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Working In These Times

Wednesday, Feb 23, 2011, 7:50 am

Attacks on Journalists Raise Questions for Egyptian Democracy Movement

BY Michelle Chen

A protester in Cairo's Tahrir Square.   (John Moore/Getty Images)

At the height of the clashes between protesters and pro-Mubarak forces, it seemed no one was safe from the brutality of the police and thugs. Not even, to the horror of American viewers, Anderson Cooper. Though the attacks that Cooper and other journalists faced on assignment were no doubt appalling, it seems perhaps unfortunate that the incidents hit a nerve with the American public that the scores of dead Egyptians in the streets did not.

In fact, the current media spotlight on Egypt could, or should, shed light on the complex challenges facing journalists and activists in oppressive environments.

One media story that warrants a closer look is the far more disturbing report of the sexual assault of 60 Minutes correspondent Lara Logan. The violence she experienced—as a woman, a foreigner, a journalist, and a witness to a momentous political uprising—could be seen as a mar on what was otherwise a largely peaceful and inspiring mass gathering. But rather than cast a pall over the victory at Tahrir Square, such attacks gives more urgency to a key task for the revolution going forward: the creation of a truly free media.

Cooper's team had the luxury of pulling out of Egypt when things got rough, but local journalists have historically experienced not just violence but massive censorship and oppression. This peaked during the protests when the Mubarak regime shamelessly cracked down on bloggers, Twitter users, and, ultimately, the Internet as a whole--any form of open political discourse.

Violence and sexual assault are a critical concern for all of Egyptian civil society. Sexual harassment is widespread in Egypt, according to a recent study by the Egyptian Centre for Women's Rights. Yet women journalists under tough circumstances everywhere must cope with the threat of gender-based violence--adding to the challenges they share with male colleagues in navigating war zones, rough crowds and cultural barriers.

The violence and attacks journalists face daily in dangerous places and situations don't apply solely to journalists or to any one culture; they impact the foundations of civil society.

As Liz Cox Barrett and Judith Matloff  write at the Columbia Journalism Review (CJR) blog, women journalists in many unstable regions are subjected to physical and sexual violence, often without recourse, and many are ill prepared on safety precautions.

Negative stereotypical perceptions Egyptian “mobs” and of women are creeping into the coverage of Logan's experience. The outrage is understandable, but the reaction from fellow journalists has been ironically devoid of fact and context (we don't even know whether the alleged perpetrators were even tied to the broader January 25 movement, notes David Ignatius).

World War 4 Report's Bill Weinberg and Salon's Mary Elizabeth Williams warn that the right-wing noise machine is already spinning the Logan attack as a pretext for demonizing all Arabs and Muslims as misogynistic savages, ignoring all the cultural and social nuances surrounding the issue of sexual assault inside and outside Egypt.

Corinna Barnard of Women's E-News called out Daily Beast Washington bureau chief (and former Washington Post columnist) Howard Kurtz's suggestion that the Logan attack attests to women's oppression in Middle East societies. Pointing out that sexual assault is both extremely common and shockingly underreported even here in the Western liberal society of the United States, she argues:

Women's vulnerability to sex assault is a major restriction here and across the globe on our ease of movement and full participation in many forms of social life. …

None of this minimizes the dangers of Cairo streets for women or journalists.

Kurtz is right to point out the women in the Middle East do face particular dangers....But at a sensitive time in Egypt's transition and in Western reappraisal of Arabic societies, it seems most useful to treat sex assault as a common problem.

Blogging at Ms. Magazine, Holly Kearl notes reports from the Egyptian women activists that sexual harassment seemed to have significantly subsided during the days of protest, fostering an atmosphere of peaceful solidarity that bodes well for gender-justice activism as the revolution unfolds. Though the news of Logan's assault disappointed many, Kearl observed voices of resistance coming from Egypt's women's movement:

The people of Egypt, including women, know their power. I hope their next revolution will be to end gender-based harassment and assault. And I know that many there hope for the same.

After the Logan news broke, these were some of the Tweets I read:

Aside from the hazards of gender-based violence, journalism in general is still a dangerous vocation in many areas, from the “Arab street” to Mexico to Thailand. The Committee to Protect Journalists has documented some 850 killings of journalists since 1992, the causes ranging from crossfire in combat to outright murder.

Justin D. Martin, a journalism professor at the American University in Cairo, writes at CJR that the post-Mubarak era must involve serious protections for freedom of the press, including an end to draconian licensing laws for media workers, separation between the state propaganda apparatus and media outlets, and  “Elimination of Any Reference to Censorship in the Egyptian Constitution.” He concludes:

much of the world went about its business during the thirty years Mubarak brutalized journalists. Egypt finally has the world’s attention, and anyone anywhere with any say needs to lend their voice so that Egyptians may always freely raise theirs.

When Egyptians can freely expose wrongdoing and hold their government accountable, that will be a victory for free speech everywhere. In any society, anti-democratic forces will always militate against those who devote their lives to speaking the truth. For reporters under siege, democracy itself is the most dangerous assignment.

Michelle Chen is a contributing editor at In These Times, a contributor to Working In These Times, and an editor at CultureStrike. She is also a co-producer of Asia Pacific Forum on Pacifica's WBAI. Her work has appeared on Alternet, Colorlines.com, Ms., and The Nation, Newsday, and her old zine, cain. Follow her on Twitter at @meeshellchen or reach her at michellechen [at] inthesetimes [dot] com.

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