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Radio Farda Journalist Wins 2012 MJ Bear Fellowship

Iran -- Radio Farda journalist Denise Ajiri, winner of the 2012 MJ Bear Fellowship, presented by the Online News Association (ONA), undated
Iran -- Radio Farda journalist Denise Ajiri, winner of the 2012 MJ Bear Fellowship, presented by the Online News Association (ONA), undated
Radio Farda’s Denise Hassanzade Ajiri has been awarded the 2012 MJ Bear Fellowship. Ajiri is one of three journalists under age 30 selected by the Online News Association (ONA) to receive the fellowship, which is named after digital journalism pioneer and former RFE/RL programming director Mary Jane “MJ” Bear.

Ajiri, 29, writes for RFE/RL’s Persian-language website and contributes to the service’s 24-hour broadcasting into Iran. Her daily reporting on topics not covered in the local media, as well as her work on the weekly foreign cultural issues program “Podhang,” provides Iranians with information they could not receive through the rigidly censored, state-run domestic media.

“As a writer who confronts censorship, I have an innate understanding of freedom of speech, freedom of religion, and of course, freedom of the press,” Ajiri said of her work.

A polyglot who speaks Farsi, Turkish, German, Azeri, Assyrian, and English, Ajiri is a graduate of the University of Tehran and of La Salle University’s Professional & Business Communications program in Prague. Prior to joining RFE/RL, she was a translator at a Tehran-based publishing firm where she translated best-selling author Laura Schlessinger’s “Woman Power” into Farsi.

The Fellows Selection Committee recognized Ajiri and Radio Farda for penetrating the tight web of media suppression in Iran. “Her team’s work to get the news past constant threats of censorship is impressive; we are extremely impressed with her courage on freedom of the press,” the committee remarked.

The three 2012 MJ Bear Fellows will each be paired with a digital news leader who will serve as a career development mentor for one year. In addition, fellows will receive a free ONA membership and expense-paid trip to the ONA’s annual conference and awards banquet in San Francisco in September.

The MJ Bear Fellowship honors the memory of Bear, who envisioned a fund dedicated to promoting “the voice of young professionals working in or training in the field of online news” in order to “explore and showcase innovations, developments, and new ideas in the field.”

A true pioneer of online news, Bear helped expand journalism’s partnership with the web in the late 1990’s while working at Microsoft and especially at NPR, where she became Vice President for Online. A founding member of ONA in 1998, Bear was recruited by RFE/RL to become Director of Programming in 2005. In 2008, she moved on to MSN-Microsoft, where she served as Executive Producer for the Central and Eastern Europe, Middle East and Africa CEEMEA) MSN websites. Following a seven-month struggle with leukemia, MJ passed away in December 2010.

Among her many accomplishments at RFE/RL, MJ Bear was part of the team that conceived Pangea – the home-grown content management system that has now been adopted as the web platform of fellow U.S. international broadcasting networks Voice of America, Radio/TV Marti, Radio Sawa, and Alhurra Television.

MJ was also a dedicated mentor to young journalists at the Radios and contributed significantly to RFE/RL’s move into online media. In 2005, she worked with the young journalists of Radio Azattyk in Kyrgyzstan to launch Azattyk Plus, a youth-oriented television and radio effort that employs and targets people in their early to mid-20s.

RFE/RL Vice President for Content, Distribution and Marketing Julia Ragona, who worked closely with MJ at the Radios, remembered her colleague and praised the work of a promising journalist who earned a fellowship in her name. “Denise unfortunately didn't have the opportunity to work with MJ, but I have no doubt they would have gotten along famously, and that Denise's work would have made MJ very proud,” Ragona said.

-- Kate Leisner