PRAGUE -- Saniya Toiken, a reporter for Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty’s (RFE/RL) Kazakh Service, has received the 2017 annual Courage in Journalism Award from the International Women’s Media Foundation (IWMF). Now in their 28th year, the awards celebrate women journalists who, facing and surviving danger to uncover the truth, set themselves apart through extraordinary bravery.
“This year’s awardees are working in countries that largely go unreported in the United States. Often at great risk, they have managed to bring to light some of the most important global stories of our times while facing immense personal hardship and, frequently, intense threats to their personal safety,” said IWMF Executive Director Elisa Lees Muñoz.
RFE/RL Kazakh Service Director Torokul Doorov said, “This award shows the great need in our time for strong voices in journalism.” He added, “I am happy that Saniya’s efforts to cover important events, and the difficulties she contends with daily, are recognized by this prestigious international award.”
Toiken has reported for over twenty years on social and political issues in western Kazakhstan. Her coverage of the region’s oil strikes in 2008-2012 typified her interest in under-reported stories, and brought retaliation from authorities that would continue as she covered other controversial subjects throughout her career.
She told RFE/RL that after trying to collect information in 2010 about working conditions at industrial sites near the city of Atyrau, her car was chased before crashing on a deserted back street in an incident she says was orchestrated. Her reports on the hardships faced by oil producers in the Prorva province brought surveillance and threats from local authorities in retaliation for her work. In 2010, she was detained by local police while covering the trials of Atyrau strikers.
After reporting on the deadly government crackdown against protesters in Zhanaozen in December 2011, and the subsequent prosecution of more than a dozen strikers in 2012, a targeted intimidation campaign finally forced her to leave her flat in Atyrau. Toiken says that wiretapping of her phones and surveillance of her in the street continues.
Toiken’s coverage of controversial land reforms in western Kazakhstan in 2016 followed a similar pattern of reporting – and retaliation. She was detained by police several times while covering mass demonstrations against the measures, removed by armed guards by police car from a planned rally in Zhanaozen, and threatened with arrest.
In 2013 Toiken sought to launch her own newspaper, Ne Khabar?! (What’s New?!) before being forced to abandon it just one and a half years later when the publisher, under pressure from authorities, claimed her “presence adversely affects the development of the newspaper." She was arrested in January 2017 while covering a strike at the Oil Construction Company in Mangistau, an ordeal she managed to record on her mobile phone.
Toiken’s reporting is unique in a country where media freedom is restricted. Criticizing the president is a criminal offence, and non-state media are subject to harassment and censorship. In 2017 Kazakhstan was designated “Not Free” in Freedom House’s Freedom of the Press Rankings. Reporters Without Borders ranked it 157 among 180 countries surveyed in its annual press freedom index.
Saniya Toiken shares the 2017 Courage award with National Public Radio Correspondent Deborah Amos from the U.S. and Al Jazeera Reporter Hadeel Al-Yamani from Yemen. IWMF will also honor National Broadcasting Company reporter Andrea Mitchell as this year’s Lifetime Achievement Award Winner for her accomplishment in setting new standards for women journalists and encouraging future generations of reporters to find their voice.
Previous Courage award winners include world-renowned journalists Christiane Amanpour (1994), Anna Politkovskaya (2002), and Anna Nemtsova (2015). RFE/RL investigative journalist Khadija Ismayilova, who was imprisoned in 2014 for 18 months for her reporting on corruption in Azerbaijan, 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 on Sarajevo’s newspaper Oslobodjenje during the Balkan War.
The awards, announced in May, will be formally presented at ceremonies in Washington, D.C., New York city, and Los Angeles in October this year.