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Journalist Honored for Courage

Medill award goes to New York Times reporter kidnapped by Taliban

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April 1, 2010 | by Wendy Leopold

EVANSTON, Ill. --- New York Times journalist David Rohde -- who was kidnapped and held captive in Afghanistan for more than seven months -- has been named the winner of the Medill Medal for Courage for his riveting 2009 series titled "Held by the Taliban."

Awarded annually by Northwestern University's Medill School of Journalism, the Medal for Courage goes to the journalist or team of journalists working for a U.S.-based media outlet who best displays moral, ethical or physical courage in pursuit of a story.

"Something about Rohde's very plain and ordinary prose to describe what clearly were neither plain nor ordinary events made his series unusually moving," said Donna Leff, professor of journalism at Medill and a 2009 Medal for Courage judge.

Rohde was in Afghanistan in the fall of 2008 working on a book about the region. On Nov. 10, while on his way to meet a Taliban commander outside Kabul, he and two associates -- an Afghan journalist and Afghan driver -- were kidnapped. They were held for more than seven months.

From a series of homes in tribal areas of Pakistan, Rohde endured the continual threat of beheading. Feeling helpless, he had to cope with greed, duplicity and despair. But on June 20, 2009, he and fellow journalist, Tahir Luddin, escaped safely to a Pakistani military base.

According to his New York Times editors, Rohde's five-part series "not only captured his personal experience but also transcended it." More than a tale of kidnapping, his narratives provide insight into what Rohde called "a Taliban mini-state." He provided details of his captors, the Haqqanis, a hard-line Taliban family, as well as the Taliban network in North and South Waziristan.

"Rohde courageously held on through his ordeal, getting so much more than an interview with one Taliban leader at a terrible cost to Rohde, his family and his colleagues," Leff said.

As it happens, the Medill Medal of Courage is not Rohde's first association with Medill. In 1984, he was a young participant in the National High School Institute at Medill, known commonly as the Cherub program. The program draws some of the best high school journalists in the country for an intensive five-week experience that prepares them for college and the newsroom.

In a departure from tradition, last year the Medill School awarded two 2008 Medals for Courage. One went to Medill alumna Roxana Saberi. An American journalist, Saberi spent 100 days in Iran's notorious Evin prison on charges of espionage. Prior to her arrest, she worked as a journalist in Iran for six years, reporting for National Public Radio, the British Broadcasting Corporation and other news outlets.

The other 2008 medal winner went to Cleveland Plain Dealer reporter Joanna Connors, for her series "Beyond Rape: A Survivor's Journey." In the series, Connors, a 26-year veteran of that paper, recounted the story of her 1984 attack and rape in effort to take control of the traumatic event that had haunted her for years.

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