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Finding the courage to cover sexual violence

An analysis by Frank Smyth, featured in Attacks on the Press: Journalism on the front lines in 2013, a worldwide survey by CPJ.

A sensitive if not taboo subject in much of the world, sexual violence often goes unreported. Covering sexual assault, including rape, can bring swift and unpredictable repercussions, leaving many journalists and others torn over how best to navigate the risks.

"You don't have the courage. You don't want to get into trouble," Chi Yvonne Leina, an award-winning Cameroonian journalist and contributor to the women's activist network World Pulse, told CPJ. "What you are reporting, who you are, can lead to changes in the way the community sees you," she said. World Pulse describes itself as a network using digital media in more than 190 countries to connect women worldwide and give them a global voice.

But attitudes can change. In India, a fatal gang-rape case in Delhi in December 2012 ended up generating more coverage in Indian newspapers, on television news and commentary programs, and in social media forums than ever before. Four men were eventually convicted of the crime and sentenced to death. Their lawyers have filed an appeal. The media coverage and the case itself have, by all accounts, helped reshape attitudes about sexual violence. "The way girls think now has changed dramatically after this particular case," Urmila Chanam, a columnist in northeastern India for the English daily newspaper Sangai Express, told CPJ.

Anyone reporting on sexual violence needs to be mindful of the potential risks not only to themselves, but also to the victims of the attacks.

"Think about the safety of the witnesses and sources," Abdiaziz Abdinuur, a Somali journalist who was forced into exile after reporting on sexual assaults, told CPJ.

"We could do more damage," said Chanam. Reporting sexual violence "disturbs the cultural elements in our country," she explained. Yet Chanam, who is another World Pulse contributor, ultimately wants "every case to be reported." She said that she gives the choice to the victim whether to report an individual case of rape, while collaborating more broadly with activists to change the way people perceive sexual violence.

Sometimes reporters pay a price for covering sexual attacks and their aftermaths. In July 2012, some Indian journalists were tipped off that a large group of men in Mangalore were chasing, beating, and groping teenage women at a local birthday party. The assailants were Hindu fundamentalists apparently upset at the way the women were associating with men. One local television journalist, Naveen Soorinje, called the police and filmed the scene. His subsequent TV report accused the police of responding slowly to his repeated calls about the attack.

Soorinje's footage was used to identify dozens of suspects. But four months after the episode, Soorinje was himself charged with participating in the attack. He spent four months in jail until his release in March 2013. The Committee to Protect Journalists considers the arrest to be retaliatory.

Just over a week after the 2012 gang rape on a bus in Delhi of a 23-year-old female physiotherapy student, the police in Imphal shot and killed Dwijamani Singh, a reporter for a regional satellite television network as he was covering protests against sexual assaults of women. The protesters were demonstrating against both the Delhi gang-rape attack and a more recent gang rape of an actress in Imphal. Singh was killed as the police opened fire when some protesters turned violent, according to news reports.

Attitudes about sexual attacks in India remain mixed. In the Delhi gang-rape case, pressure from the girl's parents and the nation's press gave the case unprecedented attention, which helped lead to arrests. In what seemed like a reaction to the widespread media coverage, a lower court barred journalists from covering the "fast-track" trial for two months.

But the press continued to clash with the authorities throughout the trial. In March, the Delhi High Court lifted the ban on reporters, although some restrictions remained, including allowing only one journalist from each accredited media organization into the courtroom, and prohibiting journalists from publishing the names of the victim or witnesses. In April, the judge presiding over the case arbitrarily barred a British journalist for The Independent in London from covering the trial.

Attitudes about gender in India along with the economic implications for families may help explain why covering sexual violence can be such a challenge for the press. Attitudes toward women are "the core reasons" behind both the nation's sexual assaults and why they are so often kept in the dark, said Chanam of the Sangai Express. "It starts before birth."

Read the full analysis on CPJ's website.

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