Reporting on war: Women in the line of fire

Prior to the National Press Club awards tomorrow, Laura Collins talks to two women who have reported from places that put all journalists at risk - regardless of their gender.
The CBS chief foreign correspondent Lara Logan is pictured in Cairo’s Tahrir Square moments before she was separated from her crew and assaulted on February 11, 2011.
The CBS chief foreign correspondent Lara Logan is pictured in Cairo’s Tahrir Square moments before she was separated from her crew and assaulted on February 11, 2011.

Dorothy Parvaz remembers just how she felt being hauled by a handful of hair from a car where she'd been wedged between two armed men. She recalls the sensation of standing in a tiny cell - its walls and the floors sticky with blood. She remembers the confusion of her Syrian interrogators questioning her one moment, demanding silence the next, and the threat carried by the sounds of beatings in the Damascene military compound where she spent the first three days of her detention.

She remembers things that others might try to forget, because that was her job.

"I was scared out of my mind," she says. "But the only thing that stops you from drawing on the darker aspects of the moment you're in is focusing on doing your job, which is to try to retain as much information as possible in hopes of filing it."

Tomorrow Parvaz, a foreign correspondent for Al Jazeera, will receive, along with the CBS chief foreign correspondent Lara Logan, the National Press Club's John Aubuchon Press Freedom Award at a ceremony to be held in Washington.

Parvaz, who spent part of her youth in the UAE, is the international recipient, while Logan is the winner of the domestic award.

It was back on April 29 that Parvaz's ordeal began. In the Middle East to cover anti-government protests as the Arab Spring rippled across the region, she was detained trying to enter Syria. Parvaz was held for 19 days, most of them in Iran's Evin Prison after Syrian authorities expelled her to Tehran (Iranian-born Parvaz holds American, Canadian and Iranian passports).

During those days, Syrian authorities wrongly claimed she had travelled on an expired passport. Iran was utterly silent. Cut off from the world, Parvaz was described as a very brave or very foolish woman - her gender pointedly referenced. To some it augmented her courage. To others it underscored the folly of her being there at all - because Parvaz had become an example to be marshalled in an age-old debate reinvigorated just months earlier.

In Egypt, three months prior to Parvaz's detention in Iran, the CBS chief foreign correspondent, Lara Logan, while reporting on the fall of Hosni Mubarak, was sexually assaulted. Speaking to camera from Tahrir Square on February 11, Logan said it was, "as if a champagne cork had been unleashed over Egypt". But something more sinister had been unleashed within the crowd that night. The camera battery died, killing the light and cutting the recording as Logan could be heard screaming, "No!"

Later she described how the crowd tried to tear her apart, her every joint distended. She was beaten with sticks and flagpoles but she didn't feel it. All she felt were the hands on her.

The incident was shocking by any standard, but Logan's high profile turned it into something sensational. The fact the attack was sexual seemed to many to validate the question: should a woman have been there?

The following month The New York Times war photographer Lynsey Addario was taken captive by pro-/Qadaffi troops in Libya. She was one of four Times journalists held for six days. She was sexually assaulted and told she was going to die.

Addario's colleagues Tyler Hicks, Stephen Farrell and Anthony Shadid told of the beatings they endured and the threats. But online responses to the journalists' accounts made no reference to that. Instead, readers demanded: "How dare a woman go to a war zone?" and "How could The New York Times let a woman go to the war zone?"

According to Addario, such questions are "grossly offensive". "This is my life," she pointed out. "I make my own decisions."

But what stung just as much were the prejudices betrayed by many. She explains: "A lot of people started asking, 'Why are women covering the Muslim world?' Several people wondered why western women covered countries where women were mistreated so badly.

"To me, that's not the case. I have always been offered the utmost hospitality, protection and shelter in the Muslim world. I have been fed. I have been offered a place to sleep. My translators and drivers have put their lives before mine.

"When I was in Libya, I was groped by a dozen men. But why is that more horrible than what happened to Tyler or Steven or Anthony - being smashed on the back of the head with a rifle butt? Why isn't anyone saying men shouldn't cover war?"

It is a question echoed by Parvaz who describes herself as, "frustrated", by the debate. "For decades, our male counterparts have been arrested, beaten up, tortured, even killed and it's inconceivable that any editor would say to stop sending reporters.

"The reality is that, in the Middle East in particular, some of the best correspondents in the field are women."

Women such as ABC's Christiane Amanpour, NBC's Hoda Kotb, The New York Times journalist Sabrina Tavernise, Al Jazeera's Zeina Awad, and the list goes on.

Parvaz continues: "If you're going to debate news coverage at all, debate it intelligently. Talk about the risks faced by all journalists."

Anne Garells is an award-winning foreign correspondent for the US's National Public Radio. She has reported on conflicts the world over and is a member of the board of the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ). "There is no way to protect yourself absolutely," she says, "but you do what you can. You dress appropriately, for example.

"I spent six years in Iraq and found being a woman a distinct advantage. I could cover my head, I could wear an abaya. I could be discreet. A man could only appear as he was."

Sky News's foreign affairs correspondent Lisa Holland has reported from Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya and beyond. She says: "I remember there was a lot of talk about women journalists when I covered Iraq in 2003. In fact, I think there are positive advantages to being a woman reporting in a Muslim country.

"In Tripoli I went into a house where a mother, father and children had been killed by a Nato bomb that fell short of its target. When I got there the women had grouped together and got out pictures of those who died. There was a real unity between them. They welcomed me in. They couldn't have done so to a man.

"Of course you have to be aware of safety, but that's not restricted to women."

The Al Jazeera producer and author of How to Avoid Being Killed in a War Zone, Rosie Garthwaite agrees. She says almost every woman who works in the field has experienced some sort of "sexual violence".

"To think you don't have to be aware of it is just foolish," Garthwaite says. "But men are targets for violence, too. The side of journalism too often swept under the carpet isn't the threat to women. It's the danger of it - full stop - whether you're male or female."

And the danger and damage is not confined to the field. Janine di Giovanni thought she had survived unscathed a career steeped in death and trauma. But, as Parvaz points out, "nothing can be unseen or unheard".

Becoming a mother triggered the shock and grief that Di Giovanni found she had merely postponed. In her memoir Ghosts by Daylight she writes: "While I was actually there, I felt nothing... I disagreed that reporters suffered from trauma; after all, I argued, we were the ones who got out.... The birth awakened fears that had been buried."

But Di Giovanni's experience can't be taken as proof that women are somehow less able to cope with the emotional fallout than male counterparts. Her husband Bruno, a cameraman who worked in the same field, suffered his own agonies of adaptation in peacetime, turning to drink and suffering depression. Both of them were vulnerable.

That is the thing about war. There is no immunity, only risk, its assessment and, for the journalists - unlike the soldiers or citizens caught up in it - their choice to be there.

Regarding Parvaz's and Logan's National Press Club awards, the club's president, Mark Hamrick, said that both journalists showed, "an outstanding determination to be where the news of the day is happening".

Ultimately that is, says Parvaz, where the focus should always fall: on the news. "The story of individual reporters should not be at the forefront of any conversation. It's not about being a man or a woman. It's about bearing witness."

The urge to do that is why she, and women and men like her, continue to rush toward the dark places in the world from which others long to flee.

The veterans

Clare Hollingworth (born 1911)

Often referred to as the “doyenne of British war correspondents”. In August 1939 she was offered the number-two spot for the Daily Telegraph in Poland. Two days later she crossed the Polish border into Germany. Driving past Gleiwitz she saw hundreds of German tanks, armoured cars and troops ready for battle and facing Poland. At age 27 she scooped the world, becoming the first journalist to witness Germany’s readiness for invasion. “I was not brave,” she has said. “I was not naive. I knew the dangers. But I thought it a good thing to do and witness and see. In those days you could go anywhere with a T and T – a typewriter and a toothbrush.” In later years, in Vietnam, she would “accidentally” leave her handbag in villages, returning to fetch it without her army minders to better gauge villagers’ loyalties.

Martha Gelhorn (1908-1998)

“I wanted to go everywhere and see everything and I wanted to write my way,” she once said. She was nicknamed, “the blonde peril,” by a police reporter when working as a reporter on the Albany Times Union. Ernest Hemingway’s third wife, when they met he was heading to Spain to report on the Civil War. Gelhorn wrote a beauty piece for Vogue to pay for her ticket, crossing the Spanish border in 1937. In 1944 she boarded a hospital ship heading to Normandy, locking herself in the loo until it sailed, ensuring she was among the first to report from the Normandy landings. She was arrested by the US press office for her troubles.

Sigrid Schultz (1893-1980)

Known as “Hitler’s greatest enemy”, Schultz was born in America, raised in Europe. She danced and flirted her way into the company of German leaders and was one of the first reporters to meet Hitler in 1927. She reported the building of Dachau in 1933 and the passing of anti-Semitic laws. When the Nazis tried to frame her as a spy she donned hat and heels and confronted Field Marshal Goering at his own wedding. Later he remembered her as, “the dragon lady of Chicago”.


Published: August 9, 2011 04:00 AM


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