The Daily Beast and Newsweek, Russia.
No stranger to staying focused while under pressure, Nemtsova got a 20-minute crash course in reporting from a Moscow-based American reporter. From there, she began working as a researcher, fixer and translator for Washington Post correspondents, traveling across Russia, Ukraine the rest of the Post-Soviet nations.
Today, she is considered one of the most well-respected and outspoken independent journalists in the region — a reputation that has sometimes made her a target of threats, slander, and physical acts of harassment by those in positions of authority.
Countering these threats, along with several instances of physical assault, the International Women’s Media Foundation (IWMF) is recognizing Nemtsova as a 2015 Courage Awardee for her commitment to unearthing stories of corruption, terrorism, impunity and oppression.
“When the IWMF called me, I was sitting on a public bus in Eastern Ukraine with people, half asleep. I was trying to be very quiet and could not express my emotions fully,” she says of receiving the news of the Award. “The moment I found out, I basically felt the world reached out to me.”
An established contributor to both The Daily Beast and Newsweek, she’s currently working on a freelance basis, contributing to publications like The Washington Post, Foreign Policy, Politico, The Guardian, Al Jazeera and Marie Claire as well.
She says her editors offer a great deal of support, but there’s no getting around the fact that she must often place herself in harm’s way to get the stories that matter most.
For instance, when officials attempted to cover up the shooting down of commercial airliner MH-17 last summer, she and two colleagues visited the makeshift morgue to identify the bodies of the victims. They were detained, interrogated and threatened for several hours by a group of militiamen.
“Just imagine how the relatives of the people on the plane were feeling. We thought it was important to find the remains,” she says, still more concerned with the pursuit of truth than the fact that she and her colleagues had been detained at gunpoint.
She experienced a similar scenario in Ukraine just a few weeks prior, while covering Russia’s support of rebel groups fighting in Eastern Ukraine. Rumors of torture, kidnappings, disappearances and starvation drew her to the active conflict zone, where armed rebels forcefully detained her and her colleagues.
“Both times, it looked like a classic abduction,” she says. “They take you, they take your phone away from you, they wear masks, and they drive you in an unknown direction.”
She attributes her release, on both accounts, to pure luck. Many of her colleagues have lost their lives in similar scenarios as the state of press freedom in the Post-Soviet region continues to deteriorate.
While covering the North Caucasus, Nemtsova is faced with the challenge of balancing her safety with her sense of journalistic duty. But, she knows, the nature of danger for a reporter in Russia goes well beyond personal risks.
“Today, in some small provincial towns, people can be approached by officials after we leave and we can damage people’s lives,” she says. “We really need to be careful quoting people’s names. We really need to ask twice if the people we interview feel comfortable.”
As she continues to cover turmoil in Ukraine, Nemtsova says she is determined to stay balanced and professional in her coverage in what has become a full-fledged information war. Nemtsova sees herself as a journalist committed to covering all sides of a story fairly.
“The question of who is patriotic and who is not patriotic is becoming a key question in Russian media,” she says. “What is it to be patriotic? Is it to be quiet about corruption, or to talk about it? Is it to accept officials rewriting history…or to tell the truth?”
Her push for truth and accountability has exposed numerous abuses of power, including the arrests of those who protested Putin’s election, the displacement of families in Sochi who lost their homes during the construction for the Olympic games, abductions of Muslims, domestic violence across Russia, and the kidnapping of women in Crimea.
“There are so few women covering the crisis, but they are the bravest, by far,” she says. “In Russia, I see more brave women coming to cover dicey places. I hope our coverage will attract the attention of women all across the Post-Soviet Union. I hope it will build a bridge.”
by Erin Luhmann Hinrichs
- Courage in Journalism Awards Awardee, 2015