Sexual assault of female journalists reporting from conflict zones

Date: November 16, 2011
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Articles analysed: “Lifting the barbed veil”, The Star, 18 February 2011; “A letter to Lara”, City Press, 20 February 2011; “Female journos ‘more at risk'”, Mail & Guardian, 18-24 February 2011.

Name of the Publication: The Star; City Press and Mail & Guardian

Name of the journalists: Karim Laub & Maggie Hyde; Nechama Brodie and IIham Rawoot

Country/Regional Relevance: Africa

Theme: Culture and tradition, conflict, gender violence

Genre: News stories, opinion and images

GEM classification: Gender aware (The Star and City Press) and blatant stereotype (Mail & Guardian)


Lara Logan’s sexual assault while she was covering the ousting of Mubarak in Egypt has exposed how journalism remains a precarious profession. With this recent incident, repressive media laws seem not to be the only threat to the profession in Africa but gender-based violence and stereotypes become issues too. Lara’s sexual assault has brought to light how female journalists have “additional” risks simply because they are women. In addition, the incident has exposed unaddressed sexual assaults that women in Arab countries go through. This case study analyses how the media reported the incident by looking at three newspaper articles.


The Star: “Lifting the barbed wire”. Though the headline has no literal meaning, it speaks in volumes. The barbed wire (meant for security) in this case represents the conservative dressing that women in Arab countries are required to wear. Arab mores argue that veils and other coverings signify women’s self respect for their bodies, hence protecting them from sexual abuses by their male counterparts. Contrary to this belief, sexual assaults are rampant in these conservative societies and they mostly go unreported.

Mail & Guardian: “Female journos ‘more at risk'”. Much as the headline is trying to tell the reader the content of the story, it is a blatant stereotype. The headline is separating female journalists from their male counterparts. It highlights to the reader that female journalists are at “more risk” than their male counterparts. In other words, the headline is telling all female journalists to turn off the dream of reporting in volatile situations because males are better placed for this job.

City Press: “A letter to Lara,” since it is an opinion piece. The headline addresses Lara Logan on a personal level and this mirrors the content of the article.


The Star uses seven sources. Four of the sources are women. Since the issue at hand affected a woman, the use of more female expert sources is justifiable. The female sources’ personal experience coupled with their knowledge added value to the story.

Further, the reporters substantiate their argument that women in Arab world continue suffering in silence by using statistics from research. The statistics show that a huge number of women are being sexually abused despite strict Islamic dressing. The figures ring the alarm that sexual assaults are a reality in most Arab countries.

However, it is not known whether the rest of the sources are males or females because the writer simply quotes without revealing their sex, identities and portfolios. Failure to disclose the identities of the sources without stating the reasons for doing so affects the veracity of the piece. The use of actual names and professional positions could have added more credibility to the story.

Mail & Guardian only uses female sources in its story. Similarly, the women interviewed hold responsible positions and their comments add value to the story. Nevertheless, history has it that for a long time men have dominated this genre of reporting (war or conflict zones). Having a seasoned male journalist(s) in this field to comment on the story could have added some value to the story.

In addition, the journalist could have done research through organisations like Reporters Without Boarders and the Committee to Protect Journalists to find cases of sexual assaults that have happened to female journalists previously. This could have substantiated how risky it is for female journalists to report in violent environments. Furthermore, the journalist could have disaggregated the statistics of murdered journalists by sex. This would show if indeed women reporters are at more risk than their male counterparts.

City Press uses unattributed quotes throughout the story. Though this is an opinion piece, the use of facts and actual sources could have added value to the story. Including credible sources and facts could have strengthened the argument condemning what happened to this female reporter.


The Star uses neutral language throughout the story. Use of the words such as “campaigner”, “activist”, “official” and “expert” make the story gender-sensitive. In addition, the article has strong language to express the gravity of women’s issues in Arab countries. The writer uses strong verbs and adjectives were used to express disapproval of what happened to Logan. For instance, the headline says “Lifting the barbed veil”. This signifies the pain women are going through in most Islamic countries despite their conservative style of dressing. The veil is like a barbed wire that is not providing security at all.

City Press uses explicit language in order to bring to light what female journalists go through simply because they are women. However the journalist uses the “F” word, which is unethical. The use of the word by the author implies others may address women journalists with the “F” word. Since the media tends to set and advocate for moral standards, the use of this word contradicts media ethics.

Mail & Guardian uses language that portrays stereotypes in its story. The headline insinuates that female journalists are more at risk than their male counterparts simply because they are women. The headline discourages females from venturing into the profession because they are women. This is further emphasised in the sub-headline, which states that “it’s dangerous [for women reporters] out there.” However in the body of the story, the reporter uses some gender-sensitive language like “spokesperson” and “board member”.

Visual image

The Star uses a picture of an Arab woman, crying and sitting behind barbed wire. Though not directly related to Logan’s incident, the picture speaks in volumes and supports the story. The picture tells the story of how women in Arab countries continue to suffer sexual assaults despite their conservative dressing. Ironically the picture says conservative dressing in Arab countries is like a barbed wire that is not providing security at all. This is why the reporter in the body of the story implicitly suggests that having a law to ban sexual assaults is much better than conservative dressing.

City Press uses the picture of the survivor, which does not have any negative connotations or ethical considerations.

Mail & Guardian used a world map showing places where 45 journalists were killed in 2010 and the reason behind their deaths. The visual image provides details of journalists killed while on duty, but it doesn’t bring out how journalism is “more risky” for female journalists.

Story angle and perspective

The Star: The story explicitly disagrees with what happened to Logan. The story uses the incident to talk about issues affecting Arab women. In both of these angles, the story plays an advocacy role. It tries to suggest solutions of how female journalists can be protected or protect themselves and how the sexual assault of Arab women can be dealt with. The story recognises that both men and women can report in volatile situations, but women need to take extra-precautionary measures.

City Press: Though the article is an opinion, the story angle is not impressive because it was written out of emotions. As a result the reporter used less credible facts and sources in making her arguments. Apart from using personal accounts, quoting sources and documents could have added value to the story.

Mail & Guardian: The story angle reinforces the stereotype that women journalists are naturally meant for soft beats and not hard news like reporting from war or conflict zones. This could have been avoided by not referring to female journalists as being at more risk than their male counterparts. However, male and females viewpoints were incorporated, which makes the story partially gender-aware.

Training exercises
– What are precautionary measures that female journalists must take whenever they want to report in conflict/war zones?
– What could be the main cause that leads to female journalists being assaulted as compared to their male counterparts?
– What can organisation like Reporters Without Boarders and the Committee to Protect Journalists do to ensure safety of female journalists?
– What is the importance of doing research on what could be presumed as “facts” apart from relying on sources?

Other training resources

Glass Ceilings: women and men in Southern African media, research by Gender Links.

“Middle East women must seize the moment,” a Gender Links Opinion and Commentary Service article by Trevor Davies.



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