Sexual assault on journalist triggers ugly media reactions

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On 11 February, the day Egypt's President Mubarak agreed to step down, a mob of about 200 people attacked a CBS television crew, separating Lara Logan, the network's chief foreign correspondent, from her colleagues.

Logan was violently beaten and sexually assaulted until a group of women and soldiers came to her rescue. CBS released a short statement saying the journalist had returned to the United States where she was hospitalised for a short time.

This was not the first time a journalist had been attacked during the Egyptian protests. The Committee to Protect Journalists, a US not-for-profit organisation (NGO) of which Logan is a board member, documented 141 cases of violence against media workers since the end of January. In one instance, violence led to the death of Ahmed Mohammed Mahmoud, who was shot by a sniper while taking pictures from his balcony.

What was astonishing about the attack on Logan was the way it was perceived by many in the Western media world. On returning home, the CBS correspondent had to deal with a media onslaught rife with the typical blame-the-victim accusations, many from other journalists and commentators.

One of the most publicised attacks on Logan came from the left-wing journalist Nir Rosen, who, like Logan, had worked in the war zones of Iraq and Afghanistan and was a fellow of New York University. News of the event broke out when Rosen started a series of tweets which began with:

"[She] was probably just groped like thousands of other women",

continued with:

"Lara had to outdo Anderson" [referring to the attack on CNN's reporter Anderson Cooper and his crew the day before],

and ended with:

"Jesus Christ, at a moment when she is going to become a martyr and glorified we should at least remember her role as a major warmonger."

As Rosen's tweets spread, he found himself in the eye of a media hurricane which eventually forced him to resign from his position at New York University.

Subsequently, Rosen expressed - many times - his regret for the poor taste of his banter, claiming he had no idea the attack on Logan was of a sexual nature; a defence many find dubious seeing as Rosen posted a link to the CBS statement from the beginning. Rosen also later claimed to be a "staunch supporter of women's rights".

Rosen wasn't the only commentator interested in what had happened to Logan. Debbie Schlussel, the ultra-conservative columnist and commentator, claimed in her blog:

"Lara Logan was among the chief cheerleaders of this 'revolution' by animals. Now she knows what Islamic revolution is really all about."

She added:

"So sad, too bad, Lara. No-one told her to go there. She knew the risks. And she should have known what Islam is all about. Now she knows ... How fitting that Lara Logan was 'liberated' by Muslims in Liberation Square while she was gushing over the other part of the 'liberation'."

Schlussel sums up with the following flourish:

"Hope you're enjoying the revolution, Lara! Alhamdilllullah [praise allah]."

Other journalists and commentators could not restrain themselves from alluding to Logan's looks. The adjective "blond" was often used. Many articles referred to Logan as being an attractive woman and some spoke about her sexual morals.

Some chose to question Logan's professional choices, claiming that women should not put themselves in risky situations. Peter Worthington of the Toronto Sun said that, as a mother of two, the journalist should never have put herself in that situation. According to him, her domestic responsibilities should have taken precedence over all other considerations. Not all his readers agreed - see comment below:

 

Many other commentators and readers simply asserted that all women putting themselves at risk should ultimately bear the responsibility of their own assault.

Soon readers posted derogatory remarks online, prompting editors to delete a number of comments. The Los Angeles Times declared it would no longer allow live postings on the subject, as they produced comments that were both offensive to Logan and to Muslims. Mark Memmott, a journalist and blogger at NPR, had to publish a similar announcement, finding readers' participation in the debate was filling up with racial slurs. 

None of the other reporters attacked in Egypt had to face comments on their looks, personal behaviour or professional choices.

So long as you get beaten up, your status as a victim remains intact. But once the attack is transformed into a sexual one, the victim's image is instantaneously tainted. If the victim happens to be attractive, on top of everything else, and has her love history somewhere on record, the media space quickly turns into a courtroom, with a defendant found guilty before she has the chance to appear on the witness stand.

For some, Logan was guilty because she was pretty; for others because she had a sexual life; and for the rest because she was willing to risk her life for a good story. The left-winger denigrated her attack because she was a "warmonger", and the ultra-conservative because she was a Muslim lover (Jeffrey Goldberg from the Atlantic dubbed this aptly as "The Lunatic Left-Right Harmonic Rape Convergence Theory").

As for the rest, well, they just assume that, as a woman, she'd better stick to covering stories about the local farmers' market.

Rape and sexual assault are not about attraction: they are about asserting power and dominance. This is why women of all ages and appearances are subjected to such attacks. Denying women the recognition of their suffering is simply a reinforcement of the act of violence perpetrated against them.

But the problem in the case of Logan goes beyond that. It's also a reflection of how we treat women in the workplace, and more specifically how we treat female journalists. When a male reporter gets roughed up, or even killed, the necessity of his presence is never questioned. But when a woman is assaulted, some are quick to question why she occupies such a position in the first place.

These voices ignore the fact that we need women such as Logan - not only because it is normal to demand that women have equal job opportunities, but simply because their disappearance from the media would do a great disservice both to journalism and to women, who need to have their voice heard.

Finally, in the case of sexual assault and rape, it is high time we stopped asking the victims to alter their behaviour, but rather make these demands towards their aggressors.

We criticise certain countries for their disregard for women but, as this story shows, the Western world and its media still has some way to go before it manages to extract itself from a culture that is so accustomed to rape.

By Moran Barkai. A version of this article appeared on the European Journalism Centre website.

Moran Barkai is an Israeli blogger, editor and translator who is currently doing an internship at the European Journalism Centre. She writes for the Huffington Post and has previously worked for Time Out Israel and the Israeli paper Haaretz, among others. 

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