The time for silence is over: Journalists and sexual violence

One of the most striking aspects of the accounts of sexual assault the Committee to Protect Journalists has documented is the concerns the women and men expressed about speaking about them.

Umar Cheema, a prominent political reporter for Pakistan’s, The News, who spoke to the CPJ about his abduction, torture and sexual assault in 2010, said the decision “to speak up” made him “stronger and made my enemies more cowardly”.

One Afghan reporter who is quoted anonymously in the report: The Silencing Crime: Sexual Violence and Journalists, said that because of cultural stigma she had not reported a sexual assault by a colleague:

Women don’t report sexual attacks most of the time because family honor is very important. If something like that gets reported, the girl herself will be blamed by the family and everyone around her.

Accounts given by women based in the United States cited work culture for their decision not to speak about their experiences of sexual assault and the fear that doing so could  jeopardise their chances of being given assignments in the future.

ProPublica’s Kim Barker said women attracted to international journalism have a “constant desire to prove ourselves, to show that we can play in that environment”. They generally don’t want to “cry sexual assault” she said:

I think it’s difficult for us to talk about this stuff because we don’t want to look like we’re weak, or whiners. The tendency of bosses is to want someone who knows what to do and doesn’t need hand-holding. The fear would be that they would just simply pull you from the assignment.

Rodney Pinder, head of the International News Safety Institute, which gives advice and assistance to journalists working in dangerous environments, told the CPJ that the organisation had encountered reluctance among female journalists when it conducted a 2005 survey of security issues facing women in the profession:

They didn’t want to encourage a situation in which male editors assigning stories might be reluctant to send a woman out in field. They felt that it might affect them negatively if their employers or their assignment editors felt that they had to be given special care, attention, protection.

I expenenced similar unwillingness among British journalists to discuss sexual assault when I worked on the journalists’ magazine Press Gazette. The concern that to do so could potentially harm their career is summed up by Jenny Nordberg, a New York-based Swedish correspondent, who was sexually assaulted by a crowd of men while in Pakistan in October 2007 to cover the return of exiled former prime minister Benazir Bhutto.

It’s embarrassing, and you feel like an idiot saying anything, especially when you are reporting on much, much greater horrors. But it still stays with you. I did not tell the editors for fear of losing assignments. That was definitely part of it. And I just did not want them to think of me as a girl. Especially when I am trying to be equal to, and better than, the boys. I may have told a female editor though, had I had one.

The CPJ report was promped by the assault of CBS correspondent Lara Logan in Cairo on 11 February, the night that President Hosni Mubarak’s rule was coming to an end. The report’s author CPJ senior editor, Lauren Wolfe, wrote in an earlier blog post that the after news of Logan’s attack broke, the organisation was asked why there was little on its website about sexual assaults, and what kind of data we have about women journalists and rape.

The simple answers are these: We have little on our site because sexual assault is not commonly reported to us – the data, therefore, is not available. What I can tell you is that we receive calls in which journalists report on risky conditions in particular cities or countries, sometimes telling us of their personal molestation or rape, and usually ask that we not share their private pain.

Channel 4 News international editor Lindsey Hilsum dealt adroitly with “old” debate about whether men and women run different risks as foreign correspondents that took place after Lara Logan was attacked .

Those who hate to see women reporting the big stories disguise their glee as concern, but their message is the same – you shouldn’t be out there.

But there is nothing especially dangerous about being female and on the frontline, she argued. In fact, there were times when being a woman in the Arab world is a distinct advantage:

Since female journalists are able to report all aspects of the story, not just what the men say or do, it is clearly an advantage to be a woman. Nonetheless, I believe men should still be allowed to report the Middle East. I understand their limitations, but I think they have a contribution to make and it would be wrong to discriminate against them. Inevitably, at times it will be dangerous to report the revolutions unrolling across the Arab world. But this is one of the most compelling and significant stories of our time, and we need to be there – men and women both.

The CPJ says that the assault against Logan may have “accelerated changes in attitudes”. In the US, the New York Times photojournalist Lynsey Addario’s disclosed the sexual abuse she endured while abducted with colleagues in Libya. Her colleague Stephen Farrell also told CPJ that he, too, was sexually abused in one instance while being held captive with Addario in Libya.

“The time for silence is over,” the report concludes.