Is journalism more dangerous for women?
Are female journalists at greater risk of sexual violence than their male counterparts?
Beautiful, dangerous, exciting – this is the picture Liz Perkins, defence correspondent for the South Wales Evening Post, paints of Afghanistan – a country she has visited as an embedded reporter five times. While she loves her job, working as a war correspondent is not without danger – more so, Liz believes, if you’re a woman.
“You do feel like it’s different for a woman to a man,” she says “As a woman there is a bigger risk.”
Liz says that on one trip, soldiers she was embedded with even commented that she was “at greater threat” because she was a woman.
According to the Committee to Protect Journalists 106 reporters and media workers were killed worldwide in 2012 – 31 in Syria alone. While 232 journalists were imprisoned globally.
“You stand out; you’re all in blue not camouflage like the soldiers.” Liz explains.
“It’s easy to get shot at if you are a journalist,”
But are women at more risk? After all of those killed in 2012 the vast majority, 96%, were men. But then the vast majority of war reporters, the area of reporting at highest risk of death, are men.
According to Reporters Without Borders a young female photo-journalist was recently gang-raped in Mumbai, India because of her work. Shortly before the attack, their website says, the same men who assaulted her and beat her male companion accused her of trespass in the course of her assignment.
Liz believes that female journalists are at greater risk of sexual violence, especially when working as a foreign correspondent.
“In some places you have to be very conscious of how you’re dressed. As a woman there is a bigger risk.”
“It is men you predominately see [in Afghanistan] not women. All the little girls are covered up. Culturally it’s very different and you stand out [as a Western woman] and you’re aware that it could be a danger.” she adds.
“Some of these men do not have a good attitude towards women. They were cheering at news of Malala [Yousafzai] being shot. They don’t want women to have an education. As a Western woman you can sometimes represent that”
On February 11 2011 Lara Logan, a foreign correspondent for CBS, was reporting from Tahir Square as crowds celebrated the departure from office of President Hosni Mubarak. A battery failure meant she and her crew paused for a while in one place. The exuberant crowds soon turned nasty and Lara, separated from her crew, was subjected to a vicious sexual assault which lasted more than 25 minutes.
Describing her ordeal in 2011 to CBS’s Scott Pelley on the news programme 60 Minutes she spoke about being “raped by their hands”, “beaten with flag poles” and her belief that she was going to die. She was eventually saved by a group of Egyptian women before soldiers broke through the crowds to take her back to her crew and much needed medical attention.
According to Lara her experience was an extreme version of what many female reporters have had to endure – especially when reporting from areas of conflict.
She told 60 Minutes that she’d been thanked by a number of other female correspondents for opening-up about her experience and “lifting the lid” on an endemic problem.
“Women never complain about incidents of sexual violence because you don’t want someone to say ‘well women shouldn’t be out there.’” she added.
Speaking about the attack on Lara Logan, Anne Sebba, a former Reuters’ foreign correspondent and author of the book Battling for News told the Atlantic in February this year that “Women [reporters] are targeted more.”
She believes this is because of the conservatism of many of the Muslim countries where conflicts are currently ongoing. “[They] see Western women wearing provocative – that’s their word not mine – provocative clothes, and therefore, they feel the west has to be taught a lesson. That they are fair targets, fair game.”
However the International News Safety Institute says sexual violence in Egypt has been a serious problem for both local and foreign born female journalists.
“Violent sexual attacks against women, particularly those working during protests or in crowds, have been widely reported since the first Egyptian revolution in 2011.” they said.
Sexual harassment is a specific problem for journalists working in Egypt according to Rawya Rageh, a Middle-East reporter for Al Jazeera since 2006. She has worked in Darfur, Iraq and Egypt.
“I never felt specifically targeted as a woman per se.” she explains. “I always operated with the mind-set that being a woman actually gave me more freedom and access to stories compared to my male counterparts, especially in the Middle East. However, in recent years, with the rise of sexual harassment in Egypt, I have started feeling more at risk due to my gender.”
She adds that sexual harassment has been used as a tool against journalists in Egypt for a number of years.
“It started even before the revolution. The Mubarak regime had unleashed so-called thugs on female journalists back in 2005 during a controversial vote for that purpose. This method carried on after the revolution, albeit it’s not clear on whose orders exactly.”
There are no accurate figures for the number of journalists who have been sexually assaulted or raped but the Committee to Protect Journalists believes it is a significant problem. Dozens of journalists, their website security guide to sexual aggression states, have reported that they have been sexually victimized – most of them have been women.
Their 2011 report, The Silencing Crime; Sexual Violence and Journalists , says sexual assaults of journalists fall into three main categories – targeted sexual violence because of a journalists reporting, assault when reporting large crowds and mobs, and assault while held hostage or in detention. The report goes on to add that while some men were victims of sexual violence, especially while in captivity, the majority of cases were against women.
“Sexual violence and threats of sexual violence are used as a way of silencing all women in the media.” explains Bethan Jenkins AM, chair of the National Assembly for Wales’ cross-party group on human rights and peace.
“If we take the appalling recent case of Caroline Criado-Perez, whose successful campaign to have Jane Austen appear on our currency resulted in Twitter threats of gang rape, torture and her murder. Three female journalists along with Mary Beard were threatened with a similar fate.”
Gender inequalities in society mean that female journalists may sometimes be at risk from sources and those they are trying to hold to account according to Bethan.
“Given that a sizeable number of men still do not accept women as their equals, it stands to reason that some of them might take against being questioned, particularly if interviewing is probing and incisive.”
This inequality, she adds, may lead to defensive behaviour that borders on the aggressive.
Rawya believes that while women may be easier targets for sexual harassment it is journalists and dissenting voices that are targeted rather than women reporters specifically.
“It [Sexual harassment] is used to target any voice of dissent. It’s a cheap and easy tactic and that’s why it’s being resorted to. It has an effect on everyone in the industry, men included. So I do not think it’s gender-motivated, I think it’s political.”
“Threats are often used against journalists because some people really don’t want to see ‘that’ story get out” adds Liz.
“Women are more vulnerable clearly. But you have to be a certain sort of person, the sort of person who want to get that story out no matter what,” she adds.
Sexual violence is used as a tool to subjugate the voices of journalists and women are clearly more vulnerable to this kind of abuse than male journalists. Yet despite this the women journalists I’ve spoken to say it shouldn’t prevent you from reporting. They don’t want to be treated as different from their male counterparts.
For Rawya the greatest threat to women journalists is not sexual harassment while reporting but sexism in the workplace.
“We need to look at ourselves as no different from our male counterparts, especially given the already existing high levels of sexism in newsrooms… the No. 1 enemy to women journalists is the sexism in newsrooms – therefore, we can’t really give these executives more excuses.”
“At the end of the day,” Liz adds, “your sex shouldn’t really hold you back from what you want to do,”