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What they saw: Women journalists talk about covering violence


Photo by Lars Schmidt / International Media Support

Editor’s note: This article is the first in a 12-part of a series about female journalists who cover violence. It is based on interviews with 35 women working around the globe. Women were promised anonymity, so pseudonyms are used in this series.

Adilah was shot at in Guatemala. She was shot at in south Sudan. She feared she might be shot in Iraq.

Esin, who worked in Afghanistan, has been shot at twice, once by police.

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

Ella has had “a couple of thumpings and beatings in my time” from government officials while working throughout Africa.

And Zara was out of work for five weeks after she was assaulted by terrorists in front of a police barricade in her home country of Bangladesh.

“The attackers were snatching me back, throwing me on the ground, beating me. . . . They tore apart my kameez (tunic) and were trying to tear the whole dress apart. They also tried to take away my orna (scarf),” said Zara.

Adilah, Esin, Ella and Zara—not their real names—are journalists.

Every day, these women and others risk their lives and safety to report the news, to tell the stories of people who are vulnerable, whose lives are in danger, who feel powerless. To do their jobs, journalists may themselves experience violence, they may witness violence, or they may interview survivors with harrowing stories to tell. During their careers, 80 to 100 percent of journalists will cover some type of violence or trauma, according to researchers at Åbo Akademi University in Finland and the University of Tulsa, USA.

Violence claims the lives of more than one million people a year, and “the human cost in grief and pain, of course, cannot be calculated,” a 2002 World Health Organization (WHO) report says. It is journalists’ job to make that grief and pain visible.

For journalists, covering violence is one of the hardest parts of their job. It is “so emotional and sits in your soul,” said Sarah, a Canadian journalist who has worked in Africa and the Middle East.

Female journalists and risks

Like their male colleagues who report on violence, female journalists face death and kidnapping threats. They also face threats of rape and sexual assault, which are less common for men. Additionally, UNESCO reports that women face increased risks of cyber harassment. “Women journalists are vulnerable to attacks not only from those attempting to silence their coverage, but also from sources, colleagues and others,” says UNESCO’s World Trends in Freedom of Expression and Media Development.

Beyond threats to their own safety, there are emotional landmines. Female journalists must navigate carefully as they interview or photograph survivors, so as not to traumatize them again. And they must live with the memories of the tragedies they saw or the stories they heard.

How do women, stereotyped as nurturers and creators, fit into this violent world? How do female journalists report about violence? How do they make sense of what they’ve seen?

To learn more, I interviewed 35 female journalists who covered violence and trauma around the world to understand if or how being a woman makes a difference in their jobs. These journalists included photographers, reporters, editors, producers and bloggers working for international and national news organizations, local newspapers and television stations, and non-profit media. Some were employed full-time; others worked part-time or as freelancers. Because some women defied their governments to do their jobs or risked retaliation from reporting on terrorist groups, the women were promised anonymity, and I used pseudonyms in this series.

What is violence?

WHO defines violence as “the intentional use of physical force or power, threatened or actual, against oneself, another person, or against a group or community.”

Journalists have their own definitions.

“What is trauma . . . . I think loss is a good word for trauma,” said Anna, a U.S. journalist who has covered the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Journalists in this study defined violence as both institutional and interpersonal. They reported on government-sanctioned wars in Iraq, Afghanistan, Kosovo, and Chechnya; civil wars in Burundi, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, and Libya; religious conflicts in Pakistan, Israel, Palestine, and Bangladesh; and terrorist attacks by the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) and the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) in Turkey. They covered massacres in a mosque in Hebron and a church in Charleston, S.C., in the United States. They covered ethnic cleansing in South Sudan, genocide in Rwanda and the kidnappings of children in Uganda and in Central America. They covered sexual violence, including human trafficking, domestic violence, and rape as a weapon of war.

Journalists also saw violence as the result of direct actions meant to be harmful, but, they said, it could also be the consequence of neglect.

“The first time I covered violent events in 2010, I personally witnessed a guy starved in a market in Yaoundé,” said, Julia, a Belgian journalist who worked in Cameroon. “I was thinking he was dead . . . but I saw his look, his eyes, and I understood he was still alive. Unfortunately, it was too late. . . . He wasn’t the only guy I saw in a state of close to death because of starvation.”

She also witnessed neglect and indifference for people with HIV/AIDS and tuberculosis.

“This institutional violence shocked me more than the explicit violence I experienced in times of civil war,” she said.

Natural disasters were another form of violence, journalists said.

Mary, a journalist for an alternative publication in the Philippines, covered the aftermath of a typhoon in the Laguna province.

“You still remember the scenes you have witnessed, the destruction you have witnessed, the criminal neglect, the social economic violence that was committed against those survivors,” she said.

Sarah added: “The fact there’s no human dignity because of the failures of a government or a system—because of the things that are supposed to be there—I would consider that violence in some form.”

Journalists as actors, spectators

For some journalists, violence was something they personally experienced.

Denisa was a reporter working in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, traveling with a government delegation, when she and her colleagues received word two journalists had been kidnapped. “We ran into the bushes. We ran five hours. At that time, I wasn’t any more a journalist. I was an actor in a violent problem.”

Audra, a Ugandan journalist who covered the Lord’s Resistance Army, said: “I witnessed and experienced the war. . . . Most of the time I felt unsafe, fear of stepping on foot (land) mines, ambush, rape or abduction.”

For other journalists, particularly those covering wars and civil conflicts, violence was something they witnessed firsthand.

Emine, a journalist from Turkey, was covering the Iraqi elections after President Saddam Hussein left office. She was working in south Baghdad.

“I saw a young couple walking hand-in-hand. . . . I felt they were quite in love.”

She interviewed them, then asked if she could take a photo.

“I took a few steps back,” Emine said. “I was just next to the trash bin. I took off my helmet. It was too heavy. Then it all happened very fast. . . . It was a suicide bomber.” Nearly 40 people died at the scene, including the young woman.

Nora, a U.S. journalist, witnessed a car bombing on the Turkish border. “I had just been interviewing people, and I turned around and they were all dead. And timing meant I could have been there myself.”

Talking with survivors

Even if journalists did not see violence firsthand, one of their jobs was to interview or photograph people who did. “When I’m not witnessing violent events, I’m talking to people who have survived them. They often discuss attacks that have killed their families,” said Elizabeth, a U.S. journalist who has reported from the Middle East. She and other journalists worked carefully to balance the need to tell a thorough story with the need to show compassion for survivors of violent events and for individuals who lost loved ones.

When Adilah covered the 2003 earthquake in Bam, Iran, she remembered: “We saw this one woman standing there. . . . She had a coat and was holding her handbag. I said, ‘Hi, what’s happened?’ And she said, ‘I got here hours ago. I flew in from Tehran. I came to see my girls. I’m now here with my girls.’ She put a blanket over them as if they were sleeping. (My friend) and I started crying. That broke her out of her spell, and she cried for a while, and she started talking.”

Audra said interviewing survivors was a central part of her work when she covered the Lord’s Resistance Army.

“They told me horrific experiences, from witnessing the killing of their husbands (and) wives, kidnapping of their loved ones, ambushes, the pain of living as a landmine survivor, experiences during abduction, killing fellow abductees or relatives, attacks and raids on schools, hospitals and villages,” said Audra.

Choosing to cover violence

Female journalists said they often chose the stories they covered. For some, the topics they chose were inherently violent.

Rose, a U.S. journalist who covered the crime beat, said: “Everything I cover is a kind of violence.”

Some, like Adilah, had covered different types of violence in different geographic regions. “I was covering gangs in Guatemala. There were vigilantes killing these gangs. The day I got there, a family of four or five had been bound and killed. . . . I covered honor killings in Turkey. I’ve covered witch hunts in Papau New Guinea. . . . I covered the trafficking of women from Honduras to Mexico. I investigated the rape of protesters in Egypt. . . . I covered El-Salvador—there were child assassinations. . . . I covered conflict in Syria and what happens to prisoners of war.”

A U.S. journalist who reported on the aftermath of the 2001 plane crashes engineered by al-Qaida in New York City. “My job basically was to be alert for when they pulled a body. . . . I always say that was my first war,” said Anna.

Some journalists worked in countries where violence was commonplace.

“I’ve only ever covered bad news,” said Ella, a Zimbabwean journalist. “In Africa, it’s a constant diet of civil wars, famine, genocide.”

Esin, a journalist working from her home country of Pakistan, described Karachi as “an active war zone. There are no different countries. These are basically people of different faiths killing each other.”

She covered the riots that followed the death of local politician Raza Haider in 2010 and saw people die in front of her, and she continued to report on violence the following year. “I hardly ever came back home,” she said. “I’d get home, and 20 more bodies were killed, and I’d come back (to work).”

Emine has spent years covering violence in her home country of Turkey and its effects on survivors of PKK attacks. Arina, a journalist from Estonia, covered conflict in Northern Ireland, the violent aftermath of Russian elections, and violence in Georgia and Kosovo. Emma, a U.S. journalist, has covered more than 60 mass shootings in her home country.

Some journalists did not see violence firsthand, nor did they interview or photograph survivors. They stayed in the office and edited video or audio reports.

Olivia, a journalist who covered the aftermath of the Pulse nightclub shooting in Florida in the United States, listened to recordings and watched videos provided by the police department in the year that followed. She reviewed police records and conducted interviews with loved ones of the 49 people who died.

“I physically wasn’t shot. I wasn’t attacked,” she said. But she was emotionally affected by the violence. “It wasn’t just a night of trauma for me. It was every day.”

At one point, Sarah, the Canadian journalist who worked in Africa and the Middle East, had a job that required her to review images from wire services, which included photos of injured children and grieving parents. “I wanted to vomit, to cry. I was so disgusted. I just said, ‘I can’t.’”

One U.S. journalist had seen violence from two different sides. Ava reported on civil unrest in Africa where she saw the aftermath of violence.

“I saw lots of orphan kids, people who were really traumatized,” she said.

Then, when she embedded with troops in Afghanistan, “I was seeing the face of war from the inside, from the people fighting it. It was different.”

Violence against women

Journalists saw women as particularly vulnerable to violence. WHO estimates that one in three women have experienced some form of violence, and conflict and displacement.

In her home country of the Democratic Republic of the Congo, violence against women is commonplace, said Denisa. “I did a lot of reports about women and violence. I covered a lot of stories about women, sexual abuse, spouse abuse, and child abuse. Almost every day we have a story about that.”

At least three journalists interviewed in this series reported on women’s vulnerability to violence in the home.

Hannah, a Ugandan journalist, decided she wanted to cover domestic violence after her sister was battered. She wanted to expose the unfairness that “many women in Uganda, especially those in rural areas go through when their spouses beat them harass them, and deny them the right to develop their potential,” she said.

Sofia, a Russian journalist, also decided to cover domestic violence, and one of her goals was to educate political leaders. “Domestic violence wasn’t accepted as an issue in the 1990s, and I was pushing. . . . The thinking was, ‘It’s private business,’” said Sofia.

Charlotte, a journalist in the United States, wrote a series of stories about domestic violence, which included interviews with women who had been battered and with lawmakers, police, church leaders and social workers about institutional failures to protect women.

No matter where they worked, female journalists saw violence against women as a widespread problem.

Martina, an Argentine-born reporter working in Mexico, said her job sometimes took her to areas with high rates of femicide. She said she was “acutely aware of being a woman in an environment that has unfolded as being incredibly vicious to women.”

“Every woman I’ve met, of every class, of every ethnicity, has a story of violence,” she said. “You can’t divorce yourself from this. You know how endemic it is.”

Next in the series: Female journalists discuss why they do their jobs.