A gripping report that exposed the forced marriages and sexual exploitation of Rohingya women has been awarded the top prize at the Lorenzo Natali Media Prize.
The awards, organised by the European Commission's Directorate-General for International Partnerships (DG INTPA), recognises journalists whose exceptional work sheds lights on issues such as democracy, human rights, inequality and climate change.
For this year's edition, the juries chose to reward Indian journalist Pari Saikia with the Grand Prize for her investigative article that follows the aftermath of the Myanmar military's crackdown on Rohingya Muslims and the plight suffered by the women who fled the persecution.
Through harrowing testimonies, Saikia chronicles how Rohingya women were tricked by traffickers into marrying unknown, older men in Kashmir. The article relates the repeated abuse the brides endured at their hands of their spouses and their desperate search for being reunited with their families.
The jury described Saikia's work as "illuminating reporting with the potential to bring the topic into policy-makers agenda and affect the necessary changes that protect vulnerable women". The story was originally published by Vice Media India.
"It's not a win for me but for the women who have been fighting every day of their lives for justice, dignity and freedom. In a way, this award will create more hope for them," Saikia said in a video statement, expressing her gratitude for the award.
"These women trusted me enough to tell me their stories and I promised them to share their plight to the world," she added, vowing to continue her investigation into human trafficking.
Freelancer Spanish journalist Maria Altimira was named recipient of the Europe Prize for her exposé into the excruciating and humiliating conditions that Moroccan workers suffer when they travel to Huelva, in southern Spain, to take part in the strawberry harvest.
Altimira, who coordinated a team of three journalists, reveals how the migrants fall victims of deceit, exploitation and sexual abuse, including rape, shortly after arriving at Huelva. The report builds upon previously disclosed cases of violations that, despite being published by Spanish media, were not properly followed up by the public authorities – a failure that Altimira says perpetuated the abuse.
"The award is an incentive to continue investigating and working in projects that give a voice to vulnerable groups of the society, such as migrants. They are often confronted with dramatic situations because our democratically elected governments are not able to guarantee the rights of all citizens, including non-EU citizens," Altimira said.
Investigative journalism is increasingly rare and costly, she added, and effectively survives thanks to the support of awards like the Lorenzo Natali Media Prize.
India-based journalist Srishti Jaswal received the Best Emerging Prize for her report denouncing India's "ignored" hunger crisis. According to Jaswal, the Indian government has not released any official data on starvation and poverty since 2012, making it impossible to truly assess the scope of malnutrition across the country.
Under the title "A Death By Hunger", the story features testimonies from local population in the north-Indian city of Agra accompanied by striking black-and-white photographs of emaciated citizens taken by Jaswal herself.
"Hunger and starvation is one of the most ignored aspects of the COVID pandemic, despite the fact it has a direct correlation to it. The government refuses to accept that people are begging because of hunger on the streets of India," she said.
Jaswal hopes other India-based journalists will join her effort to unmask the country's under-reported crisis until the government is forced to acknowledge the reality of hunger.
The Lorenzo Natali Media Prize ceremony was established in 1992 in honour of Lorenzo Natali, a former European Commissioner for development and cooperation during the tenure of Jacques Delors. Natali, who was born in Florence, was often described as a staunch defender of freedom of expression, democracy, human rights and development. He served at the Commission holding different positions from 1977 to 1989 and died that very same year.
Jutta Urpilainen, the current Commissioner for international partnerships, paid homage to her predecessor and the award-winning journalists while hosting the hybrid ceremony on Thursday.
"This year's Lorenzo Natali Media Prize recognises three exceptional journalists, whose work exemplifies the courage, integrity and dedication to global equity," Urpilainen said.
"As development journalists you help bring about change – whether it is tackling inequalities, protecting universal human rights or responding to the existential threat of climate change."
The awards were selected by a five-person jury comprising international experts in media and development. The jury chose the winners from a final selection of entries reviewed by four journalism schools in Brussels, Lisbon, Pamplona and Beirut.