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What they risked: Women journalists talk about safety and covering violence

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Editor’s note: This article is the third in a 12-part series about female journalists who cover violence. It is based on interviews with 35 female journalists working around the globe. The women requested anonymity, so pseudonyms are used here.

Every eight days, a journalist is killed.

Every day, journalists are threatened, harassed, or assaulted.

For journalists covering conflict and trauma, risk-taking is all in a day’s work.

Among the 35 women interviewed for this series, at least four had been physically attacked, four had been shot at, three had been sexually assaulted, and most had been threatened or harassed for doing their jobs. Some were attacked while doing their jobs. Some were injured on the job. Others were attacked because they were in dangerous locations.

Journalists face the struggle of how to balance their sense of duty with their sense of safety. How do they tell important stories in treacherous environments yet protect their own health and well-being? How do journalists, as the late Marie Colvin asked, balance bravery and bravado?

Reporting from danger zones

Female journalists were acutely aware of the risks they took with every assignment. They evaluated each job, then re-evaluated as the assignment continued. They worked hard not to fall prey to what Caroline, a U.S. journalist, called “the glory myth of violence.”

“Unfortunately, there’s a bit of that cowboy glory that goes with saying you’ve been in a war zone,” said Caroline, who has worked in Africa and the Middle East. “There’s this myth and legend around covering violence.”

But, she added: “Covering violence from a local perspective, there’s no glory in it.”

Zara experienced firsthand the dangers of conflict coverage while reporting on a protest march in Dhaka, Bangladesh, organized by Hefajat-E-Islam (H1). She learned that the group had attacked journalists, and she called her producers to let them know she would wait in a safe place for about an hour.

The situation seemed calm, with some protesters casually asking about her microphone, when a man approached her and said: “Why are you here, being a woman? Just get out of her right now.” She replied that she was there as a journalist, not a woman. A crowd gather and accused her of manipulating the news, not reporting truthfully, and not giving H1 enough positive coverage.

“The way they were talking—my experience as a journalist said I better leave this place.” She tried, but was attacked by protesters, who threw bottles, bricks, stones—whatever they could find.

“Since I couldn’t look back, I could only feel them hitting my head, back, legs, and neck.” A man offered to help her, but left, and the crowd pushed her to the ground.

“The number of attackers were 50 to 60 or more. . . . They were hitting me, throwing me on the ground, and it was like they wanted to kill me . . . and I had no way to stop them.” Fellow journalists tried to help but were beaten back.

Finally, the police came, and she was taken to the hospital—but sent home because doctors feared H1 would attack them. She went to another hospital, where she stayed for five days.

Five months later, Zara returned to work. Her employer didn’t help with her health care expenses or pay her salary while she recuperated.

Esin, a journalist working in her home country of Pakistan, has been shot at twice. The first time was when she covering a shooting at a passenger bus in Karachi.

“I rushed to the place. . . . Just the moment we reached there, there was a vehicle . . . that sprayed fire at us. Me and my cameraman and our driver just laid down on the floor to save ourselves.”

The second time was when she was covering a protest and paramilitary police fired at her.

“I felt like I might not come out alive. That was a very close call,” said Esin.

Adilah covered gang violence in Guatemala, where children with guns shot at her and her colleagues. “We were just on the wrong street,” she said. She and her crew weren’t hurt.

Adira, also a Pakistani journalist, was injured when she covered a bomb blast in the Oranji township in Karachi.

“I lost consciousness and later was carried to the hospital,” she said.

She and her colleagues had thought they were safe, but the first bomb blast they covered was followed by a second that surprised them.

She said she felt unsafe “most of the time” doing her job “despite taking precautionary measures” because one violent event often leads to another.

“For example, target killings lead to street vandalism and road blocks. Also, in the case of covering bomb blasts, there was always the suspicion of another blast and some other terrorist activity at the location of the event,” Adira said.

Living with constant fear

Even though they might not be direct targets of violence, journalists were keenly aware of potential dangers they faced, and many said they worked in environments where they were perpetually afraid.

Ella, a Zimbabwean journalist who has covered violence throughout Africa, said she “lived for many, many years in that state of barely controlled panic,” always looking in her rearview mirror when she drove. “The fear, at times, was overwhelming.”

Emine, a Turkish journalist, said she felt anxious when she talked with members of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), a rebel group that has been in conflict with the Turkish government since its formation in the 1970s.

“The first time I interviewed a PKK terrorist, I couldn’t sleep for about a week,” she said. “And it was a challenge for me to be among a group of PKK men. But it was a job. To me, what was crossing my mind . . . is that these people have taken lives, and they can take mine.”

Denisa was a journalist in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) during the country’s bloody civil war, which claimed the lives of some five million people from 1994 to 2003. She worked with the knowledge “I could be killed anytime.”

She was once trapped in her Kinshasa office as riots took place outside.

“I felt really unsafe because everywhere people were running. Everywhere, you can hear guns. . . . I didn’t get home that day. . . . We slept almost two days on the floor. I have two kids, my husband also. I didn’t know where he was.”

She ultimately decided she couldn’t stay in the office and walked home.

Her husband, also a journalist, was “very, very lucky.” Before the riots started, his supervisor packed 10 people into a jeep meant to hold five, and they left their office. “If they had stayed there, maybe some of them would be killed,” she said.

Anna, a U.S. journalist, said she felt unsafe every minute she covered combat in Iraq.

“Yes, I was scared. We were all scared. . . . We had mortars lobbed at us. We ran for cover.”

Ava, a U.S. journalist who covered conflict in Africa, then embedded with U.S. troops in Iraq and Afghanistan, said that as she looks back at her career, “I was acutely aware of how much danger I was in,” wondering “how many ways could they kill me.”

For Sarah, a Canadian journalist who worked in the DRC, fear grew gradually. She heard stories about women who were raped when they went to fetch water.

“I heard more stories about people—steel buildings falling on them, people getting sick because of cholera. The more I was exposed to this chaos, I thought, ‘Oh, my gosh, we’re in a precarious situation.’

“There was no situation where I felt like, when I was doing this story, I was a target,” Sarah said. But, “when I started to connect the dots over numerous stories, I felt a lack of control that I couldn’t stop the violence from happening,” she said.

One U.S. journalist has received death threats because of her work. Consequently, “I get really touchy when people talk about violence against journalists,” said Emma.

But there were times when journalists did not realize the dangers they faced. Charlotte, a U.S. reporter, covered crime and wrote about a murder in her community. She interviewed one of the victim’s neighbors—only to learn three months later that the man she interviewed was actually the murderer.

Women’s safety

In some situations, being a woman carried its own risks.

Caroline was working in Africa when she was attacked.

“I was not in the process of newsgathering. Just walking. I got the shit kicked out of me,” she said. “Security guys saved my life. That was not a sexual assault. It didn’t feel sexually motivated, but it was definitely violence directed at a female,” she said.

Martina said she felt violence against women was commonplace of her home country of Argentina, and when she began working in Mexico, she had to think continually about her safety.

“There were situations in Mexico in which I felt endangered as a woman. It never amounted to much, but pretty much from the moment I arrived, it became clear to me that being a woman was going to work possibly against me, and I had to be very careful.”

She remembered taking a bus to an area with a high rate of femicide. She told her photographer she wanted to leave. “The woman in front of me said, ‘If you get off here, you’re raped and dead.’”

But Martina found that work was not the only place she had to worry about her safety. She was sexually assaulted by a fellow journalist who broke into her home.

“I had to face this really difficult labyrinth of I can’t report this guy, or I’ll lose my job.” She did tell a male colleague what happened, but neither he nor she reported what happened to her employer.

“I understood if I say something, I’m going to get called back,” and she would not be able to do her job as she wanted.

Martina is not alone in her experiences. The International Women’s Media Foundation (IWMF) surveyed women around the globe and found that 14 percent of 546 respondents said they had experienced sexual violence related to their jobs. Of the 176 women who experienced sexual violence, 81 percent did not report the assaults to their employers or to an legal authority, IWMF reported.

Mary, a journalist working in the Philippines, had a less violent but equally abusive encounter with a male source, who kept touching her arm and elbow during an interview. When she told him to stop “he shouted and accused me of being a biased journalist,” she said.

Wars of words

While not all journalists received physical threats, many had been threatened verbally.

Sometimes, government officials were the harassers.

Audra, a Ugandan journalist, heard a radio broadcast in which a government official told her she had 24 hours to leave her home or she would be arrested. He didn’t follow through. Adira, a Pakistani journalist, received intimidating calls from politicians. Jessa, a journalist from Myanmar, has been harassed by government officials.

“There were times when I was detained briefly for questioning, and there are a couple of times (when) the state-run newspaper referred to me as a traitor, but allegations have never dampened my feelings toward my career as a journalist,” Jessa said. “Instead, I felt more committed.”

Sometimes, news sources were harassers.

Hannah, a Ugandan journalist, who frequently wrote about domestic violence, said one of her sources threatened “that he will kill me for bothering him.” She also received negative and harassing comments on social media from men, upset by her coverage of wife battering.

Falak, an Armenian journalist, found herself a pariah after documenting the lives of transgendered people in her country. “For maybe two to three months, I was really in depression because I received so many hate(ful), aggressive messages,” she said.

Sometimes the harasser was a newspaper reader. Olivia, a journalist working in the U.S., was stalked by a reader who followed her home and slit the tires on her car.

Online harassment was common among women journalists interviewed as part of this series, and it is common worldwide. A University of Texas study, which surveyed 75 journalists in India, Taiwan, Germany, the United Kingdom and the United States, found that the majority of women experienced some form of online harassment that attacked them personally or attacked them based on gender or sexuality.

Madeline, a U.S. journalist, also has been harassed online, and Rose, a U.S. journalist went to the police because of an online harasser.

And while verbal threats were unnerving, Asya, who works in the Middle East, said she considers them an annoyance.

“In my reporting I’ve been blacklisted by governments. I’ve had a gun pointed to my head. I’ve been called in for interrogation by rebel groups,” Asya said. “The nasty reader comments are the easiest thing to deal with because they can’t reach me. A mean tweet doesn’t bother me. It’s the threat of physical violence and the people who can actually reach me who are the bigger fear.”

While journalists worried about their own safety, they also were concerned about the safety of their families and work colleagues.

The reality of death

Journalists knew that doing their jobs could cost them their lives, and that reminder became stronger each time a fellow journalist was killed.

Martina works in Mexico, one of the most dangerous places for journalists—and the possibility of dying while doing her job is hard to ignore.

“It was impossible to make this mental shield of ‘that’s not going to happen to me’ because it was happening all around me. Journalists were getting killed. It became impossible not to think about it,” Martina said.

Denisa had been talking with a colleague in the DRC about a story on orphanages. She heard the next day her fellow reporter had died, then found out he and another journalist had been killed. They suspected government leaders were responsible.

“We asked, ‘Are they (officials) killing us so we won’t talk anymore?’ I was thinking about my friend they killed, and I was thinking about myself. Maybe they will kill other journalists. At that time, our chief of staff told us to be very careful.”

Although she was afraid, her overwhelming emotion was “a very big sadness,” Denisa said.

Ella, a Zimbabwean journalist, lost two friends who worked as journalists in Sierra Leone, and her best friend was shot in Somalia. Ava, a U.S. journalist who worked in Africa, lost two colleagues, killed a year apart. After one died, her news organization brought in a psychologist to talk to the staff. “Now you’re sending somebody. Did you think about maybe . . . (it) didn’t need to go that far?”

Reporters Sans Frontiers says that from January through June 2018, 40 journalists, including three women, have been killed. Leslie Ann Pamela Montenegro del Real was shot in Mexico as she sat with her husband in a restaurant they owned. Maharram Durrani was killed in Afghanistan in a suicide bomber attack that left eight other journalists dead. Wendi Winters was killed at her U.S. newspaper, along with four colleagues, by a gunman unhappy with an article the paper published years earlier about his harassment of a woman. UNESCO reports that between 2012 and 2016, the number of female journalists doubled, increasing from five in 2012 to 10 in 2016, with the Middle East and Africa being the most dangerous for women.

There but for the grace of God …

Journalists believed that fate often played a role in keeping them safe.

Martina said she felt she often took chances that she shouldn’t have when she first began reporting. “I look back, and I think I could have died so many times. I was so reckless.”

Madeline, a U.S. journalist who worked as a trainer in Afghanistan for two years, said that it was “just luck” that she left her office 10 minutes before it was attacked. “I was always living with a sense of anything could happen but never being in a situation where my life was in direct danger.”

Claire, a journalist who covered both the U.S. wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, acknowledged “there’s a degree of luck” in staying safe. “I’ve always trusted my instincts. . . . Luck plays a part, for sure.”

But Claire had thought carefully about what happened if luck ran out.

“I know I’ve got this degree of experience, and I’m smart, but I also really know and understand nothing I’ve done means anything if that bullet is headed your way, and you’re in the wrong place,” Claire said. “If I died there, I died doing what I believe in. I fulfilled my purpose. I wasn’t trying to die. . . that was how I approached everything.”

Taking precautions, staying safe

Journalists working in violent environments encouraged colleagues to focus on safety, not heroics, or fame or the next promotion. And, they encouraged colleagues not to become so driven to deliver a big story that they abandon responsibility to their own well-being.

“Make yourself as safe as possible,” Natalie advised.

“Always remember your safety and security must come first before the story you are pursing,” said Audra.

Adilah remembered a time she was working in Iraq, eager to pursue a story. Her producer was concerned about her safety and asked, “Is it worth a three-minute segment?” Adilah said sometimes journalists are so determined, they put safety second—and they shouldn’t.

“You get in the zone, you feel the pressure, you want to produce something brilliant, and you lose sight.” But she added, “No story’s worth dying for.”

Mary, a journalist in the Philippines, agreed: “First and foremost, no story’s worth your life, no matter how compelling or important. . . . You need to take precautions. You need to return to your home, your life.”

Journalists should not sacrifice safety for glory. Covering violence is hard work, physically and emotionally, they said, and no guarantee for job advancement.

“Don’t do it because you think it’s a fast-track way to career success,” said Leah, a U.S. photographer. “It has long-term effects on you, and most importantly, you’re not immortal.”

She paraphrased a colleague who was kidnapped in Gaza, saying every dangerous assignment is a gamble.

“You can only stay on the floor so long before the house wins,” the colleague told her.

Denisa, who covered the civil war the DRC, said journalists must balance the public’s need to know with personal welfare. “You must be prudent. Don’t cover an event because you want to be famous or popular. . . . Don’t try to be a hero. Be a journalist. Be a real witness for people who cannot be there.”

Younger journalists may be tempted to take risks in hopes of making a name for themselves, but veteran journalists advised against it.

“It’s a very dangerous idea that you have to be a badass because it gets young people in trouble,” said Asya. “They (young journalists) feel they have to be on the front line. . . . I see it in every conflict, where some young, green reporter thinks that he or she must come back with some story to make them look like a badass to have some credibility. . . . Sometimes it can harm your credibility if you do things like that. You can be perceived as reckless, and sometimes rightfully so.”

“I think putting ourselves in danger is often necessary to tell the story,” said Elizabeth, a U.S. journalist. “But increasingly, young journalists work freelance for organizations that won’t protect them. I tell them to make sure that the people who are sending them into danger will take care of them if something happens—insurance, medical coverage, body armor. And then you yourself have to believe that what you’re doing is worth it.”

“Fear can be your friend”

And journalists should always trust their gut instincts. They must assess risks, evaluate their safety, and never hesitate to leave a dangerous situation.

“Fear can be your friend,” said Asya. “It means you’re aware of what’s happening around you. I figure the big problem is when you’re not afraid, you’re impervious to what’s around you.” She said journalists may fail to “recognize the situation is dangerous because judgment is off.”

Emine held a similar perspective. “Every time you’re . . . (in) the field, you put your life at risk. The dose (of risk) is different. . . . I don’t know how to measure it, but it’s a gut feeling. When you’re not feeling safe, something is not tipping right, you say you should not be there. The first duty to yourself as a journalist is to protect your own life.”

Caroline said: “In any story in a hostile environment, you’ll get that hair (standing up) on the back of your neck. . . . When I get that . . . sense, I get out. That’s my rule . . . . I personally have no problem saying no or get me the hell out.”

She also reminded journalists that they are responsible for other lives, not just their own.

“Anyone I work with, I tell them, you need to think about when is the time to go. . . . I have my own ground rules. If anyone feels unsafe, if they’re not comfortable, we move. . . . If I can sleep at night, I deal with whatever fallout there is,” said Caroline.

Esin faced this situation when she reported on the assassination of Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto, the first woman to lead a Muslim country.

“Violence broke out in almost all parts of Pakistan. . . . I saw vehicles on fire. I saw boys with AK47s in their hands. I saw boys with knives in their hands. I saw boys with stocks in their hands, and they were going crazy, and they were going wild,” Esin said.

She turned to her cameraman and said, “Listen, mate, it’s really up to you. You really have a choice. If you want to leave (you can), but I’ve got to cover this. I’m not forcing you. He said, ‘I’m with you.’ I saw a lot of courage in him,” said Esin.

Staying safe and keeping other safe should be journalists’ top priority, and women interviewed for this series offered other strategies for reducing risks.

Inform others

Journalists should tell colleagues their whereabouts, keep phone batteries charged, have food and water close by, and not go on assignments alone. Have a system of check-ins—different people you’ll contact at different times.

Caroline said that before she goes into a risky situation she talks to numerous people to get an understanding of what she might face. When she goes into a risky situation, she lets others know where she is going, establishing a system of check-ins. She tells her colleagues and relatives where she plans to be. “I don’t go anywhere unless I’ve spoken to endless numbers of people,” said Caroline.

But Asya said this can be difficult. “As a freelancer, I’m often out there by myself. I don’t have a translator or a fixer, so it’s not as if I’m touching base with an editor regularly.”

Have an exit strategy

Have plans to leave dangerous situations.

“Always look for an escape route,” advised Jessa, and have more than one escape route planned.

Knowing and planning can be “the difference between life and death,” Claire said.

Make changes

Lillian, a journalist working in Mexico, said to stay safe, she alters her routine every day and has multiple locks on her door. “It seems like common sense,” she said.

Rely on local residents

Claire said understanding local culture and befriending local residents is the key to staying safe.

“Know the language, the terrain, the culture, the politics, the circumstances at the time. Know the village elders. Know what’s normal and what’s not. . . . Everything that was ever possible was (due to) the good local people, and they were my guide for staying alive,” said Claire.

Numerous journalism organizations offer information about safety. Some of them are listed below.

  • The International Women’s Media Foundation offers hostile environment and first-aid training, as well as resources to help women deal with online sexual harassment. For more information, click here.

  • The Dart Center offers a variety of resources on safety and self-care for journalists.

  • Female journalists have shared their own stories of staying safe in the field:

  • The Committee to Protect Journalists offers a safety guide.

  • Reporters without Borders offers a safety guide.

Next in the series: How they felt: Female journalists talk about the emotional effects of covering violence.