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American Journalism Review
Out of the Shadows  | American Journalism Review
 AJR  Features
From AJR,   October/November 2011

Out of the Shadows   

Two high-profile incidents have propelled the long-ignored issue of sexual violence against journalists into the spotlight. And women aren’t the only victims. Mon. August 29, 2011

By Sherry Ricchiardi
Sherry Ricchiardi ( is an AJR senior contributing writer.     

Two photographs tell the story.

In the first one, Umar Cheema displays a wide, dimpled smile crowned by a bushy mustache. Peering from behind spectacles, his brown eyes exude the confidence of a top investigative reporter in his native Pakistan, where spies, terrorists and international intrigue are part of the daily beat.

The second image is reminiscent of a concentration camp survivor.

The journalist's stare has been dulled by pain and humiliation at the hands of skilled torturers. His thick head of hair and mustache have been shaved. Tight-lipped and drawn, Cheema's face betrays no emotion.

The photos appeared side by side on the Let Us Build Pakistan Web site with a story about his assault reprinted from the New York Times, where he worked for six months after being awarded a Daniel Pearl Journalism Fellowship in 2008.

Cheema, 34, a prominent political reporter for the International News, Pakistan's largest English-language daily, was driving home at night when men in black commando uniforms forced him over, blindfolded and handcuffed him. Somewhere in the suburbs of Islamabad he was stripped, forced face down on the floor and whipped with long pieces of leather and a wooden rod.

His tormentors videotaped him naked in humiliating positions, then warned they would post the images on YouTube if he revealed the attack, the Times reported. At one point, he was told, "If you can't avoid rape, enjoy it." In Cheema's early accounts of the September 4, 2010, attack, he left what happened next to the imagination.

Then the reporter had a change of heart.

In an e-mail to the New York-based Committee to Protect Journalists, he described how he had been sodomized with a wooden pole before being dumped on a remote road outside the capital. Speaking out, he said, "has made me stronger and made my enemies more cowardly." He often had written stories critical of the army, intelligence agencies and government.

In June, Cheema's case appeared in CPJ's landmark report on widespread sexual violence against media professionals around the globe. That a male journalist graphically described his sexual torture is a rarity. The CPJ study was based primarily on interviews with women, some speaking of their abuse for the first time.

For decades, international media watchdogs have kept records of journalists imprisoned, beaten or killed in the line of duty. There is little information about sexual assaults. "It was not commonly reported to us," says Lauren Wolfe, CPJ senior editor and author of the report. "We have exposed few cases of sexual assault in the last 30 years."

Traditionally, journalists have dealt with the topic by clamming up.

Two high-profile incidents have shone a spotlight on this shadowy aspect of the news business. A sexual attack in February on CBS' chief foreign affairs correspondent, Lara Logan, and the abuse in March of New York Times photographer Lynsey Addario in Libya have cracked through the "silencing crime," as CPJ labeled it in the report's title. In the aftermath, both women spoke openly about sexual terror.

Logan was hospitalized for four days after a mob celebrating the ouster of Egypt's President Hosni Mubarak sexually assaulted her in Cairo's Tahrir Square on February 11. The reporter recalled flashes of cellphone cameras photographing her nakedness during the attack and of hands "raping me over and over and over again."

During a May appearance on "60 Minutes," Logan told CBS News' Scott Pelley, "There was no doubt in my mind that I was in the process of dying. I thought, 'Not only am I going to die here, but it's going to be just a torturous death that's going to go on forever.' "

Addario has recounted how she prayed that she wouldn't be killed or raped when she was held captive for six days with three New York Times colleagues by the forces of Col. Muammar Gadhafi. She described soldiers grabbing her breasts and buttocks, running their hands over every inch of her body. When she cried, she was hit in the face. Blindfolded and bound, she worried there was worse to come.

The chilling assaults led media researchers to wonder: How often do journalists become targets of sexual aggression in the line of duty? CPJ's Wolfe set out to find the answer.

Over four months, she conducted a worldwide search for media professionals willing to talk about the "varying degrees of sexual violence – from rape to aggressive groping – either in retaliation for their work or during the course of their reporting," the report says. The outpouring stunned her.

"The more I reached out, the more it cascaded. I was amazed," says Wolfe, who conducted interviews with more than four dozen journalists "from the Middle East to South Asia, Africa to the Americas," the report says. About half were locals, "from top editors to beat reporters"; the rest were international correspondents. Some of the responses came from women operating in remote, repressive cultures.

Aissatou Sadjo Camara, a reporter for a Guinean radio station, had been covering an anti-government protest when she received the first phone threat: "We will come and rape you and we will destroy your family." The calls continued for 10 days. She took a leave from work and changed her phone number.

Another reporter from a West African country described being gang raped by members of an armed rebel group while she was working on a story they didn't want told. Fearing police wouldn't take her seriously, she shared the horror only with the doctor who treated her injuries. Four years later, she still was traumatized. She spoke with CPJ on the condition that her name and her country were not identified for fear of reprisal.

Since sex crimes commonly are underreported, what has surfaced in the journalism community so far could be a mere fraction of the total. Says Wolfe, "We are continuing our global outreach to find out more about what is out there."

Using sexual violence to oppress, punish and destroy is nothing new. The phenomenon tends to occur more often during conflicts and in countries with repressive regimes. And there is no shortage of modern-day examples.

During the Balkan conflict in the 1990s, women were held in Serbian-run rape camps in Bosnia-Herzegovina. Some were sold into sexual slavery. In 2004, inmates at Iraq's Abu Ghraib prison, operated by the American military, were stripped, photographed in degrading positions and forced to masturbate in front of female soldiers. Investigations verified some had been sodomized. At Nuremberg, evidence of rape and sexual assault by the Nazis became part of the record at the war crime tribunals.

Lara Stemple, director of the Health and Human Rights Law Project at the UCLA Law School, has researched sexual aggression as a weapon during conflicts or political upheaval. She calls sexual violence "uniquely terrorizing."

It's not just about suffering in the moment of the act itself, Stemple says. The harm lives on. Some survivors feel a sense of shame, degradation, loss of self-esteem and confidence. The social fabric of families and communities can be affected. In some societies, victims are shunned, stigmatized and blamed for bringing dishonor to the home.

Writer and activist Gloria Steinem underscores that notion. She calls the trauma of body invasion "greater than for any other crime. Our bodies are our only frontier. To have the mouth, anus, vagina invaded, to be systematically used, seems to create even more trauma than being beaten," says Steinem, who sees a teachable moment in the recent disclosures.

"Telling the truth about what happens to you is good personal journalism and good politics. Individual women have come forward and said what they have experienced and more are following," she says. That has resulted in more attention being paid to a topic that generally has been ignored or dealt with in whispers.

In April, a CNN program explored rape as a tool of war. The segment featured a young Libyan woman who had burst into a Tripoli hotel full of journalists a month earlier to tell of alleged gang rape and torture at the hands of Gadhafi loyalists. CNN reported that beyond Libya and the Middle East, sexual violence has been used in conflicts in Guatemala, Bosnia, Bangladesh, Burma and Rwanda "to sow terror and destruction."

It rarely has anything to do with satisfying sexual urges, says Helen Benedict, a Columbia University professor who specializes in studying rape and women in the military. Sexual abuse is about "humiliation and degradation and power," she says.

That scenario played out while New York Times reporter Stephen Farrell was being held captive with Addario and two other Times staffers in Libya. In his account to CPJ, Farrell described being blindfolded, with his hands tied, when he felt his buttocks being fondled by one of the soldiers. Then, he felt "a sheathed bayonet or the knife of his gun go into my rear" over his trousers. Farrell's mind was racing: How far would his abuser go?

"I made no reaction. And then he pushed it farther in, and at that point I am calculating, this guy is a sadist. Is this guy going to get more gratification from me if I scream? Is that going to give him more gratification that he'll push it farther in? If I don't scream, will that anger him and he'll push it farther in?" Farrell recalled.

"It wasn't like he was raping me. It was just about making me afraid." His best bet, he decided, was to yell. "As soon as I let out a sort of roar, he was both happy and contemptuous. He laughed and then he went 'wahhh,' as in stop crying like a baby."

The sexual abuse of men often takes place when they are in captivity. Stemple cites a study of 6,000 male concentration camp inmates in Bosnia-Herzegovina during the Balkan conflict that found 80 percent of the captives reported having been raped. In a 1980s report on imprisonments in El Salvador, 76 percent of male political prisoners surveyed described at least one incident of sexual torture.

"We are at a different historical moment with sexual abuse. Men and boys are where women and girls were 30 or 40 years ago. Most don't talk about it," Stemple says. "Women are often less ashamed to speak out."

Benedict sees a parallel to how soldiers and journalists react to sexual assaults. Both worry about the response of their colleagues if they report what has happened to them. With soldiers, the camaraderie within units is the most powerful force that keeps them quiet. They fear being labeled a traitor.

Journalists remain silent for fear of being seen as a failure in the job or experiencing a career setback. "They don't want to be viewed as too vulnerable, too weak, too fearful to do the tough assignments. Journalism is a macho profession," says the professor, who wrote the book "The Lonely Soldier: The Private War of Women Serving in Iraq."

Benedict has been highly critical of health care and psychological services within the military for survivors of sexual violence. What training and support does the media industry offer? The answer to that question remains elusive.

CPJ's Wolfe contacted six or seven news organizations for her study to ask what they had on the books. The few that responded offered pat answers such as, "We always train our correspondents for every situation." NBC's vice president for newsgathering, David Verdi, told of a new training course for journalists entering hostile environments that would address risks of sexual assault. "He was the only one who talked about serious revisions," Wolfe says.

AJR didn't fare any better. The New York Times, NBC, CBS and ABC did not respond to requests to talk about what programs exist and how training or guidelines might be revised. The most detailed response came from NPR Managing Editor David Sweeney, but he did not directly address sexual violence.

Sweeney said via e-mail that NPR is "constantly reevaluating and updating these services and training, to meet both the feedback from our journalists as to what they need, and the ever-changing world they cover."

Brief comments from CNN and the Associated Press had a similar ring. John Stack, vice president for newsgathering for Fox News Channel, reported that the network continues to review safety guidelines, including risks of sexual assault.

The sparse industry response doesn't surprise Kelly McBride, senior faculty member for ethics, reporting and writing at the Poynter Institute. She finds it "disappointing but predictable" that news managers have not responded more vociferously.

"Some of the most enlightened, progressive environments in the Western world can't seem to deal with the subject of sexual assault. Why would we expect the journalism world to be any further along?" says McBride, who wrote a column in February lambasting the reaction of some bloggers to the attack on Lara Logan. One blogger suggested that Logan "had it coming" because "What did she expect from Muslims?"

The response of news organizations is a key factor in helping staff members heal after they have experienced a traumatic event, says psychologist Jack Saul, director of the International Trauma Studies Program, which is affiliated with Columbia University. "It often overrides the severity of the event itself. It's important to act sensitively and not be dismissive." Saul has conducted workshops for the AP on dealing with staffers who witness violence and go into harm's way.

Some of the quickest reaction to Logan's attack came from media organizations that monitor the well-being of journalists. Within days, London's International News Safety Institute, a coalition of global news organizations including the AP, Reuters and Al Jazeera, rushed out a safety advisory with such practical advice as buying door alarms for use in hotels, carrying a rape whistle and telling "the attacker you are menstruating, are HIV positive or pregnant."

In June, INSI launched a follow-up. A call was put out to media professionals worldwide to share advice, anecdotes and experiences for a revised guide on safety issues, including sexual violence. The response has been "incredible," says project manager Hannah Storm. Countries that journalists have cited so far include the United States, the United Kingdom, Sri Lanka, Afghanistan, Mexico, Russia, Pakistan, Tanzania, Indonesia, Thailand, Democratic Republic of Congo and Lebanon.

In March, Paris-based Reporters Without Borders published a special report on problems female journalists face. One segment noted that "authoritarian regimes, clans and religious groups often treat women journalists harshly." French war correspondent Anne Nivat singled out Afghanistan as a place where the handful of local women working as journalists are regarded as "worthless sluts."

The group South Asian Women in Media has been lobbying news organizations in eight member countries to develop guidelines to deal with sexual assault and harassment. "When it comes to sexual violence, many women keep quiet. Our societies are such that due to family pressure and social taboos, most women just don't file charges," Mehmal Sarfraz, the group's joint general secretary, wrote in an e-mail. "Most cases go unreported, which is extremely unfortunate."

INSI has seen a similar resistance to training that targets women. "We have a fairly hard push to raise issues of safety, period, in certain parts of the world. To make it gender specific would be a harder push," says INSI Director Rodney Pinder. He sees the strongest response coming from the media in America and the U.K. "I have not noticed a particularly heightened awareness in other places," Pinder says.

The movement for media managers to pay more attention to the security needs of their journalists gained steam in the late 1990s. Survival skills and safety guidelines first caught on in the U.K. with the BBC, Reuters and ITN leading the way before the movement spread across the Atlantic. (See "School for Survival," November 1998.)

An era of international terrorism and the high-profile kidnapping and beheading of Wall Street Journal reporter Daniel Pearl in Pakistan in 2002 sparked a strong push for journalists to focus more on self-protection. Much like with aid workers, journalists were ranked by terrorism experts as soft targets – unarmed, easy to grab and often without a clue as to how to fight back.

Terms like "journalism and trauma" and "hostile-environment training" inched into the newsroom dialogue. Safety instruction became a prerequisite for correspondents heading into conflict zones for the New York Times, Washington Post and other news outlets with foreign teams. Trainers put journalists through the rigors of mock kidnappings, interrogations and hostage survival.

On April 14, the Washington Post's Emily Wax wrote about the hostile-environment training she received from former British Royal Marines when she was assigned to cover Africa in 2002. She learned how to filter her urine if she was dehydrated in a desert, but she doesn't recall discussing any gender issues. That jibes with what Wolfe heard from the women she interviewed. Most said they had no guidance on how to deal with sexual assault or rape. The few that did told her it was cursory and not very effective.

That doesn't surprise Frank Smyth, CPJ's journalist security coordinator and a veteran of covering international conflict. He sees the journalism community taking a stance similar to the military's – women and men are considered equal on the battlefield. "For that reason, there has been no special consideration given to sexual assault at all. Women [journalists] weren't reporting it; people weren't talking about it. There was a feeling that if you called attention to it, you somehow would be prejudicing women or making it difficult for them to get assignments that could be potentially dangerous," says Smyth, who is looking for ways to fill the training gap.

During the course of his search, he ran into self-defense instructor Melissa Soalt of Amherst, Massachusetts, who specializes in self-protection for women. A quote on her Web site by anthropologist Margaret Mead reads: "When women disengage from their traditional roles, they become more ruthless and savage than men." Her training methods go beyond learning how to land a blow to the crotch. "Self defense is a last resort," Soalt says.

One of her goals is to make women tough targets by helping them draw on inner strength and "harness the power of their fear." Soalt, who goes by the moniker Dr. Ruthless, rattled off prevention strategies such as developing assertive body language and learning more about how predators operate.

Typically, attacks against women happen at very close range, "phone booth range, hot breath on your face range," her site says. Predators sometimes test the waters before they strike. They might cozy up, try to engage in conversation, ask questions or rest a hand on the shoulder of an intended victim to observe the response and size up defense mechanisms.

Soalt teaches women to keep antennae tuned in and, if their personal space is invaded, transmit a powerful message – "Back the fuck off" – using body language and voice. She talks about reducing the element of surprise by ditching tunnel vision and developing peripheral vision. A few seconds of early detection could be enough to avoid a "hit" and live to tell the story, she says.

The Black Belt magazine hall of famer advises trusting gut instincts and staying in touch with fear. "Whether you hear fear's signal as a quiet voice in your head or as alarming sensations...obey! Real fear is an agent of survival. Its prime directive is to keep you alive," she preaches on the site with missionary zeal.

But what if an attack becomes imminent? "Then I can train you how to fight like a junkyard bitch. There is nothing pretty about this, nothing polite, nothing ladylike," says Soalt, who has created a DVD on rape defense tactics. The title: "Fierce and Female."

Smyth likes the idea of this type of training coming from a civilian mind-set. Former military specialists often deliver traditional hostile-environment instruction. "They use military modules and apply them to journalists' scenarios, and that has been very helpful to us, but we have to look at the whole issue of sexual assault. We are just starting to develop a protocol and guidelines for dealing with this," he says.

One journalist has devised her own set of protocols. In February, Mac McClelland, a San Francisco-based human rights reporter for Mother Jones, wrote a story titled "Tips for Dick-Kicking" that graphically described her experience at a high-powered self-defense program in Oakland, California.

While reporting on rape after the 2010 Haiti earthquake, McClelland spent time with traumatized victims and fended off male aggression herself. When she got home, she was diagnosed with post-traumatic stress syndrome. Her story from Haiti, which ran under the deck "Dispatches from the tent cities, where rape gangs and disaster profiteers roam," ran in the January/February 2011 issue.

Enrolling in a self-defense course was one way to deal with the emotional impact. McClelland described hours of grueling training in which she learned to perform the "physical and verbal drills automatically" until "you can instantly respond by basically turning into a ninja," she wrote in her February piece for Mother Jones. The reporter has since returned to Haiti.

Psychiatrist Frank Ochberg, a pioneer in the field of journalism and trauma, believes there are lessons to be learned from experiences of female soldiers stationed in war zones. Female correspondents face many of the same risks but don't yet have the same resources built into the job – as imperfect as they may be – the way female soldiers do, says Ochberg, who has worked with journalists who have suffered sexual attacks.

"Just as in the military, we are learning that sexual violence is an all too common consequence of the job. When we send a journalist to Africa or Iraq or Pakistan, we have a responsibility to help ameliorate those consequences, whether we are employers, colleagues or the advocates for journalism," says Ochberg, a founder of the Dart Center for Journalism & Trauma. He has high praise for those who have drawn attention to the issue.

Colombian journalist Jineth Bedoya is one Ochberg singles out. Bedoya was gang raped and savagely beaten on May 25, 2000, by right-wing paramilitaries in retaliation for her reporting for the newspaper El Espectador. Bedoya became the lead for an AJR article about the terrible violence Colombia's press corps was suffering (see "Endangered Journalists," January/February 2003).

Bedoya, 26 at the time, described how one attacker passed her to another while she prayed to die. When they finished, they left her in a garbage dump, bloodied, with her hands tied. "I waited until the bruises on my body got better in order to return to work. The greatest support that I have received was from my colleagues, my editor and the director at the paper," she said back then. Bedoya pushed for an investigation but nothing ever came of it.

She is speaking out again, this time as the lead to the CPJ report. By spotlighting her own rape, the report says, Bedoya hopes to encourage colleagues to "denounce what's happened to them and be able to ask for justice." The reporter is leading by example.

Bedoya is pushing to get her case before the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights, headquartered in Washington, D.C., on the grounds that the Colombian government never fulfilled its duty to investigate the crime. There has been no decision yet on whether she will have her day in court.

Disclosures by Bedoya, Umar Cheema, Lara Logan and others have put the global journalism community on alert. Media professionals are falling prey to sexual abuse in the course of their work, and risks in some regions of the world are formidable. When CPJ cast a net to find journalists who would talk about sexual violence they encountered, voices emerged from all over the globe.

It's not unusual that more women than men are speaking out, says researcher Lara Stemple. She explains that when women are sexually assaulted, a well-defined narrative of male dominance and female suppression clicks in. No such narrative exists for men. There is more of a stigma. Men are more likely to remain silent.

That some male journalists have spoken publicly about their abuse in recent months has moved the dialogue into new territory. "Sexual violence is not just a women's issue," Stemple says. "It is a human issue."



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