezi said, made her feel "humiliated," because she had no clue what the interrogators were talking about. Yet, she maintained her silence when asked to name her sources.

Today, the Reuters offices in Tehran are under constant surveillance by the Iranian government and there have recently been several break-ins. The Iranian government constantly refers to Reuters as "the Zionist news agency." Despite all of this, Hafezi is determined to do her job as Bureau Chief and report the truth.

"It's my job and I love my job", said Hafezi. "When you love your job, you want to do it properly for the sake of other Iranian women, to show that we can do it. We can overcome difficulty." Her ultimate inspiration, Hafezi said is her daughters. "To pave the way for my daughters, I want them to have a better country. Who else better to do it than I? It is my duty."

Also honored on Thursday, Kate Adie, the BBC's first female Chief News Correspondent who took home the IWMF's Lifetime Achievement Award. Addie believes that there are difficulties being perceived as a professional journalist in countries where women are regarded as second class; however, she encourages young women journalists to be aware, be smart, and to continue reporting in areas where women are underrepresented. Even though Adie's work has pioneered the way for other female journalists, she hopes to be remembered more for her reporting. "We don't call ourselves women journalists, we call ourselves journalists because we're equal, we don't demand anything special, and we don't report in a different way. We are just journalists."

According to the IWMF website, "the Courage in Journalism Award is the only international awards that recognize the bravery of women journalists." The award is given annually to recognize women who have endured violence, threats, and political pressure in the field. This year two receptions were held; on in Los Angeles (October 24th) and one in New York.

CBS's Lorie Acio contributed to this report

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