World Association of News Publishers

Training Women Journalists for Conflict

Training Women Journalists for Conflict

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Without reporters to cover stories from conflict zones, some of the most imminently important stories from around the world would not get the coverage they deserve. But the risks to reporters have not lessened in recent years. Conflict reporters face harassment, kidnapping, assault and even murder in their quest for information.

© GJS /

By Colette Davidson

And while many of the threats to journalists are not gender specific, female reporters confront additional risks at a higher rate than men, such as sexual harassment, assault and rape. Should female journalists reporting from conflict zones receive specific training before heading out into the field?

According to Courtney Radsch, Advocacy Director at the Center for the Protection of Journalists (CPJ), women are underrepresented in data of being imprisoned or killed. “In 2016, for example, just two percent of female journalists were killed,” says Radsch. But many attacks on women journalists aren’t documented, she says, such as sexual threats or attacks.

In fact, sexual assaults against journalists in general are rarely documented. In an attempt to create awareness, the CPJ published “The Silencing Crime: Sexual Violence and Journalists” in 2011. In it, Colombian journalist Jineth Bedoya speaks of how it took her nine years to speak publicly about being raped while out reporting in May 2000. The report also recounts the high-profile story of Lara Logan, the CBS correspondent who was sexually assaulted in Cairo’s Tahrir Square in February 2011.

“Since the Arab Spring, there’s been more attention paid to this issue,” says Radsch. “Not just sexual assaults but an array of other assaults as well.”

Still, the lack of documentation for sexual attacks remains a big problem, says Radsch, and there are several reasons why such attacks may not be reported. There is the fear of being stigmatized or that women will be looked upon negatively by colleagues and not given future assignments. Other times, it is colleagues who are doing the attacking.

Judith Matloff is a veteran journalist with 30 years of experience reporting from 62 countries, including Angola during the height of the civil war and Dagestan during the separatist insurgency. She says that during her career she faced death threats, being caught in crossfire, threats by anti-terrorist forces and the possibility of rape.

She now leads a four-day workshop at the Dart Center for Journalism and Trauma at the Columbia Journalism school, where journalists can learn about digital safety, risk assessment, contingency planning, physical security, emergency first aid, emotional self care, boundary setting and rape prevention. Participants learn basic self-defense moves and stage role-playing of commonly encountered scenarios.

“Assess the risks before you head out,” says Matloff. “For instance, as we learned from the case of Lara Logan, Tahir Square was notorious for grabbing and molesting, so women should have remained on the edges of the crowd with an obvious escape route and preferably in the company of males who could come to their assistance.”

Matloff also recommends women use a door knob alarm, not drink alcohol with sources or others they don’t know well as it can lower their defenses and ability to react, and to dress appropriately for the culture. Most importantly, she says, is to have their antennas up at all times.

“Listen to your gut – if you sense something is wrong, there’s probably a problem,” she says. “Be politely assertive and set firm professional boundaries – verbal, physical and psychological. And learn how to respond and extract yourself from a potentially dangerous situation before it escalates.”

Matloff stresses that prevention is the key, as does Elisabet Cantenys, the executive director of the ACOS Alliance, a network of news organizations, press freedom NGOs and journalists that works together on journalist safety. Cantenys says that part of that prevention is identifying the threats and building a solid risk assessment and communications plan to be able to “press the red button" if need be.

And while men are victims of sexual threats and attacks out in the field, women are the most vulnerable, says Cantenys. For this reason, as well as making sure that male counterparts are aware of the risks women face, it is important to include both genders in safety training.

“It’s better to mix genders in a group and find respectful and sensitive ways to do it, versus only having women in the group,” says Cantenys. “Safety training courses need both genders.”

Cantenys also encourages freelance journalists to take part in safety training, as they are often the most vulnerable journalists – being under-resourced and working alone increases the risks in a hostile environment. Being a woman, in addition, only heightens those risks.

In addition to Matloff’s training course at the Dart Center, safety trainings that feature sexual assault avoidance also exist at a handful of centers, including Washington, DC’s Global Journalist Security (GJS). GJS uses former rape crisis counselors, mental health experts and personal safety trainers to prepare journalists and NGO workers to enter the field safely.

“We’ve created a model that includes teamwork and self-awareness,” says GJS Founder and Executive Director Frank Smyth, a former investigative journalist with experience reporting from El Salvador, Guatemala, Iraq and elsewhere. “We’ve incorporated personal safety training and situational awareness, using your voice or physical demeanor to make yourself less of a target.”

Using a team of trainers and actors, participants are given the appropriate skills before being put into mock assault scenarios, addressing the three most typical responses to attack – “freeze,” “flight” or “fight.” Trainers push participants “past the point of irony,” says Smyth, “until they’re no longer thinking this is funny.”

Because the trainings are so intensely realistic, participants can opt-out at any time and emotional self-care specialists are always on-hand.

Smyth says men need to be part of the discussion on safety training, not only to come to the aid of a female journalist in trouble but also because men get sexually attacked and raped out in the field as well. However, his company does offer a separate training for women, where men are welcome to attend.

“The level of risks [on the job] are so apparent now that even if one does everything right, people can still get injured or killed,” says Smyth, referring to the death of veteran American war correspondent Marie Colvin in Syria in February 2012 or the Wall Street Journal’s Daniel Pearl in Pakistan in 2002.

“As for sexual assault, it has always been there,” he says, “but now we’re talking about it.”


WAN-IFRA continually works to make sure newspapers do better at protecting their female staff against harassment and other threats. A safety panel will be held in Egypt in May as part of the WIN programme, while the World News Media Congress in Durban, South Africa will tackle the issue in June.


Andrew Heslop's picture

Andrew Heslop


2017-04-27 11:16

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