End the assault on female and local journalists

June 29, 2012

On Sunday, gangs of men sexually assaulted British freelance journalist Natasha Smith in Tahrir Square as crowds celebrated the results of Egypt’s presidential election.

On Wednesday, Syrian rebels attacked a pro-government television station and executed three to seven employees.

And later that day, a court in Ethiopia convicted prominent journalist Eskinder Nega of being a member of a secret plot to overthrow the government.

The theme of all the attacks? Journalists being demonized as spies, government agents or terrorists.

“We see a horrendous rise in this type of violence,” Frank La Rue, the United Nations Special Rapporteur on freedom of opinion and expression, said at a conference this week. “Not only in deaths but in the form of harassment, and in sexual assaults against female reporters.”

In a searing and courageous blog entry posted on Tuesday, Smith, the British freelance journalist, described a vicious assault in Tahrir Square.

“The women told me the attack was motivated by rumors spread by troublemaking thugs that I was a foreign spy, following a national advertising campaign warning of the dangers of foreigners,” Smith wrote. “But if that was the cause, it was only really used as a pretext, an excuse, to molest and violate a blonde young Western girl.”

Lara Logan, an American journalist who endured a similar assault in Tahrir Square last year, said she believed recent attacks on international journalists – and on foreign and local women in Egypt – were directed by remnants of the regime of former President Hosni Mubarak.

“It’s a systematic campaign against journalists, who are enemies of the state,” Logan told the Committee to Protect Journalists, a New York-based press freedom group, this week.

“They want to get the foreign media out,” Logan added. “They don’t want foreigners from the media, aid organizations, or doing democracy work. We are regarded as a threat to the regime.”

The assault on Logan last year prompted dozens of female journalists to break a code of silence and disclose previous sexual assaults. In the four months after the attack, 42 52 female reporters disclosed to the Committee to Protect Journalists that they had experienced varying degrees of sexual violence – from rape by multiple attackers to aggressive groping – in retaliation for their work or while reporting.

The victims included 27 local journalists from the Middle East, South Asia, Africa and the Americas. Twenty-five international journalists reported being assaulted, including two who said they had been raped. Several male journalists said they had been sexually abused when in detention or captivity. Most of the attacks occurred in the last five years. A small number date back 20 years.

“Many of the assaults fall into three general types,” CPJ said in a June 2011 report entitled “The Silencing Crime“. “Targeted sexual violation of specific journalists, often in reprisal for their work; mob-related sexual violence against journalists covering public events; and sexual abuse of journalists in detention or captivity.”

Journalists are also dying. This year, Syria has the world’s highest death toll. So far, 12 Syrian and foreign journalists have perished while covering the conflict there.

In February, government forces fired rockets at a makeshift press center used by Syrian and foreign journalists in the city of Homs after apparently tracking satellite telephone signals from the site. The attack killed the Syrian blogger Anas al Tarsha, French photographer Remi Ochlik and American journalist Marie Colvin. The Syrian government has also tried to use spying software to track Syrian anti-government activists, according to the Electronic Frontier Foundation, an Internet free-speech group.

Around the word, technological innovations are giving journalists in developing countries larger audiences and more power, according to advocates at this week’s conference, which was organized by the International Press Institute. States, in turn, are trying to silence reporters in multiple ways.

In Guatemala, a recently enacted law makes sparking a “bank panic” a criminal offense. The practical result is that journalists are barred from examining the performance of banks and other financial institutions.

In parts of Europe, the siblings and other relatives of journalists have been arrested or physically assaulted in retaliation for critical reporting. And in former British and French colonies, antiquated criminal defamation laws allow politicians and businessmen to file defamation suits carrying potential jail terms against journalists.

“We have insult laws, we have sedition laws, we have falsehood laws,” said Faith Pansy Tlakula, an African press freedom monitor. “Only 10 countries on the African continent have adopted open information laws.”

As the intimidation and harassment worsens, press, and Internet-freedom groups are increasingly calling for the United Nations to do more to protect journalists and the public’s right to information. But China, Russia, India, Brazil and other countries are calling for the U.N. to be given the power to police speech, not protect it.

They are proposing that an obscure U.N. agency – the International Telecommunication Union – have control over the administration of the World Wide Web, instead of the California-based non-profit, ICANN, that currently does.

Chinese officials argue that U.N. oversight would help block the spread of malware and spam. Press freedom groups say it is a blatant attempt to control the Web.

“Will the U.N. be the global censor?” asked Joel Simon, CPJ’s executive director. “Or the global defender of the right to information?”

Let’s hope it’s the latter.

ILLUSTRATION: Elsa Jenna/Reuters

NOTE: The number of women who reported sexual violence to the Committee to Protect Journalists was corrected to 52 from 42.


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Lara Logan

Posted by MitchS | Report as abusive

Lara Logan is South African.

Posted by MitchS | Report as abusive

There is a very, very good reason that journalists world-wide are seen as the agents of hostile power by the bulk of the population. They are. Why should people who have arrogated an “objective” point of view to themselves alone get special protection? Because they would like it? How about they earn it.

When journalists become the target of the power elite in a country, then it is possible to think they are objective. Has there ever been a power elite, at any time, in any place that did not treat those under their power badly? Try going back further than anyone alive’s lifetime and list one. You cannot.

Modern journalism is merely a branch of one Ministry of Propaganda or another. They do not have divine immunity.

Posted by usagadfly | Report as abusive

These are dangerous and chaotic places to work let alone doing investigative journalism.

They should have thought twice before sending women to these areas. Men would have been more appropriate.

Posted by trevorh | Report as abusive

I am appalled by the responses of the previous commenters that these journalists had it coming to them.

While there are certainly good arguments that much of modern journalism is propaganda and true objective journalism is difficult to find, can you explain to me how that gives anyone the right to sexually assault another human being? Or imprison them simply for harboring different beliefs or questioning the efficacy and brutality of a regime in power?

This type of behavior is unacceptable for any group of people, but if it is allowed to be perpetrated on a nation’s fourth estate thereby limiting the flow of useful information (solely on the basis that it threatens whatever group is in power) the society in question will find itself crippled and unable to contribute to human progress. If perpetuated globally, the standard of living for humanity itself will grind to a halt and what progress has been made over the last century as far as civil rights will quickly rescind.

Posted by freedompress25 | Report as abusive

I’m still trying to determine if this is really true or some scam (thanks internet) but holy cr@p. The first three comments (likely from fat, white, greasy males and even more likely from “amerca”) to this scenario pretty much sum up the failed human experiment. Whether you believe in GOD, Evolution, or Magic fingers just bring on the meteor or plague and give something else a turn … jeeez.

Posted by SGinOR | Report as abusive

These events are a manifestation of the fact that most nations of the world are largely governed by criminals. But the West and its civilised allies are a rare inspiring and invigorating exception. Criminals are unscrupulous, pernicious individuals whose acts of craven cupidity and immorality, which are carried out in the furtherance of personal power, give them an advantage over righteousness and virtue in those nations that are primitive or possess large ignorant and uneducated populations. This is why the West is often in conflict with base nations, not for the pursuit of oil as our mendacious enemies purport, but because it strives to promote integrity in governance at the highest levels. In contrast, the uncivilised leaders of rogue nations (some powerful like Russia and China and spiteful wannabees like the government of Iran) strive to obfuscate, manipulate and misrepresent the truth for their own personal ignominious benefit to the detriment of their populations whom they despise and seek to diminish in order to better control them and the nation’s resources. A truthful journalist is a threat to the preservation of their iniquitous domain and must be persuaded to remain silent by fair means or foul. Criminals prefer to hide in the shadows because they are vulnerable when exposed to the ‘light’. Most humans are honest and, to criminals who are keenly aware of this simple fact, truth and justice are similar to an encounter by Dracula with the ‘light’. The only exception to this is where policing is absent and criminals manage to dominate the local area. This is why the US cannot sit back and let events take their course.
The BRICS who are ‘the new kids on the block’ are like juvenile delinquents who want to take the world back to the ‘stone-age’ because it’s in the interests of their criminal governments to achieve this reprehensible objective. As a result they forfeit the right to any influence except that which can be bought and as such it is worthless because such influence ablates given that it lacks foundation. The issue of ICAAN provides an opportunity for the virtuous West to hobble the ignominious BRICS and demonstrate the limits of their influence and the extent to which they can be marginalised to the benefit of the civilised populations of the world

Posted by apophthegm | Report as abusive

I see. So Lara Logan reckons it is the ‘bad’ people who supported the Mubarak regime who do these things, not the ‘good’ people who support the Muslim Brotherhood.

For 50 years now journalists have been painting regimes that they liked in a good light and regimes that they didn’t in a bad light. No objectivity. (Recall Reuters was caught Photoshopping photographs in the Israel-Lebanese war to support Hezbollah.)

But having lived and worked in these places for some time I think the reality is more complex. Both sides are often lawless and indeed not fit places for women journalists. Indeed the women of the region are seldom out there protesting. They are expected to remain at home. It is mainly left to the men to do the protesting.

Silly articles like Rohde’s above simply illustrate the huge lack of understanding journalists have of the regions they report on. The ME is not going to change – they will not suddenly become respecters of women – because one or other journo writes an article condemning it.

Female journalists should stay away.

Posted by eleno | Report as abusive


I did not mean to make any connection between the cultures, ethnic of the victims and the perpetrator nor of the critic of the article.

I simply tried to point out that these areas are going through an uprising, which should be considered war zone. If the violent and chaotic uprising is happening in Greece (or say even Denmark – unlikely), you wouldn’t want to send female reporters there either.

Posted by trevorh | Report as abusive

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