On the frontline with female reporters
International journalist Hannah Storm put together a groundbreaking book of the personal experiences of women journalists in war-zones. She explains why she did it.
It’s almost 18 months since Cairo’s Tahrir Square entered the media’s collective consciousness as the birthplace of the Egyptian revolution. And it’s almost 18 months since it entered that collective consciousness for a reason that was much closer to home.
In February last year, the South African-born journalist and CBS foreign affairs correspondent Lara Logan was covering events in Tahrir Square when she was subjected to what her network called “a brutal and sustained sexual attack and beating”.
Logan came out fighting, beginning a new chapter in the discussion about the safety of women journalists.
“I want the world to know that I am not ashamed of what happened to me. I want everyone to know I was not simply attacked – I was sexually assaulted. This was, from the very first moment, about me as a woman. But ultimately, I was just a tool. This was about something bigger than all of us – it was about what we do as journalists. That ancient tactic of terrifying people into submission or silence.”
That ancient tactic did not work.
She wrote these words as part of the foreword for ‘No Woman’s Land – On the Frontlines with Female Reporters’, the first book dedicated to the safety of women journalists, which was created as a result of the horrific assault she experienced.
At the International News Safety Institute (INSI), we are used to providing safety advice and training to journalists working in dangerous situations. In the days after the attack on Logan, we were inundated with requests for advice and tips for women journalists working in difficult circumstances.
At the time, there was no single point of reference.
As we worked to create one, we realised there could be no ‘one size-fits-all’ approach to the debate.
Should women be treated differently from their male colleagues? Some women said yes, others said no. Others said no, and then privately admitted they didn’t dare say yes, lest it ruin their chances of being deployed to dangerous places.
Were women at greater risk solely because of their gender? The answer to this depended greatly on the situation and the story.
And there were many different situations and stories. Within a matter of weeks, we had heard so many different experiences from women journalists, so used to telling other people’s stories, that we asked them to tell us their own.
On International Women’s Day this year, we published ‘No Woman’s Land – On the Frontlines with Female Reporters’, collecting the inspiring, at times terrifying, and constantly compelling stories of 40 women journalists from around the world.
They come from more than a dozen countries, work in radio, television, newspapers and online, cross continents and span generations and religions. Their stories cover war and conflict, disaster and civil unrest, corruption and terror.
Some of our contributors detail their daily struggle to work in countries where women are barely accepted in the media.
Kenyan-born Somali investigative journalist, Fatuma Noor, comes from a community where it is culturally wrong for a woman to ask men questions and to travel without a male colleague.
Yet, despite this and despite the reluctance of members of her family to accept her work, she describes how her passion to report drives her to take extreme risks, like going undercover to expose how the owners of a Somali brothel in Kenya were forcing young refugee girls to work against their will.
“It was risky because the only way I could get the story was to go in as one of the refugee girls to ‘work’ as a sexual worker,” she says.
“Luckily, nothing happened, but there were health risks involved. One of the girls who was rescued had HIV and others were pregnant.”
Another of the contributors, Shumaila Jaffrey from Pakistan, writes: “Being a woman journalist in Pakistan is in itself a great achievement.” She goes on to explain how when she reported on the devastation caused by the Kashmir earthquake in 2005, the Imam of a local mosque issued a fatwa that a man of faith should not marry women who had been working in the quake-hit areas.
While women like Noor and Jaffrey describe the daily struggle faced by women journalists fighting against cultural expectations of gender roles in conservative societies, a number of those who wrote for ‘No Woman’s Land’ describe how they believe that being a woman has benefitted their work as a journalist, providing an alternative view in what is often a male-dominated media landscape.
“Perhaps we brought a different perspective to the war: a little less focus on the bombs and the 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,” writes Caroline Wyatt, the BBC’s defence correspondent, describing the time she spent reporting from Afghanistan in 2001.
Her colleague, Lyse Doucet, speaks for many of the foreign female correspondents who have worked in conservative societies, when she writes: “In most places I’ve worked, Western women have been regarded almost as a third gender. We aren’t treated like the women of the place. We aren’t treated like the men. But in traditional societies, where hospitality trumps ideology, we are almost always accorded the special privileges afforded to guests. In conservative societies, that also includes a belief that women need to be protected.”
Sadly that belief was not one that extended to the treatment of Logan in Cairo.
And it’s an occurrence that seems to be happening with increased regularity, with a number of recent reports from Cairo suggesting women journalists are still being subjected to sexual assault as they try to report on the news.
For most people, there’s no question that women shouldn’t be sent to report from the frontline. But they should be prepared, says Logan.
“It is important that we as women doing dangerous work in hostile places are equipped with knowledge and foresight. Knowing how important it is to stay on your feet in a mob meant that every time my legs stumbled or gave way or were dragged down, I fought my way back up, saying over and over again in my mind, ‘you have to stay on your feet or you will die’.”
However, just as we know at INSI that women do sometimes need to take additional measures to protect themselves, we also know that more often than not safety issues do not discriminate on the basis of gender. And so at the end of ’No Woman’s Land’, there is a section of safety tips for men and women journalists, in addition to the one specifically for women.
Still, the threat of rape is one that continues to worry news editors around the world. “The first question my rescuers asked after they pulled me out of the room where I’d been held captive in Somalia was: ‘Did they rape you?’ They seemed surprised when I said no,” writes Tina Susman, the LA Times correspondent. “The assumption was that any woman held hostage for three weeks must have been sexually assaulted.”
She rails against the double standards that often pervade. After the death of male colleagues, people rarely question if men should be sent into war zones, but when women are sexually assaulted, the question is immediately asked as to whether women should report from dangerous places.
“But as long as assigning editors are male, rape will always be one of their big worries…That’s a problem, because as long as there are editors viewing their female correspondents as potential rape victims, it’s bound to affect staffing decisions.
“Rather than questioning the wisdom of sending women into potentially perilous duty or worrying for their safety, editors and news organisations should focus on preparing women (and men) for the threat of sexual violence and helping them avoid it.”
At INSI, we are committed to providing safety advice and training to journalists and proceeds from the sale of ‘No Woman’s Land’ will go towards the provision of safety training for women journalists.
We hope that will help women around the world stay safe as they go about trying to tell the story from their perspective.
And we hope that one day, they too will share their stories with us as their colleagues have done in ‘No Woman’s Land’ and help a new generation of women journalists to stay safe while bringing home the news.
Hannah Storm is deputy director of INSI and co-editor of ‘No Woman’s Land – On the Frontlines with Female Reporters’, which is available to buy at www.newssafety.org. All proceeds will go towards safety training for women journalists.
This story was first published in the August 2012 issue of The Media magazine.