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Mean Streets of Reporting

Mean Streets of Reporting

Throughout the four years of covering the war in Bosnia, we male correspondents secretly feared for our female colleagues. We shared all the dangers and challenges except for one — sexual assault. That was a war where bounties were put out for some reporters and rapes camps inflicted horror for local women; as they told us tales of pat downs and searches that got more and more intimate, as anger at the media rose, we feared it was a matter of time.

Well, that time is now. Now we are fully entering into a harrowing and ghastly chapter of the dangers faced by journalists covering today’s conflicts across the Middle East and elsewhere: sexual assault against female journalists.

In one day two weeks ago in Egypt, two more western female journalists were assaulted — one by a mob in the street, the other while in custody in a police station. It has happened before in Egypt earlier this year, both in a high profile case and others not initially reported. It has sadly become an idea that seems to have taken root as a horrifying statement of anger at anyone in the path of some protestors.

Such assaults have happened before, of course, to local and foreign journalists. The difference now is the startling, brutal and brazen increase in the assaults – as well as journalists speaking out to shame their attackers and to bring light on this very real problem.

Where once journalists were considered neutrals, and harmed only when in the wrong place at the wrong time, today we are often targeted for kidnapping, execution and now sexual assault.

More than 30 years as a foreign correspondent offers much eyewitness to this dramatic shift.

In El Salvador in 1982, journalists formed a loosely organized group called the Salvadoran Press Corps Association. One primary purpose was to create a press card that was recognized by both the government and the guerillas to make the job safer. It worked. There were even tee shirts with “Journalist, Don’t Shoot” written on the back in Spanish.

(Of course, that was for FOREIGN journalists. Over the course of the war, 25 local journalists fell victim to the various death squads operating in the country.)

Interestingly, the 1980s wars in Central American were one of the breakout areas for female war correspondents for several reasons: bilingual skills, sheer opportunity and sharp journalism talent. A 1997 paper called The Marginal Majority: Women War Correspondents in the Salvadoran Press Corps Association (SPCA) underscore this historic impact.

In Central American, foreign journalists were the most part safe, unless they dressed like the guerillas they covered and could be mistaken as the enemy by trigger-happy government troops.

Along came the 1991 coup in Haiti and the dangers became more personal to all reporters. Ironically, reporters there feared most of being killed by the anti-coup side – in a macabre way to force the U.S. to intervene. Suddenly, journalists were tools for political use.

After that it accelerated. Daniel Pearl was sought out and murdered, journalists are chosen for kidnappings. The view of journalists being neutral observer, with that modicum of safety, has completely vanished. Now add a rise in sexual assaults.

The Overseas Press Club, of which I serve on the board of governors, along with other groups such as Reporters Without Borders and the Committee to Protect Journalists have recognized this under reported, growing threat. We all must work together to find ways to ensure that our female colleagues are not denied the opportunity to do what they do so well – not from concerned editors who fear they will harmed, nor from those in the streets seeking to do that harm.

A report last summer by CPJ documented this sexual violence either in retaliation for their work or during the course of their reporting. The report includes interviews with 27 local journalists, from top editors to beat reporters, working in regions from the Middle East to South Asia, Africa to the Americas. Five described being brutally raped, while others reported various levels of sexual assault, aggressive physical harassment, and threats of sexual violence. A similar range of experience was reported by 25 international journalists; two reported being raped, five others described serious sexual violation—ranging from violent, sexual touching, to penetration by hands— and 22 said they had been groped multiple times. Most of the reported attacks occurred within the past five years, although a small number of cases date back as far as two decades.

Most interviewed had not previously disclosed their experiences beyond speaking with friends or family. Journalists from all over the world said they largely kept assaults to themselves because of broad cultural stigmas and a lack of faith that authorities would act upon their complaints. But repeatedly they also said they were reluctant to disclose an assault to their editors for fear they would be perceived as vulnerable and be denied future assignments.

Is that the price that must be paid?

This weekend male reporters sharing time while on assignment talked of the insanity of street demonstrations, noting they have long saw Cairo mobs as being particularly dangerous. The chaotic public settings for street demonstration are now prime breeding areas for sexual assaults. Will they silence the messenger?

It seems not. By showing the courage to speak out, the same courage exhibited in their reporting, our colleagues are telling the world they will not stop. Now we must not just hear what has happened but to work to remove the blight.



Tom Squitieri

Tom Squitieri has spent more than three decades as a journalist, reporting overseas for the Lowell (Mass.) Sun, the Boston Herald and USA TODAY. He won three Overseas Press Club awards and three White House Correspondents' Association awards for his reporting from Haiti, Bosnia, and Burundi. He is a newly-elected board member of the Overseas Press Club.

In academics, Squitieri was invited to create and then teach a unique college course that combines journalism, public affairs, ethics, philosophy, current affairs and war zone survival skills into a practical application to broaden thinking and day-to-day success. The class "Your 15 Minutes: Navigating the Checkpoints in Life" has a waiting list each year.

Born in Pittsburgh and raised in western Pennsylvania, Squitieri has been on all seven continents and in dozens of places he intends to keep secret.