On the front line with female war reporters

March 8, 2012

Female war correspondents are no longer a novelty. The legendary 20th century author and journalist Martha Gellhorn broke that mold around 80 years ago, and in recent times many of our most accomplished journalists and chroniclers of war zones — among them CNN’s Christiane Amanpour, the BBC’s formidable Kate Adie, Alex Crawford from Sky News and others — just happened to be women.

Male news executives like to think we have become more enlightened over the years as we made decisions about who should cover wars and who was not suited and should stay at home.

As I made judgments, as head of Newsgathering at the BBC and then president and managing director of CNN International, about whom to assign to the hellholes around the globe, the gender of a war correspondent was always under the surface. Was the story suitable for a woman? Would she prove a distraction? Was her hair too long or too blonde? Did her flak jacket fit? Crucially: Was she at greater risk of harassment, sexual assault and rape than her male colleagues?

My fears went mostly unspoken — particularly as most of the women working for me were too feisty to be challenged!

Last month’s apparently targeted death in Syria of veteran war correspondent Marie Colvin of Britain’s Sunday Times was a tragic reminder that our female colleagues share the risks with many in this profession. Another searing example of the very special risks that women face came in February last year in Cairo with the appalling sexual attack on Lara Logan from CBS News. This week she describes that attack in a new book from the International News Safety Institute, No Woman’s Land: On the Frontlines with Female Reporters. She joins 40 other media women in graphically describing the special additional risks they’ve faced over the years — and they offer their advice on how to prepare for that and how to continue to do their jobs.

Lara Logan’s account of her ordeal at the hands of “300 baying men” tackles for probably the first time the taboo subject of what can happen to female journalists just about anywhere, but more so in the middle of a frenzied mob as law and order breaks down.

“I remember begging for my life,” she says. “I remember giving up. I remember fighting back. I remember accepting my death. And I remember clearly, making a decision to go down fighting with my last breath.”

Another distinguished female war correspondent, the BBC’s Lyse Doucet, believes that in most places she works, Western women are regarded almost as a “third gender,” not like men, not like local women. In traditional societies particularly they are granted the special privileges given to guests and accorded the protection women are believed to need — as happened with the many Egyptian men in Cairo who linked their arms and escorted Doucet through rowdy crowds. That was in sharp contrast to what happened to Lara Logan in the same city around the same time.

Logan writes in the book about the “ancient tactic of terrifying people into submission or silence … [though] I do not believe it should stop or deter women from doing this kind of work.”

She reminds us that “sexual violence — rape — is a unique, humiliating weapon. It is used to great effect against both men and women.”

This book is the first that addresses the welfare of media women who work in hostile zones and is a powerful story about journalistic passion and the extra dangers that women are prepared to face.

It is also a strident reminder that female journalists have a different take on war and conflict. Unlike many of their male counterparts, they are unimpressed by the whiz-bang of war, the so-called precision weapons. They know far too well that “collateral damage” means men, women and frequently children. I believe that understanding makes them better journalists.

PHOTO: Journalist Marie Colvin poses for a photograph with Libyan rebels (unseen) in Misrata, June 4, 2011. REUTERS/Zohra Bensemra

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