Sexual Violence: A Tool of Intimidation
By Lauren Wolfe Posted Mar 10 2011
In February, the news of the sexual assault against CBS correspondent and Committee to Protect Journalists board member Lara Logan appeared in headlines around the globe. The high-profile case drew international attention to a form of violence against journalists that is rarely covered in the media or even talked about in newsrooms—a form of assault meant to brutalize reporters into silence. Now, on International Women’s Day, I want to emphasize that the challenges female reporters face are pernicious and underreported. Yet, such assaults against journalists are seldom talked about.
After Logan’s story broke, we were asked why there is little on CPJ’s website about sexual assaults and what kind of data we have about women journalists and rape. The simple answers are these: We have little on our site because sexual assault is not commonly reported to us—the data, therefore, is not available. What I can tell you is that we receive calls in which journalists report on risky conditions in particular cities or countries, sometimes telling us of their personal molestation or rape, and usually ask that we not share their private pain.
Although the cases that make headlines might involve Western foreign correspondents, violence against journalists is most often local and in places that have repressive governments or war zones. Unfortunately, there is often little movement toward justice in the few cases that are brought to light, or even elevated to international attention, whether due to lack of political will or cultural apathy. Here are some of the cases of sexual violence and subsequent attempts to bring justice CPJ has documented:
Colombian journalist Jineth Bedoya was raped, kidnapped and beaten in May 2000 after reporting on far-right paramilitaries while on assignment for the Bogotá daily El Espectador. “Floating in and out of consciousness, Bedoya was taken to a house across the street,” wrote CPJ’s Frank Smyth. “The kidnappers bound her hands and feet, taped her mouth, and blindfolded her eyes. Then they drove her to Villavicencio, where she was savagely beaten and raped.”
We protested the Bedoya attack in a letter that month to then-President Andrés Pastrana Arango and followed up with a letter in September expressing concern about the lack of progress in the investigation. By year’s end, however, no one had been detained and the prosecutor in charge of the investigation had not even contacted Bedoya, according to the journalist. CPJ met with Bedoya last year, and she told us that although it is believed that undercover agents were behind the attack, Colombian authorities have still done nothing.
In 2006, we reported on a plot to kidnap and rape Mexican journalist and human rights activist Lydia Cacho Ribeiro. Cacho was arrested on Dec. 17, 2005, and released on bail the next day for defamation and slander CPJ found the case was brought in retaliation for her reporting on a child pornography and prostitution ring. Tapes of telephone conversations between several people, two of whom were the governor of the state of Puebla, Mario Marín, and a local businessman, were delivered to the Mexico City offices of the daily La Jornada. Media reports said the recordings were made before and during Cacho’s detention. In the tapes, obscene language was used to describe plans to put her behind bars and assault her. In one conversation, a man asked businessman José Camel Nacif Borge to pay someone to rape her in jail. According to the transcriptions published in _La Jornada_, Nacif replied, “she has already been taken care of.”
After Logan’s sexual assault, CPJ was asked a lot about the risks of hostility against foreign correspondents abroad. While foreign correspondents certainly face their share, our stats on the violence local journalists face in their home countries are dramatically worse. Eighty-seven percent of journalists killed since CPJ began keeping statistics in 1992 are local. Franchou Namegabe Nabintu, an award-winning journalist from the Democratic Republic of Congo, told CPJ in May 2009 it was because she lived in an atmosphere charged with the constant threat of rape that she and her female colleagues took up the profession—“we started to use the microphone as a weapon,” Nabintu said.
In a 2007 Columbia Journalism Review article, “Foreign Correspondents and Sexual Abuse,” Judith Matloff argued that sexual violence against journalists will remain underreported until the stigma is removed. While that’s certainly true in principle, the decision to discuss a sexual assault is a very personal one. We will continue to document these incidents as they are brought to us but always with the consent of the journalist involved. Perhaps that will come more frequently now that the conversation is being brought out into the open, as it is in this publication.