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In Egypt, Women Reporters Still at Risk

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Women reporting from Egypt as foreign correspondents continue to be targets of sexual assault. They also continue to insist on their right to report the news.

Separated from her cameraman, Caroline Sinz, a reporter for public TV station France 3, found herself quickly surrounded by a group of men. Then they set upon her. She was beaten, her clothes were torn and she was sexually assaulted in a manner that “would be considered rape,” she said. “[S]ome people tried to help me but failed,” she told AFP. It was 45 minutes before Sinz was rescued. “I thought I was going to die,” she recalled.

The attack happened while she was covering November 25 protests in Cairo, demanding an end to the rule of the military junta that replaced former President Hosni Mubarak. Her reports are among those that fulfill worldwide interest for news about what’s happening on the ground in Egypt.

Sinz’s is the latest disturbing case of this nature involving foreign correspondents who provide critical coverage of the evolving situation. Earlier this year, CBS correspondent Lara Logan faced the same fate in Cairo’s Tahrir Square, which has been the focus of the protests. There were as yet unconfirmed reports this week of other unidentified reporters targeted by groups of men in Tahrir Square.

Egyptian journalists face similar horrors, as many more locals have been targeted than foreigners. Take the case of Mona Eltahawy, a respected Egyptian-American journalist who was picked up by intelligence and Ministry of Interior agents near Tahrir Square and taken to one of their headquarters. She was then sexually assaulted and beaten so badly that both her hands are in casts. However, the well-publicized cases of attacks on foreign women correspondents have been within Tahrir Square at the hands of what look to be protesters.

But looks can be deceiving.

“It is a well-known fact that the Egyptian police send their members in plainclothes into protests to create trouble,” said Farrah Saafan, a 23-year-old video-journalist from Cairo. Although she refused to place the blame specifically on the police, she found it hard to believe that regular protesters were involved. “These men are here for equality, for democracy, for human rights. Why would they give themselves a bad image by doing something like this?”

Egyptian activist and blogger Ahmed Rady wasn’t so cautious. He firmly believes that the military junta currently ruling Egypt, SCAF (State Council of the Armed Forces), is behind the violence against foreign correspondents. “But they can’t do this directly,” he adds, “So instead, they are doing it in a kind of ‘Oops, we didn't know!’ manner. Obviously, the simplest way to deter female journalists is psychological warfare⎯sexual assault.”

To be sure, such instances of violence are not new to Egypt. Local female journalists and protesters were targeted specifically during the protests of 2005 by security forces. And violence and sexual violence in particular is widespread in Egypt.

Saafan herself has been sexually assaulted. “During the protests in September around the Israeli Embassy, I was a target,” she said. “We were running away from tear gas when suddenly, a young man groped me.” Most of the female protesters she knows have been at the very least sexually harassed and in some cases even assaulted, she says, although she’s still not convinced the attacks came from fellow demonstrators.

For Rady, the difference between attacks by local citizens and security forces lies in organization. Instead of isolated instances, he believes that such attacks on foreign female journalists are planned well ahead of time by security forces and then are carried out by plainclothes agents.

Whatever the source of attacks, Reporters Without Borders (RSF) issued a controversial advisory to all media organizations last week cautioning all media organizations not to send female journalists to Egypt for protest coverage. The advisory was later retracted somewhat after widespread criticism.

Mohamed Abdel Dayem, the Middle East and North Africa program coordinator at the Committee to Project Journalists, thinks that the responsibility for the attacks to an extent lies on the state-media for perpetuating xenophobia in general in the wake of the protests. He thinks the state’s role cannot be ruled out in the attacks. However, he’s unsure RSF’s advisory was necessary.

“Where do you draw the line between male and female journalists?” he said, “They have a right to be there. Nobody really has the authority with very few exceptions to tell journalists where they can go or not go. To say it's for your own good doesn't mean anything.” He asked the authorities to do more to identify the perpetrators if this is to be stopped.

For some, though, there are hints of misogyny in RSF’s advisory.

Lauren Wolfe, the director of Women Under Siege, a Women’s Media Center initiative to document sexual violence in conflicts, called it misguided. “Not only are they playing into the idea that women and news managers can't assess what is an acceptable risk for themselves based on the very same information that RSF has in its hands, but I can't understand why they're not telling male journalists to steer clear of Tahrir based on the fact that they too face intense physical violence,” she said, “To tell women to stay home is condescending and unacceptable.”

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