By Judith Matloff
The Columbia Journalism Review
May / June 2007
Foreign correspondents and sexual abuse.
The photographer was a seasoned operator in South Asia. So when she set forth on an assignment in India, she knew how to guard against gropers: dress modestly in jeans secured with a thick belt and take along a male companion. All those preparations failed, however, when an unruly crowd surged and swept away her colleague. She was pushed into a ditch, where several men set upon her, tearing at her clothes and baying for sex. They ripped the buttons off her shirt and set to work on her trousers.
"My first thought was my cameras," recalls the photographer, who asked to remain anonymous. "Then it was, 'Oh my God, I'm going to be raped.'" With her faced pressed into the soil, she couldn't shout for help, and no one would have heard her anyway above the mob's taunts. Suddenly a Good Samaritan in the crowd pulled the photographer by the camera straps several yards to the feet of some policemen who had been watching the scene without intervening. They sneered at her exposed chest, but escorted her to safety.
Alone in her hotel room that night, the photographer recalls, she cried, thinking, "What a bloody way to make a living." She didn't inform her editors, however. "I put myself out there equal to the boys. I didn't want to be seen in any way as weaker."
Women have risen to the top of war and foreign reportage. They run bureaus in dodgy places and do jobs that are just as dangerous as those that men do. But there is one area where they differ from the boys - sexual harassment and rape. Female reporters are targets in lawless places where guns are common and punishment rare. Yet the compulsion to be part of the macho club is so fierce that women often don't tell their bosses. Groping hands and lewd come-ons are stoically accepted as part of the job, especially in places where western women are viewed as promiscuous. War zones in particular seem to invite unwanted advances, and sometimes the creeps can be the drivers, guards, and even the sources that one depends on to do the job. Often they are drunk. But female journalists tend to grit their teeth and keep on working, unless it gets worse.
Because of the secrecy around sexual assaults, it's hard to judge their frequency. Yet I know of a dozen such assaults, including one suffered by a man. Eight of the cases involve forced intercourse, mostly in combat zones. The perpetrators included hotel employees, support staff, colleagues, and the very people who are paid to guarantee safety - policemen and security guards. None of the victims want to be named. For many women, going public can cause further distress. In the words of an American correspondent who awoke in her Baghdad compound to find her security guard's head in her lap, "I don't want it out there, for people to look at me and think, 'Hmmm. This guy did that to her, yuck.' I don't want to be viewed in my worst vulnerability."
The only attempt to quantify this problem has been a slim survey of female war reporters published two years ago by the International News Safety Institute, based in Brussels. Of the twenty-nine respondents who took part, more than half reported sexual harassment on the job. Two said they had experienced sexual abuse. But even when the abuse is rape, few correspondents tell anyone, even friends. The shame runs so deep - and the fear of being pulled off an assignment, especially in a time of shrinking budgets, is so strong - that no one wants intimate violations to resound in a newsroom.
Rodney Pinder, the director of the institute, was struck by how some senior newswomen he approached after the 2005 survey were reluctant to take a stand on rape. "The feedback I got was mainly that women didn't want to be seen as 'special' cases for fear that, a) it affected gender equality and b) it hindered them getting assignments," he says.
Caroline Neil, who has done safety training with major networks over the past decade, agrees. "The subject has been swept under the carpet. It's something people don't like to talk about."
In the cases that I know of, the journalists did nothing to provoke the attacks; they behaved with utmost propriety, except perhaps for one bikini-clad woman who was raped by a hotel employee while sunbathing on the roof in a conservative Middle Eastern country. The correspondent who was molested by her Iraqi security guard is still puzzling over the fact that he brazenly crept into her room while colleagues slept nearby. "You do everything right and then something like this happens," she says. "I never wore tight T-shirts or outrageous clothes. But he knew I didn't have a tribe that would go after him."
That guard lost his job, but such punishment is rare. A more typical case is of an award British correspondent who was raped by her translator in Africa. Reporting him to a police force known for committing atrocities seemed like a futile exercise.
Like most foreign correspondents who were assaulted, those women were targets of opportunity. The predators took advantage because they could. Local journalists face the added risk of politically motivated attacks. The Committee to Protect Journalists, for example, cites rape threats against female reporters in Egypt who were seen as government critics. Rebels raped someone I worked with in Angola for her perceived sympathy for the ruling party. In one notorious case in Colombia in 2000, the reporter Jineth Bedoya Lima was kidnapped and gang-raped in what she took as reprisal for her newspaper's suggestion that a paramilitary group ordered some executions. She is the only colleague I know of who has gone on the record about her rape.
The general reluctance to call attention to the problem creates a vicious cycle, whereby editors, who are still typically men, are unaware of the dangers because women don't bring them up. Survivors of attacks often suffer in lonely silence, robbed of the usual camaraderie that occurs when people are shot or kidnapped. It was an open secret in our Moscow press corps in the 1990s that a young freelancer had been gang-raped by policemen. But given the sexual nature of her injury, no one but the woman's intimates dared extend sympathies.
Even close calls frequently go unmentioned. In my own case, I never reported to my foreign editor a narrow escape at an airport in Angola in 1995. Two drunken policemen pointing AK-47's threatened to march a colleague and me into a shack for "some fun." We got away untouched, so why bring up the matter? I didn't want my boss to think that my gender was a liability.
Such lack of public discussion might explain why, amazingly, there are no sections on sexual harassment and assault in the leading handbooks on journalistic safety, by the Committee to Protect Journalists and the International Federation of Journalists. When one considers the level of detail over protections against other eventualities - get vaccinations; pack dummy wallets, etc. - the oversight is staggering. No one tells women that deodorant can work as well as mace when sprayed in the eyes, for example, or that you can obtain doorknob alarms, or that, in some cultures, you can ward off rapists by claiming to menstruate.
For women seeking security tips, hostile-environment training is the way to go. Yet those short courses also rarely touch upon rape prevention. The bbc, a pioneer in trauma awareness, is the only major news organization that offers special safety instruction for women, taught by women.
Most women recognize that even the most thorough preparation cannot prevent every eventuality. Yet victims of assault say that some training might have helped them make more informed decisions, or at least live with the outcome more easily. A correspondent for a major U.S. newspaper says that for some time she needlessly blamed herself for her rape by a Russian paramilitary policeman. How, she asked herself, had she not anticipated that he would follow her back to the hotel after an interview and force himself into the room? She believes that training "would have relieved me of the guilt that I had done the wrong thing."