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Women Journalists in the Eye of the Storm

FRIDAY FILE - Threats and violence against women journalists are on the rise in many regions of the world. In their work exposing injustices and bearing witness to human rights violations, women journalists are women human rights defenders and as such are in need of better security and protection mechanisms.

By Katherine Ronderos

Journalism can be a very dangerous job, in particular for reporters who expose injustices in hostile, corrupt and violent environments and in war zones. In addition to the different forms of violence against journalists, both men and women, and obstacles to their work, including threats, murder, confiscation of material, deportation, arrests and intimidation, female journalists face certain gendered risks within this male dominated profession.

Female journalist as women human rights defenders

In her third report to the UN Human Rights Council, the first to focus exclusively on the situation of women defenders and those working on women’s rights or gender issues, Margaret Sekaggya, the Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights defenders highlighted that “women journalists and media professionals working on human rights issues also appear to be exposed to risks as a result of their work.”[1]

In chapter two of her latest thematic report to the UN Human Rights Council, the Special Rapporteur Sekaggya focuses on the specific risks and challenges faced by selected groups of defenders, including journalists and media workers. She explains that although many professions do not directly involve the protection and defense of human rights per se, their work has an impact on human rights and could be related to or have links with human rights violations, saying “Journalists and media workers monitoring demonstrations and shedding light on violations and abuses often risk their lives”. She goes on to say that the watchdog role that journalists and media workers play is essential and that “restrictions on media and press freedom, and impunity around violations against journalists and media workers defending human rights can foster a climate of intimidation, stigmatization, violence and self-censorship that can have a chilling effect of their work.”[2]

The main international instrument on human rights defenders, the UN Declaration on Human Rights Defenders (1999) provides a legal framework that “seeks to protect the monitoring and advocacy functions of journalists and media workers by recognizing in its article 6 their right to obtain and disseminate information relevant to the enjoyment of human rights.”[3]The UN Security Council Resolution 1738 (2006) condemns attacks against journalists in conflict situations, emphasizing “the responsibility of States in that regard, as well as their obligation to end impunity and to prosecute those responsible for serious violations.”[4]The Council urges armed actors (both State and non-state) to respect the professional independence and rights of journalists, media professionals and associated personnel.

Detention, intimidation and killing of women journalists

Detention, threats and killings are just some of the forms of violence women journalists from across the globe face because of the work they do, in a profession that is male dominated and steeped in cultural and patriarchal norms. For example Reeyot Alemu, columnist for the Ethiopian newspaper Feteh, and one of three winners of the 2012 Courage in Journalism Awards, was sentenced to 14 years in prison in September 2011. Alemu is accused of conspiracy to commit terrorist acts and participation in a terrorist organization. The Ethiopian government presented articles Alemu wrote criticizing its actions as evidence at her trial, including telephone conversations she had on peaceful protests. Alemu is one of the few women reporters writing critically about the political climate in Ethiopia.

Khadija Ismayilova, reporter for Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty’s Azerbaijani service, and winner of the 2012 Courage in Journalism Awards[5], has investigated and exposed corruption and power abuse at the highest levels in Azerbaijan. In May of 2012, she received a suspicious package with an anonymous letter, including photographs from surveillance cameras installed in her apartment, portraying her in an intimate sexual relation with her boyfriend. Despite these threats of defamation Ismayilova has refused to stop working and has publicly denounced her accusers.

In October 2011, the life of Guatemalan journalist Lucía Escobar completely changed. In the days following the publication of her article Of Ravens, Eyes and Demons, for the national newspaper El Periódico, Escobar received multiple threats through anonymous emails forcing her and her family into hiding. Blogger and freelance writer, Asmaa al-Ghoul, based in Gaza, and winner of the 2012 Courage in Journalism Award, focuses her work on analyzing the social-political context in the Middle East. Al-Ghoul has been beaten by Hamas security forces while covering popular protests and was forced to sleep in her office for some time because she feared being killed on her way home. Al-Ghoul regularly receives death threats against her and her son’s life.

Multiple award-winning Russian journalist, Anna Politkovskaya, was found shot dead in Moscow in 2006. Politkovskaya’s investigations, reports and books uncovered information and human rights abuses in the Chechnya war, the North Caucasus and Vladimir Putin’s pursuit of the second Chechen war. Her death, as well as many other assassinations of female journalist around the world, remains unsolved though it attracted international attention and outrage.

Speaking out on violence against women journalists

Sexual violence, threats and attacks against female journalists are rarely talked about within journalistic circles, in the news media or by non-governmental organizations. And many woman journalists, from across the globe, who have been sexually abused choose to remain silent due to cultural and professional stigmas that could mean losing future assignments.

But recently women have decided to talk publicly about this violence in order to help other female journalists and encourage them to report these crimes and call for justice. Colombian journalist Jineth Bedoya and the Swedish correspondent Jenny Nordberg are two important examples of this trend in disclosure for the sake of creating change.[6]The public denouncement of the brutal attack and sexual assault of journalist Lara Logan while reporting for CBS News from Egypt’s Tahrir Square, in February 2011, encouraged other women to start sharing their experiences of having been sexually harassed and assaulted while working on assignments.

Motivated by the increasing number of requests for personal safety tips from female journalist working in dangerous situations, the International News Safety Institute (INSI) has published the book comprising 40 essays by women journalists about their experiences and challenges they confront in their work. Launched on International Women’s Day, No Woman's Land – On the Frontlines with Female Reporters, seeks to raise awareness about the dangers, identify common security and protection solutions and help “women venturing into the profession to get advice from women who have already been there.”[7] The murder of the Sunday Times award-winning[8]American correspondent Marie Colvin who was covering the Siege of Homs in Syria just a few days before the launch of the book, has shown the relevance and timeliness of the publication since it also addresses the lack of attention paid to threats, human rights violations, gender discrimination and sexual violence affecting female journalists, particularly in conflict zones. All proceeds from the book will go to providing safety training for women journalists.

The Committee to Protect Journalists(CPJ) has also revised their handbook to better address sexual assault, releasing in May 2012, a new Journalist Security Guide with sections on how to protect oneself from sexual violence and how to cover protests.

Structural changes are needed

The critical contribution women make to journalism needs to be recognised and valued. Caroline Wyatt, a BBC News correspondent, recognised the different perspective that women journalists bring to reporting on war: “a little less focus on the bombs and bullets, and more on what the end of the Taliban's rule in the north would mean for the families we met, and for their future.”[9]

Women journalists need to carry out their work with adequate security, protection and high-level support, but as Zeina Awad, co-host of Fault Lines says “I don't think we're served by turning the discussion into a narrative of female victimisation.”[10] But gender-biased decisions continue to affect the assignments and potentially the careers of women correspondents and Tina Susman recommends that instead of stopping female reporters (seen as potential rape victims) from going to conflict zones, their agencies, editors and colleagues “should offer better security measures and effective safety tips.”[11]

Gender-specific measures are needed to address the challenges of women investigative journalists working on human rights-related issues, women columnists advocating human rights reform, women reporters monitoring and reporting on violations of human rights and women bloggers.

Have your say

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Additional Information

[1] Margaret Sekaggya, “Report of the Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights defenders. Selected groups of defenders at risk: journalists and media workers; defenders working on land and environmental issues; and youth and students defenders” UN Human Rights Council, A/HRC/19/55, 21 December 2011

[2] Ibid.

[3] Ibid.

[4] UN Security Council Resolution 1738, unanimously adopted on December 2006, SC/8929

[5] Courage in Journalism Awards is the only international award that recognizes the bravery of women journalists. In May, the IWMF announced the outstanding winners for 2012 that will be honoured at special events in New York and Los Angeles later in October.

[6] See Lauren Wolfe, “The silencing crime: Sexual violence and journalists” Committee to Protect Journalists, 7 June 2011

[7] See Anna Reitman, “No Woman’s Land: on the frontlines with female reporters” Women’s Views on News, 8 May 2012

[8] Journalist of the Year: Foreign Press Association (2000); Courage in Journalism: International Women's Media Foundation (2000); Foreign Reporter of the Year: British Press Awards (2001); and Foreign Reporter of the Year: British Press Awards (2010).

[9] See Hannah Storm, “Safety of women journalists on the frontline highlighted in new book” The Guardian, 8 March 2012

[10] See Zeina Awad, “On the front lines with female journalists” Al Jazeera, 8 March 2012

[11] See Tina Susman, “War Reporter: Prepare Us, Rather Than Caution Us” WomenseNews, 3 June 2012