Women journalists report being abused and sexually harassed by bosses, interview subjects, police and even prosecutors and diplomats, but those who dare to complain are told to “grow up”
LONDON (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - It’s not news that women journalists are groped and threatened while covering protests and conflict, but often they face this abuse at work, and when they complain, they are told to “grow up”.
So says an international survey on women in the news media, which found that nearly two-thirds of respondents said they had experienced intimidation, abuse and even death threats because of their work.
The majority of abuse occurred in the workplace and was often perpetrated by male bosses and co-workers, according to a report published this week that provides the first comprehensive picture of the dangers faced by many women working in news media around the world.
“When we talk about the safety of journalists, we often think in terms of the risks we face in war zones, civil unrest and environmental disasters, but how often do we think of the office as being a dangerous place?” asked Hannah Storm, director of International News Safety Institute (INSI).
“This survey shows that women journalists are often at risk in their own workplaces: targeted by their colleagues and let down by the very people they should be able to trust.”
Some respondents highlighted incidents of serious sexual and physical violence, including one woman journalist who ended up with a broken back, broken ribs and concussion after she was caught in a mob assault while covering a protest.
The report, by INSI and the International Women’s Media Foundation (IWMF), said one of the most dangerous places for women journalists to work is in crowds, like the demonstrations during the Arab uprisings.
A journalist based in the Middle East described how she twice had her vagina grabbed in the Egyptian capital Cairo.
“I’ve been grabbed, groped, pinched, yanked by my hair by men in the streets in Egypt and Palestine. I have twice been cornered in vehicles by men, one time grabbing my throat until I kicked him in the face,” she said.
Most respondents cited psychological effects from sexual violence and harassment. Some left the country they were working in or quit their news organisations. One said she had attempted suicide. Others talked of fear, anxiety and depression.
One foreign correspondent said she now took extra precautions on assignments, dressing like a man, covering her hair to avoid catching attention, and carrying pepper spray and a taser.
TOLD TO “GROW UP”
The results of the online survey of 977 women, carried out between August 2013 and January 2014, cannot be applied to all women journalists, partly because it is more likely someone will fill in such a survey if they have suffered harassment or violence.
But IWMF said the survey did highlight the environments in which many women journalists are working. A second survey is planned to determine how many women journalists are working under such conditions.
More than 14 percent of respondents said they had been subjected to sexual violence in the course of their work, although only 546 women answered this part of the survey. And almost half of respondents said they had been sexually harassed. Again, not everyone answered this question. Perpetrators included protesters at rallies, politicians, diplomats, event organisers, government officials, police, bosses and co-workers.
A Spanish journalist reported how a government official she was supposed to interview used obscene language and suggestions during four hours of harassment in the presence of another journalist and a U.N. representative, neither of whom helped. Only when the government official attempted to rape her did the U.N. director grab her hand and start running. Afterwards, he reportedly told her he had not defended her because he thought she was “handling the harassment like a bullfighter”.
Another U.S. journalist described how she was taken to an isolated car park after accepting a lift from a prosecutor and forced to perform oral sex.
But more than three-quarters of the women who experienced sexual violence said they did not report it, sometimes because they thought this would make it more traumatising.
Of those who had been sexually harassed, more than 40 percent said it had occurred in the office.
Some talked about a climate of impunity toward sexual harassment. One Australian journalist who complained was told, “if I couldn’t stand the heat, I should get out of the kitchen”.
The survey showed that reporting harassment could lead to women being harassed even more, missing out on top assignments or even losing their jobs.
But some regretted not reporting incidents. A Zimbabwe journalist said her boss persuaded her not to complain about the behaviour of an American diplomat. “Against my better judgment, I dropped it and now wonder how many other women that man went on to harass,” she said.
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