Lindsey Hilsum: Equality on the frontline is the only way

Saturday 19 February 2011 01:00
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For a journalist, to be in Tahrir Square on the night of the Egyptian revolution was about as thrilling as it gets.

The story unfolded around us – the exhilaration of the throng, the promise of a new era, the complexity of a people's revolt which had brought in a military government. Emotionally, historically, intellectually, televisually, it had everything. I tweeted: "This is the most fun I've had reporting for Channel 4 News in ages. What a story!" And then it was ruined. We learnt that one of our colleagues, Lara Logan of CBS News, had suffered a serious sexual assault in the crowd. At first, it seemed impossible. The people were so happy, so good-natured. Some have suggested that it happened because we were in Egypt, as if Arabs had some kind of monopoly on sexual harassment. I don't think so. Bad elements can infiltrate any large group anywhere.

Now debate has shifted to old territory about whether men and women run different risks as foreign correspondents. Those who hate to see women reporting the big stories disguise their glee as concern, but their message is the same – you shouldn't be out there. I will not argue simply that we should. That's like fighting Holocaust deniers by restating that six million Jews were killed. It should be taken for granted that men and women will be reporting stories like the revolution in Egypt, the war in Afghanistan and other major international events. The question is whether there is something especially dangerous about being female and on the frontline.

For the most part, I believe the answer is no. In more than 25 years of reporting wars, coups, uprisings and the like, I am lucky enough never to have been sexually assaulted. I have, however, cowered as bombs fell, ducked gunfire, argued with drunken soldiers on checkpoints and been badly beaten – just like my male colleagues. A 2007 survey by the International News Safety Institute reported that more than half the 29 female journalists interviewed had faced sexual harassment while on assignment, but I have seen no evidence that female foreign correspondents are at greater risk than women in any other walk of life.

There is evidence, however, that journalists in general are in more danger now than when I started as a reporter. The Committee to Protect Journalists reports 79 journalists killed worldwide in 2010, compared with 55 in 1992. It seems to have been an especially violent year in 2007, with 210 journalists and media workers murdered. This is primarily because, as every government and guerrilla group tries to control the message, journalists have become targets. The rise of satellite television and the internet means that everyone sees how the story is told, and wants to recast it in their own image. The journalists most at risk are local not international correspondents – men and women, in countries like Mexico and the Philippines – many of whom have endured persecution, imprisonment or death threats.

In Egypt, as the Mubarak regime was fighting to deny the reality of mass protest broadcast across the globe, state TV ran stories suggesting that Israeli spies were posing as Western correspondents. The next day, the Channel 4 News team in Alexandria was surrounded by a baying mob. As the crowd beat on the car roof and screamed, I looked out of the window and saw a man drawing his finger across his throat in a threatening gesture. We were grateful when soldiers intervened and courteously arrested us.

Colleagues in Cairo experienced far worse, as many were assaulted with batons by pro-Mubarak supporters. Men and women endured the same dangers, as government-sponsored thugs attacked the messengers. None of this means that we shouldn't be there. These days we get "hostile environment" training which helps us to predict and – in most cases – avoid the most dangerous situations. But sometimes bad things happen nonetheless

Twenty years ago, when I applied for a job as a correspondent in Cairo, I was asked if I would find the job more difficult because of my gender. On the contrary, I said, it's much harder for men. In the Middle East, more traditional women will not talk to a male stranger, so male reporters often cannot get the views of women. Female reporters have no such problems. I reported the historic handshake between Yitzak Rabin and Yasser Arafat watching TV with three generations of Palestinian women, in a tiny house in a refugee camp in Jordan. A man would never have been admitted. I was frequently invited into the women's section of people's homes in Iraq, while my male colleagues had to wait outside. In Afghanistan last year, my all-female team – including a female camera operator, which is still quite unusual – got access to a project training young women as teachers that no man would have been allowed to film.

At the same time, as a Western woman I have never found that I am excluded from meetings with male political leaders or generals in the Arab world or elsewhere. We are treated as honorary men. Since female journalists are able to report all aspects of the story, not just what the men say or do, it is clearly an advantage to be a woman. Nonetheless, I believe men should still be allowed to report the Middle East. I understand their limitations, but I think they have a contribution to make and it would be wrong to discriminate against them.

Inevitably, at times it will be dangerous to report the revolutions unrolling across the Arab world. But this is one of the most compelling and significant stories of our time, and we need to be there – men and women both.

Lindsey Hilsum is Channel 4 News's international editor

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