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Women journalists speak out on sexual attacks

By Lauren Wolfe, Special to CNN
CBS correspondent Lara Logan was beaten and sexually assaulted by a mob while reporting in Cairo, Egypt. Her recent ordeal is a high-profile example of what women journalists endure all over the world.
CBS correspondent Lara Logan was beaten and sexually assaulted by a mob while reporting in Cairo, Egypt. Her recent ordeal is a high-profile example of what women journalists endure all over the world.
  • Lauren Wolfe: Many local, international women journalists are sexually violated
  • Wolfe: Committee to Protect Journalists found women willing to talk about it for special report
  • Rape, attacks used to silence reporters, she writes, shame and stigma keep it secret
  • Sexual violence is coming out of the shadows as more women come forward, she says

Editor's note: Lauren Wolfe is senior editor for the Committee to Protect Journalists. CPJ's special report "The Silencing Crime: Sexual Violence and Journalists" and guidelines on sexual aggression were published today. Wolfe has written previously about sexual violence against journalists on the CPJ Blog.

(CNN) -- Rebel soldiers gang-raped her, slapping and beating her while she was on assignment. She was a West African journalist trying to report a story that these soldiers didn't want told. Four years after the attack she still calls herself "empty" and "traumatized." She saw her doctor, but never told anyone else but me. Today, she insists on having her story reported -- with the hope that recounting her rape will help her quiet the terrors that replay in her mind.

This woman, who asked to remain unidentified out of fear of reprisals, is one of the many local and international correspondents who have been sexually violated while working. The most high-profile recent example was the assault on CBS correspondent Lara Logan in Cairo in February. But Logan is far from the only journalist to undergo such an attack.

The Committee to Protect Journalists, an international press freedom organization, regularly writes about journalists who are beaten, kidnapped, or jailed. But we have exposed very few cases of sexual assault in the last 30 years: Only a handful of reporters chose to speak on the record. We decided it was time to document how such dark acts have silenced journalism around the world and have released our findings today in a special report.

Sexual violence against journalists isn't new, but it is getting more attention. More women journalists than ever are working at higher levels in the field, and international media and press freedom groups are acknowledging the problem in a public way. The sudden spotlight on the issue has prompted dozens of women, and some men, to tell CPJ what they've endured.

Lauren Wolfe
Lauren Wolfe

I talked to more than four dozen journalists from the Middle East to South Asia, Africa to the Americas. About half were local journalists, the others foreign correspondents. Seven had been raped, while many more were sexually penetrated by hands or objects, violently groped, and threatened with rape.

The assaults fall into three general types: sexual violation targeting a specific journalist, often in reprisal for her work; mob-related sexual violence against journalists covering public events; and sexual abuse of journalists in detention or captivity.

Sexual aggression takes other forms as well. Most common is the groping of female journalists on assignment, with 22 of the 25 foreign correspondents I interviewed reporting they'd been groped multiple times. They were usually covering public events, such as protests or celebrations that are often scarcely controlled mayhem.

And when I say "groped," I'm talking about violent touching, not a simple swipe, and sometimes at the most bizarre moments. Kate Brooks, a freelance photographer based in Turkey, said a man grabbed her crotch from behind as she was photographing a severed foot at the scene of a suicide bombing in Afghanistan.

One of the most candid journalists I spoke with was Jineth Bedoya. That I can reveal her name is of great consequence -- journalists who have been sexually assaulted usually choose to withhold their identities because of the stigma that surrounds such attacks. So many journalists are afraid to have their names published out of fear that they will lose assignments, or because of cultural barriers against reporting abuse.

Bedoya was gang-raped while reporting on right-wing Colombian paramilitaries in May 2000. While on assignment for the Bogotá daily El Espectador, men abducted, bound, blindfolded, and took her to a house in the central city of Villavicencio, where she was beaten and raped by multiple attackers.

In the 11 years since her assault, Bedoya has met at least three female journalists who were raped in reprisal for their reporting. These women chose to stay quiet because of cultural and professional stigmas, she said. But on May 24, Bedoya brought her case before the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights. She hopes it will encourage her colleagues to "denounce what's happened to them and be able to ask for justice."

Journalists face the threat of sexual violence every day in every region of the globe. Documenting the sexual violation of journalists working in war zones or on dangerous assignments shows that an international press freedom organization recognizes, and does not accept, the horrors they endure. I hope it will give them the courage to continue to cover the corruption, atrocities, and conflict they experience every day. I know that for one West African journalist, it already has.

The opinions in this commentary are solely those of Lauren Wolfe.