Saturday, February 19, 2011

Female War Reporters Under Sexual Attack Overseas? All The Time

Female War Reporters Under Sexual Attack Overseas? All The Time

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As a journalist who covered conflict for 20 years, some of it alongside Lara Logan, I read about the sexual attack on the CBS correspondent with horror. Being set upon by a mob has to be one of the worst occupational hazards anyone can face. But what is unusual about this appalling incident is not that it happened, but that Logan decided to go public about it.

Sexual violation of female reporters is far more common than most news editors realize, and many women fear it more than death. Yet few of them have ever talked about it openly. It’s the last remaining taboo in the profession, like trauma used to be. A cursory study I conducted a few years back revealed about a dozen cases of severe sexual assault over a short period. Some of these women were prominent media figures, like Logan. However, only two of them reported the abuse to their bosses. The others remained silent, either out of shame or because they feared that assignments would cease. At a time of shrinking foreign budgets, no one wants to be pulled off the job because they are seen as a liability.

As one woman who had been molested by an Indian crowd explained: “I didn’t want to viewed as weaker than the guys.”

A vicious cycle thus ensues whereby women don’t talk, so editors aren’t aware of the dangers they face, which then encourages more silence.

The newsroom myopia is such that very few safety training courses offered to conflict reporters include specific precautions for women. Participants learn about evading kidnappers and the speed of a bullet, but not how to ward off a rapist. And yet, today, women fill the ranks of top foreign positions, and rape can be a death sentence if the attacker has AIDS.

Likewise, the lengthy security manual issued by the Committee to Protect Journalists, arguably the world’s preeminent safety advocacy group, lacks tips on sexual assault. It includes advice on protecting the wallet, and learning local languages. But where are the mentions of alarms for hotel doorknobs? Female correspondents need to be forewarned about steps to ward off rapists. To name a few: defecate on yourself, keep a deodorant can by the bed (to spray into an assailant’s eyes), don’t get drunk with sources, ensure you’re not followed to your room, push furniture against the door, always work alongside a man in crowds. Some more – wear a whistle and but never a ponytail.

The solution is to prepare women to deal with the unmentionable, rather than taking them off the job. I know firsthand about sexual harassment in the field, having worked for 20 years in places like Rwanda, Chechnya and Sudan to name a few. I once narrowly escaped an assault in Angola, when a priest helpfully intervened to stop a pair of policemen from marching me and another women into a shed. The press corps whispered about odd assaults that succeeded – a young freelancer gang-raped by Siberian police, a translator who had his way with his employer in Angola.

But only when I began to concertedly ask around did the confessions tumble out. An American broadcaster awoke to find her security guard’s head between her legs. A Russian paramilitary followed an American newspaper correspondent back to her hotel room and forced his way in. Armed thugs violated a Colombian reporter and left her for dead on the road. An Angolan gang raped a writer whose politics they disliked.

In most of these cases, aggressors preyed on women simply because they could. Violence breaks down order and breeds impunity. Lots of people carry guns and few perpetrators are caught. Western women are moreover often viewed as promiscuous game in countries where females are veiled, and no amount of headscarves will protect them. The goons frequently count among the very folk we rely on to do the job -- translators, drivers, guards and sources.

Local journalists suffer in other pernicious ways. In Colombia and Mexico, for instance, rape serves as a tool of intimidation. Paramilitaries and drug cartels target reporters whose work threatens them. These women can’t board the next plane and fly away, but continue to liveamong their assailants.

Fortunately Logan managed to escape, and I wish her a speedy recovery. She was courageous to go public, and I hope this hideous episode raises awareness in other newsrooms. Obviously no amount of foresight can guard a woman against all eventualities, such as an unruly mob that erupts out of nowhere. Still, editors should not refrain from dispatching women into combat for fear of sexual assault. Instead, they should prepare staff to make informed decisions and cope in case the unthinkable occurs.

Judith Matloff is a board member of the International NewsSafety Institute. She teaches a course on conflict reporting at theColumbia Graduate School of Journalism.

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