Jineth Bedoya.ap.jpg
Jineth Bedoya takes notes in December 2000 under the watch of a bodyguard in Bogotá in an armored car after she was kidnapped, beaten and raped in April that year. (AP/Ariana Cubillos)

Documenting sexual violence against journalists

By Lauren Wolfe/CPJ Senior Editor on February 16, 2011 3:46 PM ET

The news of the sexual assault against CPJ board member and CBS correspondent Lara Logan hit us hard on Tuesday. At CPJ, we work daily to advocate on behalf of journalists under attack in all kinds of horrific situations around the world. Because of Lara's untiring work with our Journalist Assistance program, she's well known to everyone on our staff.

Since the news broke, we have been asked why there is little on our 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.

We have advocated for our concerns about sexual violence against journalists on a political level. For instance, we wrote to U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton in September 2009 to raise awareness about the safety of three women reporters covering women's issues and "femicide" in Bukavu, in Congo. "The unstable eastern region, which is rich in minerals but devastated by war and atrocities against civilians, including the systematic rape of women, is currently one of Africa's most dangerous cities for journalists, according to CPJ research," we wrote.

In some cases, we provide monetary assistance or referrals to psychological counselors to journalists who have been victims of sexual violence.

Our journalist security handbook, last updated in 2003, does not include a section on sexual violence and harassment. There's been a growing awareness of the issue since, spawned in part by Judith Matloff's excellent 2007 piece, "Foreign Correspondents and Sexual Abuse," in the Columbia Journalism Review. We have been updating our security handbook across the board, and are including a chapter on sexual assault.

Here are some of the cases of sexual violence against journalists 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 from the prison," wrote CPJ's Frank Smyth that same year. "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. During the assault, the men told her in graphic detail about all the other journalists who they planned to kill."

CPJ 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 December 17, 2005, and released on bail the next day in connection with a case against her for defamation and slander, which CPJ found 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 Cacho behind bars and assault her. In one conversation before Cacho's arrest, a man who was identified by the Mexican press as Hanna Nakad Bayeh, a Puebla-based clothing manufacturer, 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."

Women are not the only journalists at risk for sexual assault because of their reporting. Beyond the systematic use of rape in Iranian prisons, where dozens of journalists are being held, such violence is used against particular male reporters in attempts to intimidate them into silence. In 1996, we reported on the case of Mumtaz Sher in Sindh Province, Pakistan. Men employed by a local landlord kidnapped and sexually assaulted Sher, a correspondent for the daily Bakhtar, after his newspaper published an article about alleged misconduct by a school administrator who was also the landlord's wife. There is the recent case of Umar Cheema, a critical reporter for the largest English-language Pakistani newspaper, The News, who suffered torture and sexual assault in September when he was kidnapped in Islamabad: "As I was stripped naked and being tortured on the back with my head down totally blindfolded, the ringleader directed one of his fellows to molest me," which they did, sodomizing him with a wooden pole, Cheema told CPJ.

Since Logan's sexual assault, we have been asked a lot about the risks of hostility against foreign correspondents abroad. While foreign correspondents certainly face their share, take a look at our stats on the violence local journalists face in their home countries--the numbers 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 exactly 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 her article, Matloff argued that sexual violence against journalists will remain underreported until the stigma is removed. While that's certainly true in principle, we also recognize that the decision to discuss sexual violence is a very personal one. We will continue to document incidents of sexual violence as they are brought to us, but always with the consent of the journalist involved.


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