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RFE/RL Kazakh Journalist Wins Courage Award

RFE/RL Kazakh Service reporter Saniya Toiken (l), receiving the 2017 Courage in Journalism Award from Susan King, dean of the UNC School of Media and Journalism, Washington, DC.

WASHINGTON -- Saniya Toiken, a reporter for Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty’s (RFE/RL) Kazakh Service, has been honored with the 2017 Courage in Journalism Award by the International Women’s Media Foundation (IWMF). The award was presented at a gala event in Washington on October 23.

In her acceptance remarks, Toiken said that when people, including her own son, ask why she willing to run the risks associated with being a professional journalist, “I can't offer any simple explanation. Some people think I am doing it to be famous or to make a lot of money. Well, both are wrong… For me, journalism is my life, and there's nothing I can do about it.”

Now in its 28th year, the award recognizes women journalists who set themselves apart by demonstrating extraordinary bravery in their commitment to the truth. “Our Courage winners overcome incredible odds to bring us stories of conflict and humanity--that we would likely not hear otherwise,” said Elisa Lee Muñoz, Executive Director of the IWMF.

RFE/RL President Thomas Kent commended Toiken on her unwavering commitment to getting the authentic story, despite threats and harassment: “Saniya sets a high standard for all RFE/RL journalists.”

Toiken has reported for over 20 years on social and political issues in western Kazakhstan, often at great personal risk. Her coverage of the region’s oil strikes in 2008-2012 brought harassment and retaliation from authorities; she was detained by police several times in 2016 while covering mass protests against controversial land reforms, and again in February 2017 while covering a strike in the city of Mangistau.

RFE/RL’s Kazakh Service, known locally as Radio Azattyq, is able to operate two bureaus in Kazakhstan and work with 50 correspondents located throughout the country, despite well-documented challenges to media freedom that led Freedom House to designate Kazakhstan as “Not Free” in its 2017 Freedom of the Press Rankings, and Reporters Without Borders to rank it 157 among 180 countries surveyed in its annual press freedom index,

Toiken shares the 2017 Courage award with NPR Correspondent Deborah Amos from the U.S. and Al Jazeera Reporter Hadeel Al-Yamani from Yemen. IWMF is also honoring NBC reporter Andrea Mitchell as this year’s Lifetime Achievement Award Winner, while NPR’s Michele Norris is receiving the inaugural Gwen Ifill Award, to be given annually to an outstanding woman journalist of color whose work carries forward the legacy of the longtime co-anchor of PBS Newshour.

Previous Courage award winners include world-renowned journalists Christiane Amanpour (1994), Anna Politkovskaya (2002), and Anna Nemtsova (2015). RFE/RL investigative journalist Khadija Ismayilova received the award in 2012. Prior to joining RFE/RL, Balkan Service Director Gordana Knezevic received the award in 1992 alongside Kemal Kurspahic for their work for Sarajevo’s newspaper Oslobodjenje during the Balkan War.

This year’s recipients were honored at gala events organized by IWMF in New York (October 18), Washington, and Los Angeles (October 25).