By Pauline Ades-Mevel, Head Communication desk Reporters Sans Fontieres for Europe and Balcans
Covering women’s rights does not come without risks for reporters. RSF has established that from 2012 to 2017, the rights of at least 90 journalists in around 20 countries were seriously violated because they dared to cover or talk about women’s rights or gender issues. Several months of research has yielded the following chilling breakdown of these cases: 11 of these journalists were murdered, 12 were imprisoned, at least 25 were physically attacked, and at least 40 others were or are still being threatened on social networks.
“Never forget that a political, economic or religious crisis would suffice to call women’s rights into question,” Simone de Beauvoir wrote in The Second Sex. Contemporary developments unfortunately prove her right. In the United States, outraged protests against President Donald Trump’s sexist remarks erupted in early 2017. In Poland, a bill banning abortion, permitted in certain circumstances since 1993, was submitted to parliament in 2016. In Iraq, a bill endangering women’s rights that included lowering the legal age for marriage was presented to the parliament in Baghdad the same year.
Covering women’s issues does not come without danger. A female editor was murdered for denouncing a sexist policy. A reporter was imprisoned for interviewing a rape victim. A woman reporter was physically attacked for defending access to tampons, while a female blogger was threatened online for criticizing a video game.
Reporters Without Borders (RSF) has wanted to turn the spotlight on violence against journalists covering these issues. and focused specifically on threats and violence against both men and women reporters covering women’s rights. In 2016 and 2017, RSF registered more than 60 cases in more than 20 countries of the rights of journalists being violated in connection with reporting on the condition of women. Almost 90 cases have been registered since 2012. This data has allowed us to classify the kinds of violence: murder, imprisonment, verbal attacks, physical attacks and online aggression. Cyber-harassment represents more than 40% of the cases registered.
In RSF’s view, the information predators responsible for this violence fall into three main categories. Some are religious groups. They target journalists who challenge their propaganda by advocating the emancipation of women. Some are criminal organizations that object to media meddling in their affairs by denouncing their exploitation of women. And finally, there are autocratic governments that are determined to defend their patriarchal societies. Censorship, harassment, threats, and attacks all take a dramatic toll on journalists in countries such as Afghanistan, where many are forced to abandon the profession or even flee abroad for safety reasons. But despite the threats, many other journalists have redoubled their efforts in defence of freedom of expression.
RSF has focused on several of these resistance figures. “It’s not the issue that is dangerous but the society in which it is tackled,” said Nadine Al-Budair, a Saudi journalist based in Qatar.
1.Covering women’s rights can kill
Miroslava Breach and Gauri Lankesh, journalists who provoked
“Writing about women’s rights can prove dangerous in certain countries when it means undermining traditions and arousing awareness in minds that have been subjected to a machista society,” says Juana Gallego, the head of Spain’s Gender Equality Observatory and a lecturer in journalism at the University of Barcelona, explaining the degree to which journalists can find themselves exposed by the fight for women’s rights.
Covering gender issues can kill. This is RSF’s alarming conclusion from the number of murders in the past two years. Eleven of the reporters covered by this study – 12% of the cases – have been killed in connection with their work since the start of 2016, including two leading investigative journalists in 2017, Mexico’s Miroslava Breach and India’s Gauri Lankesh. Miroslava Breach, a reporter for the Norte de Ciudad Juárez and La Jornada newspapers in Chihuahua, in northern Mexico, was shot dead in her car as she drove her son to school on March 23, 2017. Eight gunshots ended the life of “an intelligent and ethically irreproachable woman,” her colleague Olga Alicia Aragón wrote in a tribute published in La Jornada the day after this “horrible crime.” Known as “Miros” by her colleagues, Breach had been a reporter for more than 20 years, covering organized crime in Chihuahua, one of Mexico’s most violent states, and the many murders of women in Ciudad Juárez (see details on page 15). The Norte de Ciudad Juárez, a daily that had been operating for 27 years, closed eight days after Breach’s murder.
Five months later, Gauri Lankesh, the 55-year-old editor of Gauri Lankesh Patrike, a secular and feminist weekly founded by her father, was killed in Bangalore, in southern India, on September 5, 2017. Two men on a motorcycle shot her in the chest and head as she was entering her home. Her murder triggered an outcry and a wave of concern about media freedom. Courageous and outspoken, she had known her life was in danger. She openly criticized the Hindu nationalist government, accusing it of defending not a religion, but a “system of hierarchy in society” in which “women are treated as second-class creatures.
The media are constantly denigrated in India and, a few months before her death, Lankesh was sentenced by a lower court to six months in prison in a defamation case brought against her by two senior members of the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP). “I hope other journos take note,” the BJP’s media officer said at the time.
“These killings are premeditated executions,” says Abeer Saady, an Egyptian journalist who is vice-president of the International Association of Women in Radio and Television (IAWRT) and author of a safety manual for woman journalists. “The journalists are selected and targeted.” The staff of Tolo News, an Afghan 24-hour TV news channel that focuses on
women’s issues in much of its reporting, was targeted on January 20, 2016. Seven of its employees were travelling in a Tolo News minibus when it was rammed by a vehicle loaded with explosives on the Dar ul-Aman road in west Kabul. All were killed by the blast, which was claimed by Islamists. It was the first time an Afghan media outlet had been targeted in this manner since the Taliban government fell in 2001. Other journalists were killed for similar reasons before 2016. Nawras Al-Nuaimi, a 20-year-old journalism student who covered women and youth-related stories for Al-Mosuliya TV, was gunned down by armed men near her home in Mosul, in northern Iraq, on December 15, 2013. RSF said at the time that it was “stunned and appalled by her murder.” Photographer and cameraman Dwijamani Singh was killed in Imphal, in northwestern India, on December 23, 2012 when police opened fire on a crowd demonstrating their support for an actress who had been the victim of sexual violence. According to Abeer Saady, these deaths show that, “journalists can be shot in cold blood, even when they are not in the battlefield.” And the deaths are all the more appalling when they go completely unpunished.
Murdered with impunity
No investigation was ever conducted in Iraq into Al-Nuaimi’s death. “Failure to prosecute after a crime of violence against a journalist is tantamount to encouraging the perpetrators to continue,” RSF said, deploring “the failure of the local and national authorities to respond to the deadly campaign against journalists.” Iraq is ranked 158th out of 180 countries in RSF’s 2017 World Press Freedom Index, while Afghanistan is ranked 120th. In Mexico, the investigations into Miroslava Breach’s murder have been chaotic. After dragging their feet for nine months, the Chihuahua authorities announced on December 19, 2017 that the presumed killer, Ramón Andrés Zavala, had been killed. The federal police announced six days later that they had arrested the murder’s presumed instigator, Juan Carlos “El Larry” Moreno Ochoa, a member of the Los Salazares crime organization. This appeared to constitute significant progress but it fell far short of satisfying Breach’s family, who are convinced that the Chihuahua authorities were involved in her murder. The family has only recently been given access to see the judicial file on her case. According to the Mexican Institute for Competition, more than 95% of violent crime goes unpunished in Mexico, which is ranked 149th in the World Press Freedom Index. In India, which is ranked 136th, the government announced the creation of a special team to investigate Gauri Lankesh’s murder, but those responsible are still at large. A few weeks after the murder, the government of Karnataka, the state where it took place, said the killers had been identified but “evidence is still being collected to prove their guilt.”
In a press release issued at the time, RSF called on the Indian authorities “not to compromise in any way in rendering justice to a journalist who was completely uncompromising,” and to establish a national plan of action for the safety of journalists and for preventing dangers and threats against them. This request has not as yet received any response.
2- A range of abuses to silence journalists
In the past eight years, RSF has registered more than 20 cases of verbal, physical, or sexual attacks in connection with coverage of women’s issues. “We are going to cut you,” Mae Azango, a Liberian journalist who writes about genital mutilation, was told by telephone in 2010. Sajeev Gopalan, a reporter for the Indian daily Kalakaumudi, was attacked at his home in April 2017 after writing about two young girls who had been sexually assaulted by the police. During the revolution in Egypt, when sexual assaults were particularly common, the predators were “very selective about the targets,” says Abeer Saady, who used to be vice-president of Egypt’s journalists’ union. The targets were “mainly women activists or journalists” that they wanted to silence. It was in this extremely aggressive climate that Natasha Smith, a 22-year-old British reporter studying at Falmouth University, was raped in Cairo’s Tahrir Square in November 2012 while making a documentary on women’s rights as an endof-course project and for Channel 4. “I was tossed around like fresh meat among starving lions,” she said. “Men began to rip off my clothes. I was stripped naked. Their insatiable appetite to hurt me heightened. These men, hundreds of them, had turned from humans to animals.
Elena Milashina – Price on her head
Some call Elena Milashina the heir of Anna Politkovskaya, the Russian investigative journalist who made a name for herself by covering human rights violations during the war in Chechnya, in the northern Caucasus. When Politkovskaya was murdered in 2006, many of her peers decided to keep their heads down and avoid sensitive subjects. But not Milashina, a fellow Russian reporter for the Moscow newspaper Novaya Gazeta. “Writing about flowers never interested me,” she said at the time. “I want to be useful and find out about things that are not right. That’s my nature.” One of the subjects she investigated and covered was the murder of Natalia Estemirova, a fellow journalist and human rights defender based in the Chechen capital of Grozny who was found dead in neighbouring Ingushetia. In April and May 2015, Milashina visited Chechnya to investigate the story of a 17-year-old girl who was being forced to marry a Chechen police chief 30 years older than her. In her article, Milashina revealed that the police chief, an associate of Chechen leader Ramzan Kadyrov, already had a wife and had threatened reprisals against the girl’s family if she rejected his marriage proposal. Although human rights groups campaigned for the Kremlin to intervene, the wedding finally went ahead. The police chief warned Milashina: “We have you in our sights.”
In April and May 2015, Milashina visited Chechnya to investigate the story of a 17-year-old girl who was being forced to marry a Chechen police chief 30 years older than her. In her article, Milashina revealed that the police chief, an associate of Chechen leader Ramzan Kadyrov, already had a wife and had threatened reprisals against the girl’s family if she rejected his marriage proposal. Although human rights groups campaigned for the Kremlin to intervene, the wedding finally went ahead. The police chief warned Milashina: “We have you in our sights.”
A few days after the wedding, Grozny-Inform, an online news agency created by the Chechen information ministry, posted an editorial alluding to Milashina that was headlined, “The United State moves its pawns.” It said: “If you had to dig into Milashina’s biography, you would find points in common with Politkovskaya. She uses the same tactics and she will probably end up like her, only this time it will not come from the Caucasus.
Aggressive comments and insults also fly around social networks. “Presstitute,” an amalgam of “press” and “prostitute,” is widely used to insult women journalists in India. “I have been called a whore, a bitch and ‘presstitute’,” said Barkha Dutt, an Indian journalist who was trolled online after the publication in 2015 of “This Unquiet Land – Stories from India’s Fault Lines,” a book in which she describes the abuse to which she was subjected as a child and adolescent. “My mobile number has been shared publicly on multiple online platforms urging people to send me abusive and threatening messages,” she told the Hindustan Times, which devoted a series to cyber-harassment entitled “Let’s talk about trolls.”
How could an award-winning journalist, one who was elected personality of the year by her peers in 2012, end up being threatened with rape and murder online? It is the feeling of omnipotence that social networks create among their users that is to blame according to Bobby Ghosh, who was Hindustan Times editor until last year. “It gives people the licence to behave in a way that they would not dare to do, or even think of, in a non-digital world,” he said. In all, RSF has registered 39 cases of cyber-violence, representing 43% of the cases examined in this study. It is the most common form of abuse suffered by journalists covering women’s issues.
Cyber-violence is a phenomenon that knows no borders, that affects the poorest countries and the most democratic ones alike. RSF has found many cases in India, the United States, and France. All of the online attacks mentioned in this report targeted women journalists – a trend that seems to be confirmed by a survey that the think-tank Demos conducted in the United Kingdom in 2014. According to RSF, women journalists received about three times more inappropriate comments than their male colleagues.
“What is important to notice is the violence of these messages,” says Elisa Lees Muñoz, the executive director of the International Women’s Media Foundation (IWMF). Anita Sarkeesian, a blogger critical of the way women are portrayed in video games, was the target of a hate campaign in Canada in July 2012 that included rape and death threats and sexist insults. “Most of the threats and insults against women are sexual” and come “crashing down on women,” says Abeer Saady. Sarkeesian received many pornographic drawings showing her being raped by video game characters. But worst of all was the Flash game that was created with the sole aim of allowing players to digitally beat her up. She ended up filing a complaint and fleeing her home. “The video game community and the geek community in general are really sexist,” the French blogger known as Mar_Lard said in an article that led to insults and threats against her as well. The threats are sometimes especially direct and precise.
In France, the journalist Nadia Daam was the target of a cyber-harassment campaign orchestrated by trolls on the Jeuxvideo.com website’s “Blabla Forum” for 18 to 25-year-olds in November 2017 after she used her morning spot on Radio Europe 1 to criticize the sabotaging of an “anti-jerk” emergency number set up by feminists for women who are the victims of harassment.
She was immediately deluged with rape and death threats and insults on social networks and via her email accounts and mobile phone. Attempts were made to hack into her instant messaging and social network accounts. She received emails informing her that she had been registered on porn and paedophile websites with her home address. When she accessed private chat areas on Discord, an app used by this community, she discovered that information had been gathered about her. One person said he had checked out the neighbourhood where she lived. Another talked of the possibility of “raping her corpse” and mentioned her daughter. One said he would hammer on her door in the middle of the night. Because of such specific threats, the police advised her to stay somewhere else for a few days. RSF is concerned to see cyber-harassment being used as a way to pressure journalists to shut up. These online conspiracies taking advantage of the virality of social networks now pose a threat to journalists that must be taken very seriously.
- Leading predators
“In many countries, journalists receive threats from Islamists,” says Nadine AlBudair, the Qatar-based host of a Saudi TV discussion programme who expresses feminist views in a fairly direct manner. “The Islamists always accuse us of the same vice, defending a western vision of the society and women.” When the Taliban seized control of the city of Kunduz in northern Afghanistan in September 2015, they raided Radio Shaista, the first state-owned radio station to be run by women, and removed all the equipment from its studios and its newsroom, forcing the station off the air. The target was carefully chosen. Radio Shaista was created with the aim of “encouraging women to change their lives and helping them to defend their rights,” according to its director, Zarghoona Hassan. It interviewed Afghan women who were studying or who wanted to become pilots. It also interviewed the mothers of Afghan fighters who urged their sons not to fight.
Fortunately, the attack left no victims because the radio station was empty at the time. Kabul-based Tolo TV was not as lucky. Seven of its employees were killed in a targeted bombing on January 20, 2016 that was claimed by the Taliban. Once again, the target was carefully chosen. Four months before the attack, the Taliban had criticized the TV channel for its coverage of women’s issues and called it a “military target.” All of its reporters and other employees “will be regarded as enemy personnel, all their centres, bureaux and field equipment (…) will be eliminated,” the Taliban said in a communiqué on October 12, 2015.
Reporting in the field has become a real challenge and women reporters are exposed to verbal and physical violence in the street (and in the workplace) much more than their male colleagues, says Nekzad, who regrets the lack of government figures on such an important issue.
This climate of violence is to be found in all countries where Islamist groups have a strong hold. “Before the rise of radicalism, we were freer to speak,” Saudi TV journalist Nadine Al-Budair said. “It was the Muslim Brotherhood who created the wave of misogyny in my country, for example. They incorporated it into the Salafist movement and the result is disastrous. They have brainwashed Arab youth in recent decades and have created a generation of men who want to destroy women, even to eliminate them from the map. They want to control women completely and are ready to do anything to get their way.” Yazidi Kurdish TV producer Nareen Shammo had to leave Iraq in 2015 after the publication of her stories about Islamic State-organized sexual attacks and rape against members of her community. There is also the issue of the safety of witnesses and sources. This is “an immense responsibility,” says Le Monde roving reporter Annick Cojean, who has written many stories about wartime sexual violence. “We establish close relations, the women gradually confide in us about this event, this earthquake, that has overturned their lives and which they have related to almost no one, not even their mothers or husbands. And we leave with their precious account, conscious of their gift to us and above all of the challenge. But then we go on to cover other news stories while they stay there, weighed down with their torment and pain, and sometimes exposed to the danger of being killed for revealing their secret. So, it is absolutely essential to protect their identity because they put their lives in our hands.” When filmmaker Manon Loizeau suggested that they work together on a documentary about rape in Syria (The Stifled Cry, 2017), Cojean was initially reluctant. “I was too scared for the women. I thought it would be too dangerous for them and that TV would be unable to protect them and would expose them to reprisals.” But Loizeau ended up convincing her by showing her all the ways to protect their anonymity: having them wear a veil, showing just their silhouette or pixelating their faces. It turned out that several of the women interviewed wanted to show their faces to the camera because they were shattered by their experience and felt they had nothing to lose.
It was nonetheless decided, several days before the documentary was shown in France and Switzerland, that the Syrian interviewees should be relocated as a safety measure. “We couldn’t take the risk,” Cojean said. Abeer Saady, a specialist in safety for women journalists, added: “To protect witnesses and sources is essential in journalist work. There is no big issue that deserves to put people in danger.” In war zones, it is usually women journalists who cover stories involving women. “In the past, wars were usually covered by male reporters who had not even thought of looking at the situation of women in war time,” said Cojean, who also recognized that it is harder for men to open certain doors. “They tell me that meeting women and interviewing them is almost impossible because they are rarely allowed to talk to strangers.” So, it is important to send women reporters to difficult places in order to show the war from a woman’s viewpoint. “Until now, part of the population escaped the media’s radar or was poorly described,” Cojean said. “Everything is changing and that is for the better. But constant attention must be paid to this. There is often a tendency to say women’s stories are a niche interest, but they concern one out of every two persons.”
Covering women’s issue can even prove dangerous for journalists in countries regarded as leading democracies. In the United States, for example, covering the issue of abortion is not without risk for reporters.
According to a report entitled “The stakes are so high,” published in the medical magazine Contraception in August 2017 and based on interviews with journalists covering abortion, more than 80% of those interviewed said they had been harassed by “antis” (anti-abortion activists) because of their reporting. The harassment ranged from “nasty tweets” to “death threats,” they said. Brenna, a 41-year-old woman reporter, said: “Antis tweeted out my home address. So that was an issue for me as a writer and it did have a chilling effect (…) It made me really terrified.” Most said they were initially “devastated” or “overwhelmed” but gradually accepted that the harassment was something that came with the terrain. The report said their editors were surprised by the level of violence. “We get emails from people telling us we will go to hell, some get things sent to their homes or offices by strangers,” said Robin Marty, a Minneapolis-based freelancer who specializes in this subject. “The biggest issue is social media, where we will be inundated with gory fetal photos on Facebook or Twitter,” she said. Abortion has been legal in the United States since 1973, but the country is still very divided “between the religious and the secular,” Marty said. “Those who are of no organized religion are growing in number, and it threatens those who are religious, who are often older, are in more rural locations.” According to a Pew Research Centre poll in 2017, 57% of US citizens are in favour of abortion and 40% are against. But those who are opposed “tend to have more influence over our government,” Marty pointed out. Since arriving in the White House, Donald Trump has issued orders blocking public funding for clinics that carry out abortions and for international NGOs that support abortion. “Most of the people in power, whether they are Christians or fundamentalists, claim to think that the country would be best if women stayed home with children,” Marty said. The anti-abortion campaigners are backed by the so-called “pro-life” lobby which scrutinizes publications that defend the right to abortion. Marty has been harassed by the Pro-Life Action League, a group founded in the 1980s that organizes sidewalk protests outside of abortion clinics, sometimes trying to prevent them from opening. Some of these protests have degenerated into violence, leading to fatal injuries. Referring to one of these protests, Mary said: “For me it wasn’t a frightening incident simply because I spend much of my reporting activities embedding with anti-abortion groups, so I don’t usually worry about them turning violent on me. They like having a reporter that they know will report their side of events and they trust me at this point to do that, even though they know I adamantly support abortion rights.” But it is not just fundamentalists of different kinds who threaten journalists covering women’s issues.
ORGANIZED CRIME In Mexico, the northwestern state of Chihuahua is known for its hostility towards media outlets that take an interest in the murders of women in the state, especially in the border town of Ciudad Juárez, since the 1990s. “Whether working for the print media, radio, or TV, almost all the journalists in this state have received death threats in the course of their work,” said Ricardo Alemán, who has been a newspaper columnist for 25 years. “Those that haven’t have been forced to work with organized crime. In short, they have to choose between the pen and the bullet.” Patricia Mayorga, Marta Duran de Huerta and Lydia Cacho all decided to cover Ciudad Juárez’s female homicides. All of them have been threatened. “Each time, they make it clear to the journalists that they know all about them, where they live, where they work and who their relatives are”, Alemán said. “In recent months, journalists no longer even report receiving this kind of pressure. They prefer to keep a low profile and just censor themselves.” When a motorcycle gunman shot Miroslava Breach in March 2017, a note was found at the scene that said: “Lousy police informer governor, you’ll be next – The 80.” The police said “The 80” referred to a gang boss linked to an organized crime syndicate known as La Línea that operates in the state. “The areas controlled by the mafia are like a real battlefield,” says Abeer Saady. According to RSF’s 2017 round-up, Mexico is Latin America’s most dangerous country for journalists and the second-most dangerous in the world, with levels of violence comparable to those in Syria and Iraq.
Norte de Ciudad Juárez, one of the newspapers for which Breach worked, had provided a great deal of coverage of the city’s female homicides until it closed down. And it had highlighted the impunity for threats and violence against reporters. Nowadays, no one dares to cover any story related to the crime cartels because, as Alemán said, “just one word predominates – fear.
- Authoritarian regimes
JUDICIAL HARASSMENT IN IRAN In 2014, RSF identified Iran as the world’s biggest jailer of women journalists. It was in 2014 that Atena Farghadani, a 29-year-old cartoonist, posted a drawing on Facebook showing Iranian parliamentarians with the heads of animals in order to criticize two bills, one penalizing contraception and voluntary sterilization and the other reinforcing the rights of husbands in divorces. For this she was sentenced to three months in prison. After her release, she posted a video on YouTube describing how she was mistreated by the women guards while in prison. This led to her being given a 12-year jail sentence, which was reduced in 2016 to 18 months in prison followed by four years of probation. Many feminist journalists have spent time in Iranian prisons. They include Mansoureh Shojaee, who has been writing constantly about discrimination and abuses against women for the past 17 years. She is one of the founders of the “One million signatures” campaign for legislative reform to end discrimination against Iranian women. She was last arrested on December 24, 2009, when she was accused of “anti-government publicity” by collaborating with various feminist websites. She has lived in exile since August 2010, the year that RSF awarded her its Netizen Prize, but she has not abandoned her fight despite continuing threats and judicial harassment. Last year, she and Nobel peace laureate Shirin Ebadi launched a “Committee to Defend Mothers Imprisoned Iran,” of whom there are many. They include Narges Mohammadi, a journalist and human rights activist held since May 2015 who is serving a 10-year jail sentence. Shojaee also works with a leading Iranian women’s rights news website that calls itself the Feminist School. Its founder, Noushin Ahmadi Khorasani, who wants to adapt Islamic law to modern society, has also been imprisoned on several occasions in connection with her many articles for the site. On June 9, 2012, she was given a five-year suspended prison sentence and five years of probation. “Sentencing journalists to imprisonment or probation fosters a climate of fear designed to reduce them to silence or self-censorship,” said RSF. Worldwide, RSF has registered a total of 12 cases of journalists who have been imprisoned in the past two years or are still imprisoned in connection with the coverage of women’s rights. Most of the examples of this disgraceful and arbitrary practice have been in four countries: Egypt, Iran, Pakistan, and Somalia.
In Somalia, the government imposes a complete blackout on women’s issues, especially sexual violence. “Every day we meet raped women but we cannot talk about them because we remember what we’ve faced from the Somali government,” Radio Shabelle owner Abdimalik Yusuf said. In 2013, one of the radio station’s reporters, Bashir Hashir, filmed a 19-year-old woman (a journalist employed by UN-funded Radio Kasmo) describing how she was raped at gunpoint by two journalists with state-owned Radio Mogadishu. The two Radio Mogadishu journalists responded by filing a defamation complaint, whereupon Hashir, Yusuf, and the 19-year-old woman were all arrested. At the end of a threehour trial in Mogadishu on December 9, 2013, Hashir was sentenced to six months in prison on a criminal defamation charge, Yusuf was sentenced to a year in prison for “insulting state institutions” and the woman received a six-month suspended sentence. The two alleged rapists were never arrested or charged. RSF expressed outrage about the complete lack of media freedom in Somalia although President Hassan Sheikh Mohamud had promised in November 2012 to hold the security forces to account for abuses. “The Somali authorities are more concerned about suppressing criticism of themselves than protecting freedom of expression,” RSF said at the time.
In Uganda, the government did not appreciate being criticized by Gertrude Uwitware, a journalist with the main commercial TV channel NTV. In a blog post in April 2017, she defended Stella Nyanzi, a university academic who had just reminded the president of an election promise to distribute tampons in schools. Shortly after posting her comment, Uwitware was kidnapped at gunpoint while walking along one of Kampala’s safest and most touristic avenues. A man and a woman forced her to get into their car, gagged her, and drove her to an isolated spot several kilometres outside the city where they shaved her head, beat her, and threatened to torture her. Referring to the post about Nyanzi, they also made her delete all of her social network posts for being too critical. They told her they were sparing her life only because she was “one of ours” (meaning a member of President Museveni’s ethnic group) and that they would otherwise have cut her head off. They finally dumped her at an isolated location where police found her at around midnight.
Still of limits despite legislative progress
Şûjin (a Kurdish word for “big sewing needle”) was a feminist news website in Turkey that covered violence against women. Launched in January 2017, it was closed on August 25, 2017 under the state of emergency. “Because Şûjin emphasized the fight for women’s rights and spotlighted the frequent violence against women within families and in the workplace (…) it was targeted and threats were made against the women who wrote for it,” said Beritan Elyakut, who wrote for the website and experienced this harrassment. Violence against women is nonetheless recognized as a major problem in Turkey. Since 2010, at least 1,571 Turkish women have been murdered by men because they were women. The government seemed to be trying to address the issue in 2011 when it ratified the Council of Europe’s convention on violence against women. The following year, the authorities approved legislative amendments making the convention applicable to all women (single, married, and divorced). “We have good laws on violence against women but it’s their implementation that is blocked in practice,” women’s rights lawyer Hülya Gülbahar said. President Recep Tayyep Erdogan’s comments on gender equality, which he described as “contrary to nature” in 2014, are indicative of the government’s real interests on this issue. Ever since the abortive coup in July 2016, Turkey has been experiencing unprecedented levels of repression and censorship, including censorship of the subject of violence against women. RSF calls on the Turkish government to stop resorting to ever more repressive measures and to restore pluralism without delay. But Turkish society is also divided about the role of women. Before its closure, Şûjin often received threatening phone calls from men who had been accused by the site of conjugal violence and sexual abuse of women or minors. In July 2017 alone, the site received dozens of threatening phone calls. “We identify those responsible for these attacks, whoever they are, and that’s why they threaten us,” one of the site’s journalists, Sibel Yükler, said at the time.
In Egypt, Doaa Salah, the TV talk-show host of “‘With Dody,” was sentenced to three years in prison and a fine of 10,000 Egyptian pounds (500 euros) in November 2017 for wearing a fake pregnancy belly under her dress and talking about sex before marriage, single motherhood, and sperm donation in a show that previous July. She was found guilty of “outraging public decency.” At the end of the show, which was broadcast on privately-owned Al-Nahar TV, she had said: “Everyone rejects the idea of pregnancy outside of marriage, that means not everything that happens abroad can happen in our society.” That did not suffice to assuage her critics. Even before her trial, she was suspended from hosting the show for three months on the grounds that she had “promoted immoral ideas that are alien to our society and threaten family links in the country.” RSF is concerned about the fate of journalists who cover women’s issues, seven years after Egypt’s “January 25 Revolution.” Omar Abdel Maksoud, a photographer working for the Masr Al-Arabia news website, was arrested on February 14, 2014 while covering a baby shower for a newly released young woman. She had given birth while handcuffed in prison after being arrested for participating in an antigovernment protest. Maksoud was initially released but was arrested again the following April on suspicion of being a member of the Muslim Brotherhood. Despite having heart problems, he has been in prison ever since and has been tortured. Why has talking about women’s rights become so dangerous in Egypt when Egyptian women played such a major role in the mass demonstrations in June 2013 calling for Mohamed Morsi’s resignation? Gender equality with regard to all civil, political, economic, social, and cultural rights is enshrined in the 2014 constitution. President Sisi even proclaimed 2017 as Year of the Woman with the declared aim of promoting respect for women’s rights in all areas of Egyptian society.
“Ubiquitous censorship” in China Covering feminist issues in China “has always been quite challenging,” said Didi Tatlow, who spent 14 years there as a reporter working for various media outlets, including the New York Times. “You always have to watch what you write to avoid problems,” she said. In 2014, she was invited to talk at a meeting organized by a women’s rights group. “I spotted two spies in the audience who had come to listen to the speeches. They were also there to intimidate us.” She acknowledges that China has increasingly shown signs of opening up on women’s rights since 2015. In February of that year, the Chinese Communist Party began phasing out the one-child policy that had been in force since the 1970s. Couples can now have two children but not more. Six months later, the government amended the historic 1992 law on women’s rights and interests, so that victims of sexual harassment can file a complaint with their employer or the authorities. The introduction of China’s first law on domestic violence at the end of 2015 sent another strong political message. But the pressure on journalists who cover women’s rights is still palpable. Tatlow said that in November 2016 she was summoned by government officials who “explicitly told me not to get in touch with leaders in the feminist movement and not to talk tothis or that person they considered as troublemakers.” She added that she did what they asked because she knew the police were watching the women “and they could have been in trouble.” Despite the legislative progress, women’s rights lack a place in the public debate. Tatlow blamed the fact that “censorship is everywhere” and “the government censors the media and targets all social movements that are trying to make the society evolve.” Only foreign journalists dare to defy the Communist Party and China’s patriarchal society on this issue. “Local journalists don’t even try to cover these issues,” she added. Filmmaker Marjolaine Grappe came to a similar conclusion while making “In the Mood for Life” (2016), a documentary about pregnancies in China that are illegal under its family planning legislation. She said she had to film clandestinely for two years “to avoid surveillance by Chinese officials” and often filmed at night to minimize the risks. “When the subject matter does not reflect well on the Party, you have to think of the risk of reprisals,” she explained.
- Shut up or resist
Exile when the pressure is too much
“I really liked my job but the situation became too critical,” said Shakeela Ibrahimkhel, a former star journalist with Afghanistan’s Tolo News TV channel. Her career took off at the start of the post-Taliban era and ended in 2016, a few months after the targeted car-bombing that killed seven of her Tolo News colleagues. “I left my country, my family, and my friends against my will.” According to the Centre for the Protection of Afghan Women Journalists (CPAWJ), around 100 women have given up being journalists because of mounting Islamist pressure. Why so many? “They are pressured by the Taliban but also by their families, which have difficulty accepting their profession,” the centre’s Farida Nekzad said. Many women want to work for the media but their families oppose this out of concern for their safety. As a result, the remoter provinces have few women journalists, the centre says. It cites the example of Ghor province, where attacks on Afghan women have been particularly widespread. In Nangarhar province, which is just as dangerous because of an Islamic State presence, most families discourage women from leaving their homes. “They have to persuade their parents, their brothers and their other family members to give them permission to work outside the home.” Nekzad said. The problem of women abandoning journalism is endangering media freedom and democracy. “When there are hardly any women journalists, women’s issues are not covered, and that holds up progress in women’s rights in society,” says Nekzad, pointing out that covering women’s issues is rarely a priority for their male colleagues.
In response to the persecution, some reporters have had no choice but to flee into exile, some have stopped reporting, and others have chosen to resist.
For these reasons, RSF offers recommendations to governments, international organizations, online platforms, and news organizations so that women’s rights are no longer regarded as a taboo subject and journalists who want to cover this issue can do so freely.
For news organizations
- Promote coverage of women’s rights
- Take account of the specific needs of covering women’s issues
- Ensure that journalists are aware of gender practices
- Take initiatives to create gender-related positions (e.g the New York Times created the positon of a gender editor in October 2017)
- Take account of the specific nature of attacks on journalists – mainly women journalists – who cover stories related to women’s rights
- Establish an internal emergency procedure for cases of threats
- Take screen shots of threatening messages on social networks
- Do not hesitate to report threats or attacks to the authorities
- Get to know your subject matter in order to be able to evaluate the dangers before going into the field
- Find out about cultural and social practices in the country where you are going, how journalists are perceived and what security is like on the ground
- Decide together with your editors who is the best person to cover this kind of story: man/woman
- Try to work in a team when in dangerous places
- Ensure that sources are protected
- Delete all information of personal nature from laptops, smartphones and tablets
- Secure professional data that could compromise you or your sources
- Ensure that stories are not published until you have left areas controlled by militias or armed groups to avoid being spotted