Female journalists face sexual threats abroad, report says

June 7, 2011

The threat of sexual attack is frequently used as a weapon for silencing female journalists working abroad, according to a report released Tuesday by the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ).

The report, “The Silencing Crime: Sexual Violence and Journalists,” was launched after CBS News correspondent Lara Logan was sexually assaulted by a mob when she was reporting in Cairo’s Tahrir Square during the historic fall of Hosni Mubarak’s government.

The attack on Logan “accelerated changes in attitudes across the professions” toward openly discussing the frequency of such incidents, the report states. Lauren Wolfe, senior editor for CPJ, said the organization felt it was essential to document such incidents and that little data was available on the subject prior to Logan’s assault.

Over the past four months, CPJ has interviewed more than four dozen journalists, mostly women. About 27 of those interviewed in the report were local reporters working in some of the world’s most lawless regions in the Middle East and Africa. Some reported being threatened with sexual violence in retaliation for their work.

The crimes were rarely reported, according to the CPJ report, and many female journalists said they feared complaining because they believed it would endanger their jobs.

“The most surprising thing to me was how many women said they were grateful that they had a chance to talk about something they are really tired of — even saying that they didn’t fear retribution anymore for speaking out,” Wolfe said. “It’s like this critical mass of female journalists saying they’re not going to take it anymore — the groping, the intimidation, the threats.”

In one example cited in the report, Grace Wattera, a writer for the newsweekly Fraternite Matin in Ivory Coast, said she gets so many harassing phone calls after she covers news conferences that she can barely get her work done. She said she felt it was time for her to come forward.

In another case, Aissatou Sadjo Camara, a reporter for Guinean radio station Cherie FM, told CPJ that while she was covering an anti-government demonstration, a man who identified himself as a soldier called to tell her that he would “change into civilian clothes and rape her.” Her male boss was beaten that day. After the same man called her for 10 days straight, she had to take a leave from work.

One female Iranian journalist said it was hard enough reporting in her country, where the media are censored. “But because you’re a woman, there’s a kind of additional lever they can apply,” she said, asking not to be named to protect her safety.

The report highlights how the attack on Logan has spurred action on the issue.

NBC, for example, is implementing a training course for journalists reporting in conflict zones.

“It’s going to deal with every culture from the American workplace to the checkpoint in the Libyan desert,” David Verdi, NBC’s vice president for newsgathering, said in the report.

In addition to the report, CPJ has released an “addendum on sexual aggression” to accompany its security guide. The addendum’s recommendations include strategies common among female journalists working abroad, such as “wearing a wedding band, or ring that looks like one, regardless of whether they are married” in order to deter unwanted attention.

The addendum also suggests such safety measures as traveling in groups and reporting threats to embassies or colleagues.

“This report is a tremendous step forward,” said Rodney Pinder, director of the London-based International News Safety Institute, which served as an adviser for CPJ’s security guide. “Before there was a real reluctance to discuss any of this. But the good news is that we are doing more safety training for women now. We just did one training session for women journalists working in the Congo and we are hoping to do one in Afghanistan. The goal now is to shine more light on the issue and make sure every woman going out to report has more practical advice on how to stay safe.”

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