She has a broad smile and open, friendly face. But Liberian journalist Mae Azango has the fierce and courageous heart of a warrior. Although she has received death threats and lost her job over her discussion of sensitive topics, she remains a staunch advocate for the rights of Liberia’s women and girls.
Now writing for FrontPage Africa and New Narratives in Liberia, Azango was one of 18 leading media professionals from around the world whom Internews brought to UNESCO’s World Press Freedom conference in Costa Rica in May.
From Grace to Grass
In 1996, with Liberia enveloped in civil war, Azango fled to neighboring Côte d’Ivoire. She says, “I know what it is to be reduced from grace to grass. Then I was living as a refugee, as a second-class citizen. That is why I like to write about people who don’t have voices.”
On her return to Liberia, her goal was to become a hotel manager. She explains why she did not initially want to become a journalist: “I thought if you were a journalist you would die poor.”
Still, not having any better plans, she took a one-year journalism course. She says. “In school I learned that the pen had power.”
She began working as a police reporter for a Liberian newspaper called the Telegraph. In 2005, she began working for the Daily Observer. At a conference in Rhode Island in the US, she gave a talk about sexual harassment among female journalists in Liberia. The lecture was widely reported in Liberia’s press, and she was fired.
“I took the time to wash Liberia’s dirty clothes in the street and I shouldn’t have done that,” she says of how she was viewed at the time.
But because of her fearless reporting, the daily newspaper FrontPage Africa hired Azango in 2007. Since 2010, she has also worked for New Narratives, a team of media houses and journalists working to improve the financial independence of African media, with a focus on increasing the number of women journalists.
“Women and girls are the vulnerable group in society,” Azango says. “And if we women don’t talk about what affects women most, men journalists won’t. If female journalists would keep quiet, those things would keep happening to us.”
In 2010, she published the first of a three-part series on the taboo subject of female genital cutting in Liberia, to little response. But the second article deeply angered traditional leaders and politicians, and Azango began receiving death threats. Many callers also threatened to circumcise Azango and members of her family, hoping this would silence her.
Fearing for her safety, she went into hiding for three weeks. “I was like a bat hanging from a tree,” she recalls.
While in hiding, Azango published a third story, this one focusing on the traditional bush schools, run by the secretive Sande Society, that train girls for marriage and running a household. While female genital cutting is technically frowned on in Liberia, it is estimated that two-thirds of Liberian women have undergone the practice, and it was still a required ritual for girls who wished to attend the school.
“It was on the front cover and it pissed the people off, it pissed the government off, it pissed the traditional people off,” says Azango of her story. But at the same time, many people called and thanked her for her reporting, including representatives from the UN. Once the UN spoke in favor, Liberian President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf also expressed support for the coverage.
As a result, the government has moved to shut down the Sande Bush schools indefinitely and is pushing for an end to female genital cutting.
“Before I wrote about it, no one was talking about it,” Azango recalls. “It became a public debate and the international media pressured my government into giving me security. After the topic got so hot, other journalists started to continue with the story.”
“People Will Know You”
Another time, Azango reported on a case of a policeman who raped a young girl. When the girl’s mother went to report the rape, two police officers suggested that the girl had “asked for it.” They threatened the mother, asking, “Who knows you?” and then slapped her and threw her behind bars.
“Now when I wrote that story I said, ‘people will know you; you are a citizen of Liberia,’” Azango recalls of her conversations with the mother. The story was published two days before Liberia’s independence day, a politically sensitive period when many leaders of other countries were visiting the capital.
“Ellen got so furious, called people and my boss called me,” says Azango. “The deputy police boss called me. But after the story came out, they arrested the rapist two days later.”
One of Azango’s series focused on domestic violence, as seen through the eyes of men, women and children. Violence against women is believed to be widespread in Liberia, yet vastly underreported.
“I met a man who was proud to tell me he beat his wife,” Azango says. “We went to the school and talked to boys. We met a twelve-year old girl who ran away to go to the Gender Ministry and explained that her uncle wanted her to marry a 65-year old man.“
Azango is currently working on a series on girls’ education. In Liberia, there are currently two systems of schooling for girls: the formal schools and the traditional bush schools that mainly prepare girls for marriage, teaching them how to weave baskets and cook, among other skills. Girls who attend one school do not simultaneously attend the other.
As Azango puts it, “Females will lag behind if you have both the bush and the formal schools.”
Glued to the Radio
Mae Azango has had an outsize impact in her country. She explains, “The reading audience in my audience is not that big, and not a lot of people have access to the internet or blogging. What really made my stories spread like wildfire was that those who can read explained it to those who cannot read. Radio stations started to publicize it and everyone was glued to their radios.”
Asked where she gets her strong voice, she explains, “My mother used to advocate for women’s rights. I pity my forefathers when women were kept down. Women now are emerging in Liberia; they are talking about what affects them and they know their rights.”
Considering her career as a journalist so far, Azango says, “I am happy when I can use the power of the pen to shift the future of my country.”
In 2012, Azango received two international press freedom awards, one from the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) and the other from Canadian Journalists for Free Expression (CJFE).
Internews sent Mae Azango and 17 other leading media professionals from 16 countries to San Jose, Costa Rica for the UNESCO World Press Freedom Day 2013 celebrations in May 2013. These fellowships were made possible with the support of the Department of State.
Participants were chosen based on their outstanding and innovative contributions to a free press and the free flow of information in their countries. Media managers, journalists, editors, bloggers and civil society representatives came together to learn about one another’s work and country-specific media issues.
With the theme, “Safe to Speak: Securing Freedom of Expression in All Media,” the UNESCO conference was a four-day summit focused on digital and physical security for the global media sector. Internews also held two workshops on journalists’ security following the event.