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Report: Female Journalists Facing More Risks, Intimidation Abroad

July 4, 2011 at 12:00 AM EDT
A new report sheds light on sexual attacks on journalist working overseas. Margaret Warner discusses the findings with Lauren Wolfe of the Committee to Protect Journalists.
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JUDY WOODRUFF: Now, a report sheds new light on sexual attacks on journalists working overseas.

Margaret Warner has that.

MARGARET WARNER: The attack on broadcast journalist Lara Logan in Egypt’s Tahrir Square earlier this year brought to light a subject rarely discussed: sexual assault and harassment of journalists in other countries.

Now a recent report, spurred in part by that attack, is opening a bigger window onto the problem. It’s titled “The Silencing Crime.” And it comes from the group the Committee to Protect Journalists. The report is based on accounts by more than four dozen journalists, mostly women. They told of their experiences ranging from rapes and other sexual assaults to harassment and threats.

Twenty-seven were local reporters in the Middle East, South Asia, Africa, and the Americas; 25 were international correspondents assigned overseas.

Lauren Wolfe is the senior editor who wrote the report. And she joins me now.

Lauren, thanks for being with us.

You heard some pretty horrific stories from some of these women. Give us an idea of the range.

LAUREN WOLFE, Committee to Protect Journalists: I really did hear some terrible stories. And they ranged from gang rape, to street harassment, groping, to sexual assaults while women were in captivity or men were abducted.

MARGARET WARNER: And your report identified different sorts of violations. One of the most sinister, really, seemed to be sexual attacks of some nature targeted at specific journalists. Tell us about that. 

LAUREN WOLFE: Well, I think everyone heard about what happened to Lara Logan. And that, fortunately, really brought this topic to light.

But people haven’t heard of Jineth Bedoya, a Colombian reporter who was gang-raped 11 years ago in — when she was reporting on right-wing paramilitaries in the jungles of Colombia. She was kidnapped, raped. And her story came to light because it was so brutal that, you know, she pressed charges. But nothing has ever been done in her case. And 11 years later, she’s still fighting for justice.

MARGARET WARNER: But was the — did they know who they were going after? I mean, was it a form of reprisal or intimidation?

LAUREN WOLFE: It was absolutely targeting.

She was reporting on something that they didn’t want reported on. I saw the same thing happen to a West African journalist. I can’t identify her by name. Jineth Bedoya is one of the very few women who has ever put her name to her rape.

This woman in West Africa was reporting on rebel soldiers. And, again, she was reporting on a topic that they didn’t want covered. And they brutally gang-raped her. And then the men were actually shot and killed right in front of her.

MARGARET WARNER: And other — in other cases, you found just the threat of sexual attack was used.

LAUREN WOLFE: Mm-hmm. In fact, in a number of countries, I have spoken to women who, say, were calling in to report with their — in Ivory Coast, for instance, her boss was in a stadium in — during an uprising.

And, as she was reporting to him — they were reporting back and forth — a man came over, picked up the phone, and told her that she would be raped if she didn’t get off the phone. And the man continued to call her for 10 days after that.

I spoke to a blogger in Egypt whose father received calls for two weeks saying that she would be raped if she kept blogging.

MARGARET WARNER: And then, as you say, you also found other very risky situations or dangerous ones, crowds or captivity.

LAUREN WOLFE: Mm-hmm.

And when people talk about crowds, I mean, I think people think of groping, maybe it’s just a little touching or grabbing. But the journalists I spoke to, mostly foreign correspondents in this case, told me about having their crotches grabbed, about really being molested while they were in crowd situations.

These are really volatile areas, where women usually aren’t found, say, at suicide bombings for instance. I spoke to one photojournalist who told me that she was bending over, photographing a severed foot in Afghanistan, and a man grabbed her from behind. That kind of violence was extremely common with, I think it was 23 out of 25 of the women, and — of international female reporters I spoke to saying that that they had been repeatedly groped.

The other kind of assault that you’re talking about is in captivity. And that’s happened, for instance, in Pakistan with a man named Umar Cheema, a columnist, who was abducted and sexually assaulted. He was sodomized in retribution for his writing.

MARGARET WARNER: Now, a lot of these victims, at least the women, had never told their stories before to anyone other than friends or family. Why not?

LAUREN WOLFE: Mm-hmm.

There are a number of reasons. The biggest one I heard from international correspondents was the fear of losing assignments. I have spoken to at least two journalists that told me that they were taken off assignments specifically because they came forward to talk about their own sexual assault.

So, it really does happen. They don’t want to be appear to be weak or vulnerable. And women were — told me — told me repeatedly that they had worked very hard to overcome this sense that they were the weaker gender in this profession and that they didn’t feel that they could reveal that they had been raped without it making them look somehow more vulnerable.

MARGARET WARNER: Now, what about the local…

LAUREN WOLFE: There are also…I’m sorry.

MARGARET WARNER: Oh.

LAUREN WOLFE: Go ahead.

MARGARET WARNER: What about the local reporters? What was usually their reason for not saying anything?

LAUREN WOLFE: There are a lot of different cultural stigmas.

Say, in Afghanistan, there are honor killings. I talked to a journalist who couldn’t talk about her — the attempted rape that was perpetrated by her superior because she knew of two colleagues who had been killed by their own families for talking about having been raped.

So, there are honor killings. There are many countries in which women can’t marry after they have been raped. There’s just simple gossip. And there’s also the fear that there will be no justice brought. In a lot of conflict zones, there are no working police departments, justice systems. So there’s really no point in coming forward in a lot of these cases to these journalists.

MARGARET WARNER: Now, why did you and why the Committee to Protect Journalists decide it was important to publicize this now?

LAUREN WOLFE: It’s really a press freedom issue that no one has been talking about.

I think we cover things from attacks to murders to jailings of journalists. And these are all things that prevent reporters from getting their stories out and from having the news heard. This is just another way of preventing men and women across the world from telling the news.

I think Lara Logan really broke down the wall, and a lot of women are very grateful to her, and so are a lot of men. I think the journalism profession as a whole has really woken up and realized it’s time to acknowledge that journalists don’t need to go through this needlessly.

MARGARET WARNER: Now, what are you planning to do with this, other than release this report?

LAUREN WOLFE: Well, one thing we have done already is produce a security guide section about sexual assault. We have been talking to different newsrooms about what kinds of security training that they’re working on with their journalists.

And, for instance, NBC has said that they’re implementing sexual assault training specifically for journalists who are going to go into the field. We also plan, now that we have more information on what’s going on with sexual assault and journalists, to really advocate more fully for those journalists, you know, hopefully bring some justice in these cases.

MARGARET WARNER: Do you think news organizations need to do more to help women protect themselves?

LAUREN WOLFE: I think preparation is never a bad thing.

I think that journalists are often going out there without a sense of what to do if — if they’re sexually assaulted. They also don’t necessarily have the sense that they can come back home and tell their managers what’s happened to them without fear of retribution.

MARGARET WARNER: Lauren Wolfe of the Committee to Protect Journalists, thanks very much.

LAUREN WOLFE: Thank you.