People gathered in Tahrir Square Sunday. (AFP /Khaled Desouki)
People gathered in Tahrir Square Sunday. (AFP /Khaled Desouki)

Another journalist reports sex assault in Tahrir Square

The story sounds hideously like another–one of a chaotic, predatory attack on a woman journalist in Cairo’s Tahrir Square. Clothes torn from her body, hundreds of men surging to grab her breasts and claw at her. A woman wondering, “Maybe this is how I go, how I die.” It has been almost a year and a half since CBS correspondent and CPJ board member Lara Logan endured an attack like this. Now, an independent journalist and student named Natasha Smith reports that it has happened to her.

Smith reported the attack on her blog today, describing how a horde of men descended on her Sunday night, pulling her limbs and throwing her around as she tried to protect her camera. She said she soon lost her camera, her backpack, and began to pray: “make it stop.”

“They were scratching and clenching my breasts and forcing their fingers inside me in every possible way,” Smith wrote. “So many men. All I could see was leering faces, more and more faces sneering and jeering as I was tossed around like fresh meat among starving lions.”

In Cairo to film an independent documentary on women’s rights and abuses against women in Egypt since the revolution, according to her website, Smith shared an account of her attack that is eerily parallel to Logan’s. Smith did not immediately reply to an email request for an interview. Atul Singh, editor-in-chief at Fair Observer, confirmed that Smith is an associate editor for the website. He said that “the attack occurred” but declined to elaborate.

Here’s what I mean by eerily parallel. This February, Logan described what happened to her for Women Under Siege, a project I direct at the Women’s Media Center on sexualized violence in conflict:

“I kept appealing for mercy, begging them to stop in the midst of the violence and the chaos, as they tore my clothes from my body and raped me with their hands,” Logan wrote. “Hundreds of them.”

When I spoke to Logan today, she told me that Smith’s account was hard for her to read, that she felt the same terror again “the way the mob came after her; the way the men looked–so close to you–and the faces of the people who looked away.”

At one point, Smith wrote, women surrounded her and “frantically tried to cover” her naked body. “I fell to the ground and apparently temporarily lost consciousness.” When she awoke, she said, the women told her the attack had been prompted by “rumors spread by troublemaking thugs that I was a foreign spy, following a national advertising campaign warning of the dangers of foreigners.”

Smith is apparently referring to an ad campaign that ran on Egyptian television the week of June 8. While it’s not entirely clear who was behind the campaign, the government acknowledged pulling it “because we were concerned that it was being misunderstood,” according to The New York Times.

There have long been rumors that the Egyptian government coordinates mob attacks against journalists in Tahrir Square. In February 2011, U.S. State Department spokesman Philip Crowley called the abuse “‘a concerted campaign’ orchestrated from within Mubarak’s inner circle,” according to the Los Angeles Times. Logan and others have said they believe that recent attacks on international journalists–and on foreign and local women in Egypt–were directed from above, despite Mubarak being ousted from power early last year.

“It’s a systematic campaign against journalists, who are enemies of the state,” Logan said. “They want to get the foreign media out. They don’t want foreigners from the media, aid organizations, or doing democracy work. We are regarded as a threat to the regime.”

While an assault as severe as what Smith and Logan experienced may not happen frequently, violation is a tedious reality for many women journalists, especially those who report on protests or in crowds. A number of women I spoke to last year for my CPJ report, “The Silencing Crime: Sexual Violence and Journalists,” talked about multiple levels of sexual abuse–from groping to gang rape–while on assignment in this kind of venue.

In May, CPJ released a new Journalist Security Guide with sections on how to protect oneself from sexual violence and how to cover protests.

“If you can find a single female journalist who hasn’t been groped in a crowd, I will be stunned,” said reporter Gretchen Peters, who has covered Pakistan and Afghanistan for more than a decade, first for The Associated Press and later for ABC News.

Smith described how she was in the square amid an atmosphere of “jubilation, excitement, and happiness” Sunday when in an instant, “everything changed.” That description reminds me of another attack on a journalist which occurred in 2007 but only came to light in my report.

New York-based Swedish correspondent Jenny Nordberg was in Pakistan in October 2007 to cover the return of Benazir Bhutto, the exiled former prime minister who would be assassinated two months later. During a chaotic procession in Karachi, Nordberg became separated from her colleagues and surrounded by a voracious crowd of men who sexually assaulted her. She was freed only after people in a passing truck pulled her to safety. It took her four years to speak about what happened to her.

“I did not tell the editors for fear of losing assignments,” Nordberg said in 2011. “That was definitely part of it. And I just did not want them to think of me as a girl.”

Today, Nordberg told me that for Smith to share her story is “both brave and very important for others–journalists as well as editors.” I agree. In February, CPJ published this piece in Attacks on the Press about editors’ perspectives on how to protect their journalists on assignment. “It’s important to know [about assaults] so you can orient yourself how to put your people in the field,” Jamie Wellford, Newsweek‘s photo editor, told me at the time.

Nordberg went on to say that “nobody is safe in a crowd, regardless of your nationality or hair color”–both Smith and Logan are blonde. “It’s just a particularly humiliating and awful assault, meant to silence someone. For a victim to then not stay silent is an act of courage.”

Logan too praised Smith for speaking out clearly and quickly. “I know exactly what she’s talking about and I commend her for going into detail and creating such a vivid description because I think it gives people an opportunity to truly understand how horrific it is and what it feels like,” she said. “You have to understand how savage it is to feel truly enraged, to care, and to want to do something about it and at least take a stand.”

UPDATE: This post has been corrected to reflect that CPJ spoke to Atul Singh, editor-in-chief of Fair Observer, and not Middle East Editor Abul-Hasanat Siddique as previously reported. Also, Singh did not say that Smith had relayed the attack to Fair Observer editors, as previously reported.