Gender, Global, Global Geopolitics, Headlines, Human Rights, North America, Press Freedom

Female Journalists Break Silence on Sexual Violence

WASHINGTON, Jun 7 2011 (IPS) - On Feb. 11, while the world was celebrating former Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak’s fall from power, CBS television correspondent Lara Logan was being “mercilessly assaulted” by a group of well over 200 men in a dark corner of Tahrir Square.

Changing a Culture of Shame and Fear

Though a great deal of systematic research has been conducted on imprisonment, disappearances, torture and, of course, assassinations, there is very little documentation available on sexual violence.

Rodney Pinder, whose organisation, the International News Safety Institute (INSI), serves journalists working in hazardous situations, said that female journalists were reluctant to respond to INSI's 2005 survey on gender-based security issues for fear that editors - the majority of whom are men - might balk at the idea of sending female reporters into the field for "safety issues".

"It would be a terrible shame if that were the consequence of documenting these attacks," CPJ's Lauren Wolfe told IPS. "Nobody keeps men away from the field because of fear of kidnapping… and it would be shameful for media outlets to pull women from the field for this reason. Women and men both know the risks associated with their profession and make their own choices."

Though women's fears of being socially and professionally ostracised are certainly not unfounded, advocates believe that continuing to muzzle women's voices or failing to bring such crimes to light will only breed the culture of silence and impunity.

"As a press freedom advocate, I can only tell women that the more information we have on cases of any kind of assault – sexual or otherwise – the better we are able to carry out effective advocacy," Wolfe told IPS.

"I don't think keeping silent on the abuse can in any way benefit the media or the people who read the news," she added. "It is imperative that the world sheds light on crimes committed against journalists, and act to prevent them from happening in the future."

“For an extended period of time they raped me with their hands,” Logan, who was ripped away from her bodyguard by a mob and beaten before being attacked, said last month in an interview with the New York Times.

A public statement co-drafted by Logan and CBS chairman Jeff Fager meant that she “didn’t have to carry the burden alone, like my dirty little secret, something I had to be ashamed of,” Logan said in one of her few interviews on the attack, two months ago.

Though Logan is not the first – and is unlikely to be the last – journalist to be subjected to such brutality, her story exposed the silence around such crimes, which happen far more frequently than the media world has acknowledged or that women themselves are willing to admit.

In the first extensive compilation of its kind, the New York City- based international press freedom group Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) released “The Silencing Crime: Sexual Violence and Journalists” Tuesday, a special report documenting a deluge of stories of rape, sexual abuse and severe harassment.

“I wrote a blog post about Logan’s attack the day after it happened and immediately women started contacting me to tell me their own personal stories of assault,” Lauren Wolfe, CPJ’s senior editor and author of the report, told IPS, adding that the reaction to Logan’s attack by women around the world constituted the momentum behind the report.

Based on over four dozen interviews with 27 local and 25 international journalists from Asia and Latin America to Africa and the Middle East, the report only scratches the surface of what is likely a much more widespread crisis, yet it is the only substantial document detailing crimes that activists believe occur across the world with frequency and impunity.

“From threats and groping to aggressive physical harassment and rape, these acts not only obstruct the work of journalists but are used as retribution,” Wolfe said in a press release Monday.

“Acknowledging and assessing sexual aggression against journalists is a first step toward formulating solutions and advocating for change. This report is a step in that direction,” she added.

Stigma breeds silence

Many of the women who brought their stories to CPJ are doing so after years of silence, having hitherto feared being demoted, demonised or further humiliated by coming forward about attacks.

Indeed, the majority of the women interviewed for the report did so under condition of anonymity to “protect” their careers. The few who agreed to speak on the record also acknowledged their own, and their colleagues’, reluctance and hesitation to expose the crimes.

Jineth Bedoya, a then-journalist for the Bogota daily El Espectador, was abducted while investigating the actions of ring-wing paramilitaries in Colombia in May 2000. In a house in the city of Villavicencio, she was beaten by multiple attackers and gang-raped.

In the decade following the crime, Bedova has encountered three colleagues who have remained silent on reprisal attacks because of “cultural and professional stigmas”.

However, Wolfe wrote in an article on CNN Tuesday, two weeks ago Bedoya brought the case to the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights, hoping to inspire and encourage women to “denounce what’s happened to them and be able to ask for justice”.

“It’s embarrassing, and you feel like an idiot saying anything, especially when you are reporting on much, much greater horrors,” Jenny Nordberg, a New York-based Swedish correspondent who was violently groped while covering the late Benazir Bhutto’s return to Pakistan from exile in October 2007, wrote to CPJ in February.

“But it still stays with you,” she added. “I did not tell the editors for fear of losing assignments.”

“[Also], 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,” Nordberg said.

And, as Logan pointed out, sexual violence does not leave the same visible scars of torture or other forms of abuse. After rape or sexual assault, “You only have your word,” Logan said. “The physical wounds heal. You don’t carry around… evidence the way you would if you had lost your leg or your arm in Afghanistan.”

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