Lamees Dhaif reflects on free speech struggles

Dhaif, the winner of the 2012 Tully Award for Free Speech, accepted her award and spoke in the Hergenhan Auditorium Monday night.

When Lamees Dhaif’s niece tells her she wants people to be anxious to read her every word just like her aunt, Dhaif is often unsure about how to respond.

“Do I tell her a word could cost her her life?” Dhaif, a Bahraini journliast, asked the audience in the Joyce Hergenhan Auditorium Monday night. “Or should I tell her that a word can distance her from everyone she loves and everything she loves?”

Dhaif, the recipient of the 2012 Tully Award for Free Speech, has not returned to her native country of Bahrain for almost two years. Her criticism of the government has made her and her family a target.

“It pains me especially because I am a family person,” she said. “I was dangerous for my friends and for my family. Being in my country will cost them a lot, so I prefer to be away and live alone than harm them.”

Dhaif said her interest in journalism sparked as a student in Kuwait and her professional career began in 2005. “I started my journalism going to wars,” she said. “But my war back then wasn't with the government, it was with the radical Islamic groups.”

But Dhaif soon waged war with the government as she published a series of articles detailing evidence of abuse by judges of women in custody and alimony cases. In response, religious groups filed suit against her. Dhaif faced a sentence of up to three years in prison. Eventually, the charges were dropped, and a number of judges were removed from their positions.

“When the revolution started, we started to see that all those small problems are all related to one family ruling everything,” she said.

Dhaif refused to backed down, despite facing repercussions.

“She has faced censorship and threats to her own life,” said associate professor Roy Gutterman, director of the Tully Center for Free Speech. “She has watched her family members be threatened by police and government and be tortured by police and government, and she has watched as her own house burned from Molotov cocktails thrown by pro-government forces. That's pretty heavy stuff just to tell stories.”

Gutterman said Dhaif's story was exactly what the Tully Center looks to highlight. “She had a hell of a story to tell,” he said. “It really puts it into perspective for us to be able to hear what journalists in other parts of the world have to deal with.”

Pamela Stern, a psychologist from Syracuse, said she found Dhaif's strength inspiring. “She's given so much for others,” she said. “I just admire people like that, and I just wonder where their inner strength comes from.”

Ryan Suto, a law and public diplomacy joint degree candidate, has traveled to Bahrain and witnessed some of the unrest.

“It was a refreshing side to see,” he said. “When I was in Bahrain I was around many government officials, so I got the other side of the story. It's good to hear that point of view that sometimes, even being there, you miss.”

Dhaif dedicated her award to a young activist who was shot during a protest. She played a short film about his story.

“He is a young man, just like your students, who dreamed of a beautiful tomorrow,” she said.

Dhaif said she is hopeful she’ll be able to return home one day. “After a month, a day, after 10 years, no matter what they do,” she said. “My body is gone, but my soul is stuck there. They think they can get me away from my people, but they are with me all the time.”

Dhaif shared the reply she sent to her niece whom so desperately wants to be a journalist, just like her exiled aunt.

“'My job is not as glamorous as you might think,’” she said. “’You will be upset about lots of things, I'm sure. But you will always be proud of your role.’”


Photo via Dhaif's blog

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