CPJ security guide: Addendum on sexual aggression

In conjunction with the release of its special report, “The Silencing Crime: Sexual Violence and Journalists,” CPJ is issuing an addendum to its existing journalist security guide. The addendum, written by CPJ Journalist Security Coordinator Frank Smyth, addresses the issue of sexual aggression against journalists and focuses on ways to minimize the risk.The addendum, published below, is also available in the full text of CPJ’s online security guide. 

Sexual Aggression

The sexual assault of CBS correspondent and CPJ board member Lara Logan while covering political unrest in Cairo in February 2011 has highlighted this important security issue for journalists. Dozens of other journalists have reported to CPJ that they, too, had been victimized on past assignments. Both local and international journalists reported being attacked. Most reported victims were women, although men were also targeted, often while in detention or captivity. Journalists have reported assaults that range from groping to rape by multiple attackers.

Being aware of one’s environment and understanding how one may be perceived in that setting are important in deterring many forms of sexual aggression. The International News Safety Institute, a consortium of news organizations and journalist groups that includes CPJ, and Judith Matloff, a veteran foreign correspondent and journalism professor, have each published checklists aimed at minimizing the risk of sexual aggression in the field. A number of their suggestions are incorporated here, along with the advice of numerous journalists and security experts consulted by CPJ.

If you are traveling to a location, especially for the first time, always seek prior advice from colleagues with experience in that locale. Journalists and experts emphasize that situation-specific advice from trusted colleagues is crucial in planning an assignment and assessing risks in the field.

Journalists should dress conservatively and in accord with local custom; wearing head scarves in some regions, for example, may be advisable for female journalists. Female journalists should consider wearing a wedding band, or a ring that looks like one, regardless of whether they are married. They should avoid wearing necklaces, ponytails, or anything that can be grabbed. Numerous experts advise female journalists to avoid tight-fitting T-shirts and jeans, makeup, and jewelry in order to avoid unwanted attention. Consider wearing heavy belts and boots that are hard to remove, along with loose-fitting clothing. Carrying equipment discreetly, in non-descript bags, can also avoid unwanted attention. Journalists should consider carrying pepper spray or even spray deodorant in case they need to deter aggressors.

Journalists should travel and work with colleagues or support staff for a wide range of security reasons. Fixers, translators, and drivers can provide an important measure of protection for international journalists, particularly while traveling or on assignments involving crowds or chaotic conditions, according to experts. Support staff can monitor the overall security of a situation and identify potential risks while the journalist is working. It is very important that journalists use care and diligence in vetting support staff and that they seek recommendations from colleagues. Some journalists have reported instances of sexual aggression by support staff.

Experts suggest that journalists appear familiar and confident in their setting but avoid striking up conversation or making eye contact with strangers. Female journalists should be aware that gestures of familiarity, such as hugging or smiling, even with colleagues, can be misinterpreted and raise the risk of unwanted attention. Don’t mingle in a predominantly male crowd, experts say; stay close to the edges and have an escape path in mind. When traveling, try to choose a hotel with security guards whenever possible, and avoid rooms with accessible windows or balconies. Use all locks on hotel doors, and consider using your own lock and doorknob alarm as well. The International News Safety Institute suggests journalists have a cover story prepared (“I’m waiting for my colleague to arrive,” for example) if they are getting unwanted attention.

In general, try to avoid situations that raise risk, experts say. Those include staying in remote areas without a trusted companion; getting in unofficial taxis or taxis with multiple strangers; using elevators or corridors where one would be alone with strangers; eating out alone unless one is sure of the setting; or spending long periods alone with male sources or support staff. Carry a mobile phone with security numbers, including your professional contacts and local emergency contacts. Keeping in regular contact with one’s newsroom editors and compiling and disseminating contact information for one’s self and support staff is always good practice for a broad range of security reasons. Editors should be assertive in raising security questions about an overall deployment and each planned assignment.  

If a journalist perceives imminent sexual assault, she or he should do or say something to change the dynamic, experts recommend. Screaming or yelling for help if people are within earshot is one option. Shouting out something unexpected such as, “Is that a police car?” could be another. Dropping, breaking, or throwing something that might cause a startle could be a third. Urinating or soiling oneself could be a further step.

The Humanitarian Practice Network, a forum for workers and policy-makers engaged in humanitarian work, has produced a safety guide that includes some advice pertinent to journalists. The HPN, part of the UK-based Overseas Development Institute, suggests that international visitors have some knowledge of the local language, and that they use vernacular phrases if threatened with assault as a way to alter the situation.

Protecting and preserving one’s life in the face of sexual assault is the overarching guideline, HPN and other experts say. Some security experts recommend journalists learn self-defense skills to fight off attackers. There is a countervailing belief among some experts that fighting off an assailant could increase the risk of fatal violence. Factors to consider are the number of assailants, whether weapons are involved, and whether the setting is public or private. Some experts suggest fighting back if an assailant seeks to take an individual from the scene of an initial attack to another location.

Sexual assault affects both female and male journalists. Although female journalists constitute the large majority of those assaulted while on assignment, CPJ research shows, sexual abuse can also occur when a journalist is being detained by a government or being held captive by irregular forces. In such instances, both men and women have been targets of abuse. Developing relationships with one’s guards or captors and seeking to stay together with any fellow captured journalist may reduce the risk of all forms of assault. But journalists should be aware that abuse can occur in such circumstances and they may have few options. Protecting one’s life is the primary goal.

News organizations can include guidelines on the risk of sexual assault in their security manuals as a way to increase attention and encourage discussion. While documentation specific to sexual assaults against journalists is limited, organizations can identify places where the overall risk is greater, such as conflict zones where rape is used as a weapon, areas where the rule of law is weak, and settings where sexual aggression is common. Organizations can set clear policies on how to respond to sexual assaults that address the journalist’s needs for medical, legal, and psychological support. Such reports should be treated as a medical urgency and as an overall security threat that affects other journalists. Managers addressing sexual assault cases must be sensitive to the journalist’s wishes in terms of confidentiality, and mindful of the emotional impact of such an experience. The journalist’s immediate needs include empathy, respect, and security.

Journalists who have been assaulted may consider reporting the attack as a means of obtaining proper medical support and to document the security risk for others. Some journalists told CPJ they were reluctant to report sexual abuse because they did not want to be perceived as being vulnerable while on dangerous assignments. Editorial managers should create a climate in which journalists can report assaults without fear of losing future assignments and with confidence they will receive support and assistance.

The Committee to Protect Journalists is committed to documenting instances of sexual assault. Journalists are encouraged to contact CPJ to report such cases; information about a case is made public or kept confidential at the discretion of the journalist.