Lara Logan attack turns spotlight on female reporters

By Katie Connolly
BBC News, Washington

Image caption,
Ms Logan was separated from her crew in Cairo and assaulted by a mob

The assault on CBS News chief foreign correspondent Lara Logan in Egypt stunned the news community, but it also drew attention to a growing problem: the world is becoming a far more dangerous place for reporters.

Logan was reporting from Cairo's Tahrir Square on the day Hosni Mubarak stepped down when she was separated from her crew.

In a statement , CBS News said that she was "surrounded by a dangerous element amidst the celebration" and suffered "a brutal and sustained sexual assault and beating" at the hands of a mob.

The Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) reports that 44 journalists were killed in 2010. In addition, 145 were imprisoned - the highest number since 1996.

Joel Simon, executive director of CPJ, says the increasing dangers to journalists are in part because of the changing way the media does its business.

News organisations have faced dramatically reduced budgets in recent years, with many cutting foreign bureaux and instead relying on stringers and freelances.

At the same time, more journalism is being done by bloggers and citizen journalists.

These reporters, like freelances, have less institutional support. They often work entirely alone, with little or no safety training.

They don't have editors checking in on their movements regularly. And many are more opinionated than traditional reporters, raising the ire of dangerous types.

"The internet has changed the rules of the game," Mr Simon told the BBC.

"Journalists were once the only way rebels and militants could get their message out, so journalists were cultivated even by nasty individuals and groups."

Now, dissidents and terrorists alike can use chatrooms, websites and social media to communicate. They're in control of their own message.

"Journalists have become dispensable," Mr Simon says soberly.

Women in danger zones

But Logan isn't a freelance operating on a shoestring. She's the face of a major news network, travelling with a crew and an extensive support structure both regionally and in the US.

Logan's experience demonstrates the risks of conflict reporting, even for seasoned reporters who have taken the right precautions.

BBC world news editor Jon Williams, noting the horror of Ms Logan's ordeal, says that managing the risks of conflict reporting is a complex challenge.

No two places are the same, he says, and editors must analyse both history and conditions on the ground when making coverage judgements.

"No story is worth a life but you can never eliminate risk. You can only manage it down to what you believe is an acceptable level and that is what we try to do," Williams said.

But part of the shock over Logan's attack was that she was sexually assaulted. No details of the sexual violence have been released, but the Wall Street Journal reports that she was not raped.

That has sparked debate about the particular dangers to women in volatile environments.

Williams says it's naive to assume that gender is irrelevant when making hostile environment deployments. But that doesn't mean women shouldn't be sent to cover conflicts, just that the threats need to be appropriately assessed.

"Changing the gender of the person doesn't eliminate risk, it just makes it different," he says.

"The threat is there and real, how it manifests itself may be different for men and women, but it doesn't eliminate the threat."

Image caption,
Canadian reporter Michelle Lang was killed while on assignment in Afghanistan in 2009

Williams notes that woman journalists at the BBC have been extraordinarily successful in dangerous places.

The BBC has had successive women in the role of Pakistan correspondent, numerous women reporters in Jerusalem, Beirut and across the Middle East, and as Baghdad bureau chief.

"In many places women are treated far better than men," Mr Williams says, recalling that BBC world affairs editor John Simpson became one of the first foreign reporters to enter Afghanistan in 2001 after crossing the border disguised as a woman.

But the BBC, like other major news organisations, develops its hostile environment training on the basis of experience and the particular threats of the moment.

And for women, therein lies the problem: sexual assaults are rarely reported.

Silence on rape

In a widely-cited article for the Columbia Journalism Review, Judith Matloff writes that women are subjected to a range of sexually harassing behaviours in dangerous environments - from groping and lewd come-ons to rape - but rarely tell their superiors.

"Even when the abuse is rape, few correspondents tell anyone, even friends," Ms Matloff writes.

"The shame runs so deep - and the fear of being pulled off an assignment, especially in a time of shrinking budgets, is so strong - that no one wants intimate violations to resound in a newsroom."

Mr Simon from the CPJ says that echoes his experience.

"We don't have a lot of data because people are reluctant to talk about it," he says, adding that when women have shared their stories, they usually requested privacy or anonymity.

"We know that it happens and we know that it is more widespread than we've been able to document."

Ms Matloff, who teaches a war reporting course at Columbia University's prestigious school of journalism, says that one result of this silence is that news organisations in general do a poor job of preparing women for the dangers of sexual violence.

She is critical of the CPJ, saying it doesn't even address sexual assault in its safety handbook. The CPJ told the BBC that it was currently updating the guide to include it.

"They have stuff about how to protect your wallet, but they don't have stuff about how to protect your virtue," Ms Matloff told the BBC.

She says there are numerous common-sense steps that women journalists would be more likely to take if news organisations had more open, frank discussions about preventing sexual assault.

"I think if it were out there on the table, women would be better informed and their supervisors would be more sympathetic," she says.

As for the BBC, Williams says he is looking to learn from the experience in Cairo.

"I think we do have to reflect on what the learning lessons are from Cairo and whether that is one of them."

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