In the cases that I know of, the journalists did nothing to provoke the attacks; they behaved with utmost propriety, except perhaps for one bikini-clad woman who was raped by a hotel employee while sunbathing on the roof in a conservative Middle Eastern country. The correspondent who was molested by her Iraqi security guard is still puzzling over the fact that he brazenly crept into her room while colleagues slept nearby. “You do everything right and then something like this happens,” she says. “I never wore tight T-shirts or outrageous clothes. But he knew I didnt have a tribe that would go after him.”
That guard lost his job, but such punishment is rare. A more typical case is of an award-winning British correspondent who was raped by her translator in Africa. Reporting him to a police force known for committing atrocities seemed like a futile exercise.
Like most foreign correspondents who were assaulted, those women were targets of opportunity. The predators took advantage because they could. Local journalists face the added risk of politically motivated attacks. The Committee to Protect Journalists, for example, cites rape threats against female reporters in Egypt who were seen as government critics. Rebels raped someone I worked with in Angola for her perceived sympathy for the ruling party. In one notorious case in Colombia in 2000, the reporter Jineth Bedoya Lima was kidnapped and gang-raped in what she took as reprisal for her newspapers suggestion that a paramilitary group ordered some executions. She is the only colleague I know of who has gone on the record about her rape.
The general reluctance to call attention to the problem creates a vicious cycle, whereby editors, who are still typically men, are unaware of the dangers because women dont bring them up. Survivors of attacks often suffer in lonely silence, robbed of the usual camaraderie that occurs when people are shot or kidnapped. It was an open secret in our Moscow press corps in the 1990s that a young freelancer had been gang-raped by policemen. But given the sexual nature of her injury, no one but the womans intimates dared extend sympathies.
Even close calls frequently go unmentioned. In my own case, I never reported to my foreign editor a narrow escape at an airport in Angola in 1995. Two drunken policemen pointing AK-47s threatened to march a colleague and me into a shack for "some fun." We got away untouched, so why bring up the matter? I didnt want my boss to think that my gender was a liability.
Such lack of public discussion might explain why, amazingly, there are no sections on sexual harassment and assault in the leading handbooks on journalistic safety, by the Committee to Protect Journalists and the International Federation of Journalists. When one considers the level of detail over protections against other eventualitiesget vaccinations; pack dummy wallets, etc.the oversight is staggering. No one tells women that deodorant can work as well as mace when sprayed in the eyes, for example, or that you can obtain doorknob alarms, or that, in some cultures, you can ward off rapists by claiming to menstruate.
For women seeking security tips, hostile-environment training is the way to go. Yet those short courses also rarely touch upon rape prevention. The BBC, a pioneer in trauma awareness, is the only major news organization that offers special safety instruction for women, taught by women.
Most women recognize that even the most thorough preparation cannot prevent every eventuality. Yet victims of assault say that some training might have helped them make more informed decisions, or at least live with the outcome more easily. A correspondent for a major U.S. newspaper says that for some time she needlessly blamed herself for her rape by a Russian paramilitary policeman. How, she asked herself, had she not anticipated that he would follow her back to the hotel after an interview and force himself into the room? She believes that training “would have relieved me of the guilt that I had done the wrong thing.”