[Regional] On International Women’s Day, a Sobering Reality for Female Journalists

Threats, intimidation, harassment, and attacks comprise the often hostile (and at times deadly) menagerie of challenges that many journalists face every day. Yet in a world order where discrimination against women is de facto and where fundamental freedoms are more honored in the breach than in the observance, these challenges are all in a day’s work and can be more pervasive and daunting for women journalists.

Today, on International Women’s Day, we celebrate the role of women journalists in the region and elsewhere in the world. Yet we decry in the same breath their continued relegation to a position that makes them vulnerable to attacks by dint of their gender.

The UN Women defines gender-based violence as “any harmful act that is perpetrated against a person’s will and that is based on socially ascribed (gender) differences between females and males.”

Difference in cultures and political contexts across countries and regions may influence how gender-based violence is weighed up. But this notwithstanding, physical, verbal, sexual, and psychological violence, and indirect forms of violence such systemic discrimination at work are challenges more female journalists face compared to their male counterparts.

“Women journalists and media workers, physical, sexual and online abuse is a part of their daily work lives,” said a joint report by the International Women’s Media Foundation (IWMF) and TrollBusters, released in September 2018, titled Attacks and Harassment: The Impact on Female Journalists and Their Reporting.

The report revealed that 26% of survey respondents – women journalists and media workers around the world – reported having been physically attacked in the conduct of their work. They identified the nature of their stories/beat and its angle or approach as among the factors that led to the physical violence.

During the first Global Forum on Media and Gender in Thailand in 2013, UNESCO Director-General Irina Bokova cited violence against women journalists as among the barriers that need to be surpassed for the “equal enjoyment of freedom of expression.”

She noted that gender-sensitive policies and strategies in media, safety of women journalists online and offline, and the gender dimensions of freedom of expression need to be addressed in promoting “women’s empowerment and gender equality in and through the media.”

Now is as good a time as any to train the spotlight on what women journalists, including in the region, have to contend with, with many of them being in constant peril.

Regional Pattern Mirrors Global Situation

The Southeast Asian region is witness to the unrelenting saga of female journalists having to bear the brunt of a society wont to inflict harm on them for simply doing their work.

SEAPA’s 2018 World Press Freedom Report recounted the case of an Indonesian female journalist who was harassed by members of the Indonesian Air Force while covering a land dispute in Medan. The soldiers grabbed her chest, hit her stomach with sticks, and threatened to stab her genital if she continued doing her coverage (see [Indonesia] Violence against women journalists). The journalist’s equipment was also seized by the soldiers.

In Myanmar, the journalist community recently called for an investigation of the attack of two Myitkyina Journal reporters, one of whom was a woman. The journalists made a report on the negative impact of banana plantation projects in the Kachin state. In February 2019, Ma Mun Mun Pan was “dragged, pushed, and pulled until the buttons of her shirt came off.” She was also slapped in the face with a printed copy of their publication during their two-hour ordeal in the company compound. (see Violence against Kachin-based journalists deplorable; police must punish the perpetrators —SEAPA).

These and more stories should banish any doubts that physical attacks or threats against women in the media generally carry gender dimensions.

Violated for her journalistic work

In 2017, the International Federation of Journalists (IFJ) found that 45% of perpetrators of gender-based violence against women journalists were from outside the workplace– sources, readers, listeners, and politicians.

This finding has been accounted for in the 2019 book Jurnalis Perempuan Meliput Indonesia: 50 Kisali di Balik Berita (Female Journalists Covering Indonesia: 50 Stories Behind the News) by SEAPA member Forum Jurnalis Perempuan Indonesia (FJPI, Indonesian Women Journalists Forum). In “God Saved Me from the Hands of Rebels,” iNews Jayapurabureau chief Herawati recalls doing a story on a rebel group in West Papua when she was eight months pregnant. The companions of her source did not trust her.

Someone was yelling at me. “Ko (you) shut up, we check ko (you). If there is any sign that ko (you) are a secret agent, kitong (we) will kill you. Check her underpants may be she has a little weapon inside the vagina.”

One person checked my body, and another one held a cleaver at my neck. As my heart beat faster, I prayed, “Ya Allah, if I must die today, please move their heart to pierce my heart so I instantly die.”

A man checked and groped me, his hands all over my body. I remained catatonic, without tears. I didn’t want to show any signs of fear.

The International Association of Women in Radio and Television’s Safety Handbook for Women Journalists maintains that “women journalists wage a war on two fronts: the war to survive, and the war against the system. They are under pressure to prove themselves, and as a consequence, they may subject themselves to greater danger.” In her FJPI chronicle, Herawati reflected:

I was angry at myself. How stupid I was, I thought to myself. Was I really called to be a journalist or I was I just plain stupid and resigned to my destiny?

Herawati did not disclose reporting her ordeal to authorities or to her supervisors.

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