Journalist Lamees Dhaif received the 2012 Tully Award for Free Speech at a ceremony on Oct. 15. She spoke to an auditorium of students and faculty about her ongoing struggle with the Bahrain government’s oppression of its people.
“I dedicate my pen to defending the oppressed,” she said.
Without a traditional outlet for her writing Dhaif turned to the Internet to keep her pen, and the voice of her people heard.
“Modern social media has given Lamees a voice,” said Roy Gutterman, director of Newhouse’s Tully Center, which presented the award. Dhaif’s writing can be found on her blog, and she has accumulated over 100,000 Twitter followers and 3,700 Facebook fans to date by speaking out against issues like the violent Bahraini government crackdown on protesters during the Arab Spring.
“I think social media is the greatest tool in our hands,” she said. Despite the attempts of the Bahraini government, she explained, it is impossible to stop people from knowing.
Dhaif began writing in 2005, quickly becoming involved in covering hot-button issues in Bahrain by “going to war,” as she said, with radical groups in the country. When her attention was turned to the government, Dhaif began to see the lengths they would go to keep her quiet. She was fired from jobs, her house was burned and her family and friends were threatened, some arrested and tortured.
In accepting the Tully Award, she dedicated it to a young protester who was killed by government forces. People may have known his name, she said, but they did not know his story. She made a short film that provided a graphic illustration of the nature of the Bahraini struggle, and the violence that is not covered by the traditional news media.
Telling stories like these in the face of danger, oppression and threats is what the Tully Award honors. Each year, a journalist who has shown courage in the face of a threat to free speech receives the award, traditionally in April. Dhaif experienced a delay with her travel papers last spring, so the event was rescheduled to the fall.
“If you want to go with what you believe in, you have to pay a price,” Dhaif said. What she believes in is the voice of the people, and its power to hold the government accountable. The people, she explained, want change and put their faith in her to help them achieve that through her writing. Her price is exile. For over two years, Dhaif has been unable to return home.
Dhaif explained that the Bahraini story is so unknown because of the vast resources of the government: it’s well connected, and it has oil and money. These things help the government, according to Dhaif, keep the international community quieter on the oppression and actions the government takes against its people—which makes it more important for her to keep writing, keep shooting footage, keep using social media and keep doing her job, working for the people of Bahrain.
The Bahraini people’s faith is what keeps her going. She acknowledges that she has given up much, and may not own her life, but her people need her and her stories.
“I’m working for the people,” she said. “They’re my bosses.”
Joseph DiDomizio is a graduate student in Newhouse’s arts journalism program.