By Lauren Wolfe, cross-posted from On The Issues Magazine
“I’ve never told anyone this before,” the email said. It was one of several that landed on my desk at the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) after the news broke that CBS correspondent Lara Logan was sexually assaulted in Egypt in February.
The letters were from foreign correspondents — women who travel to conflict areas to report the news. They wanted to tell me about their own rapes and sexual assaults. As I gathered their stories, I started wondering about the local journalists who actually live in these regions. After all, these journalists experience the brunt of violence globally: 93 percent of all journalists murdered around the world are local, the Committee to Project Journalists has found.
As BBC reporter Lyse Doucet said to me recently, “Lara Logan can go home. The Egyptian journalists still have to go out there.”
Regardless of violence, harassment or threats, many, many women journalists do go out there. Although they live amid the horrors of war and are intimately familiar with how it ravages their country, their loved ones and often themselves, they continue to report. With rape a constant companion to conflict, women from the Congo to Afghanistan told me they work in spite of this ever-present terror. Their bravery stunned me.
Take Jineth Bedoya. She’s a Colombian journalist who was gang-raped in 2000, when she was 27, while reporting on right-wing paramilitaries in the jungles of her country. Bedoya pushed for an investigation at the time, but little more than cursory inquiries came of it. Eleven years later, she has brought her case to the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights. She said that she hopes that by publicly pursuing her case, she will encourage the three other journalists who came out to her about their own rapes to “denounce what’s happened to them and be able to ask for justice.”
She is one of the few journalists willing to go on the record as having been sexually assaulted. Their fear, they tell me, is that they will lose future assignments or culturally they will be shunned. In many countries, a woman who has been raped is unmarriageable or can face honor killings. One Afghan reporter told me she cannot have her name associated with her assault — which was carried out by a co-worker at gunpoint — because she fears her life may be at risk from her family if they learn of the perceived dishonor. Other journalists often don’t bother reporting an assault to authorities or their employers because “they know nothing will come out of it,” Mehmal Sarfaz, joint general secretary of South Asian Women in Media, told me. Police in some countries have been known to ask for bribes or even perpetrate further sexual violence when a woman reports a rape.
Losing assignments too is not just a fear — it really happens. An American journalist told me about being pulled off her Iraqi posting after reporting to her female manager that her government minder had repeatedly sexually harassed and finally assaulted her. “I was crushed by the response of the people I worked with and trusted,” said the journalist, who recounted the story on condition of anonymity. To her, the punishing response of her news outlet was worse than the actual assault, she said.
With more than 50 journalists — 27 local and 25 foreign — telling me they’d been groped repeatedly, sexually violated or raped while working in conflict zones and on dangerous assignments, it’s clear that something needs to change. Media outlets need to prepare both foreign and local correspondents through specialized sexual assault training and put into place confidential processes in which assaults can be reported without retribution. Women need to know that if they come forward with their stories, they will receive medical and psychological counseling, not judgment or punishment.
Local journalists, in particular, need awareness and support from the international community, including advocacy groups like the Committee to Project Journalists. Without major news organizations backing them, these journalists may find themselves on a long and painful road to justice. We must advocate for better legal protection and let these women know that their suffering, and their effort to bring us the news, is not in vain.