Violence abroad hits Mexican journalists, Peace Corps

Image from streaming AP video at http://www.washingtonpost.com.

Around the world this week, women were facing violent obstacles to their roles in their communities, including Americans abroad in the Peace Corps as well as two native Mexican female reporters.

Mexican Journalists

This week, two female journalists became the latest victims of increasing violence in Mexico over the past year. The two women were found slain (possibly strangled), naked and bound behind a cemetery in Mexico City, an area previously believed to be a “relatively safe harbor” as reported by the LA Times. It was still unconfirmed if the women had been sexually assaulted.

Ana Marcela Yarce Viveros, a veteran reporter, helped found the news magazine Contralinea and was most recently working in advertising sales for them. The other,  Rocio Gonzalez Trapaga, was a former reporter for Mexico’s dominant TV broadcaster, Televisa and most recently working as a freelance reporter. According to the Associated Press, the women were longtime friends. Although no direct motive was being released, Contralinea has sharply criticized the government in the past. Authorities did not believe the crimes were related to the women’s work as journalists. Mexico City law requires prosecutors to investigate such crimes involving women as gender-related.

Since 2006, more than 60 journalists have been killed in Mexico, mostly in the northern states. The Committee to Protect Journalists ranks Mexico as one of the most dangerous country for reporters due to violence from drug cartels and local governments.

Peace Corps

More than 30 current and former Peace Corps volunteers, mostly women, testified before a Congressional investigation this week about their experience with violence and sexual assault during their time abroad.

The statements said the international volunteer organization failed to take reports of sexual assault seriously, or discouraged volunteers from pursuing justice in the local jurisdictions.

A previous hearing was held in May, when women reported similar stories of discarded complaints. The Huffington Post reported that between 2000 and 2009, an average of 22 women in the organization each year report being victims of rape or attempted rape. An ABC “20/20”  investigation from January found more than 1,000 of the 44,000 who have served in the past decade have reported rape or sexual abuse while volunteering for the organization abroad. The agency acknowledges that the ratio of reports to actual counts of violence is quite skewed.

In September, two former Peace Corps volunteer sued the organization to release annual survey data  on safety and security, staffing, training and the effectiveness of programs broken down by country. Peace Corps volunteers currently work in 77 countries around the world. The group’s 2010 survey data showed 87 percent of respondents reported feeling usually safe or very safe where they live, with 91 percent reporting the same where they work.

Peace Corps statements released said the organization’s top priority is the health and safety of its volunteers: “We are implementing numerous reforms to better protect [them] and provide effective and compassionate support to victims.” The agency has acknowledged that under-reporting is high and that its statistics are incomplete. Legislation pending in Congress would require better staff training, protection for whistleblowers and more complete crime statistics.This year mark’s the organization’s 50th anniversary.

This is the Gender Report’s Week in Review, a weekly post that highlights some of the major stories related to gender issues this week. Some of these stories may have already appeared in our News Feed or in the week’s Gender Checks. We’ll at times include a longer analysis of stories as well as bring attention to stories that may have slipped through the cracks of the week’s news cycle.

Claims of DSK accuser’s ‘weakened credibility’ whip media into frenzy

New drama over the Dominique Strauss-Kahn sexual assault charges turned into a media frenzy over the last week as the credibility of the alleged victim was called into question.

The New York Times broke the news June 30 that prosecutors were finding holes in the woman’s story and that the case was possibly near collapse. The following day, Strauss-Kahn, a 62-year-old French politician and the former head of the International Monetary Fund, was released on his own recognizance.

This story from the New York Times broke the news about prosecutors questioning the accuser's credibility in the Strauss-Kahn case on June 30.

The actual incident in question took place in May when a 32-year-old housekeeper from Guinea entered the Strauss-Kahn’s suite in a New York hotel to clean it. What happened in the next 20 minutes is what’s under dispute. She’s said it was assault while representatives of Strauss-Kahn have claimed it was consensual. (For some of the details of the incident, see “What happened in room 2806” from the New York Times.)

Among prosecutors’ claims regarding her credibility were that the woman had lied about abuse on her asylum application, had ties to people with criminal backgrounds (including a man she visited the day after the incident and spoke with and some “unexplained” deposits in her bank account), discrepancies on tax returns and changes in her account of what happened that day. However, as many sources have noted, prosecutors did not call into question the sexual assault itself.

Her attorney spoke to the press about the allegations as well as pointed out the strong physical evidence that is still present in the case. He also said the woman would come forward and share her story. Thus far, others have come out to speak to the woman’s credibility, including her union, and have pointed out that these claims of her “lying” may not be what they seem. More often, it has been a case of her listening to poor advice. A statement from the Hotel Workers’ Union pointed out that if she did lie regarding her immigration and tax forms it only makes her “one of probably millions of people who have done the same things.” (For more, read “DSK maid fights back” from the Daily Beast.)

From there, the media erupted both at home and abroad. Since these revelations, the story has grown with now other legal suits coming into play.

Most striking from a media standpoint has been a New York Post cover story that claimed the woman was a “hooker.” She is now fighting back by filing a suit against the Post.

Her credibility wasn’t the only being challenged. Shortly after stories came out about the New York case crumbling, a French writer, Tristane Banon, who had claimed that Strauss-Kahn had tried to
assault her in 2003, announced she would officially accuse him. His lawyers responded by saying they would file a counter complaint against Banon.

Dozens of opinion pieces and analyses have been written on the case. A few can be found linked to below.

Some of the key points of discussion have been the dangers of narratives — whether it was that people were too quick to believe the claims of sexual assault were true because it was a typical case of “the powerful vs. the powerless” or that others were grappling with a belief that a victim must be “perfect” or without blemish. Others have simply pointed out that none should be too quick to judge either side.

Concerns additionally have been expressed over what this attention and treatment will mean for future rape or sexual assault victims (and their likelihood to report their experiences). Writers have pointed out that high-profile cases like this feed into the myth that a disproportionate percentage of sexual assault claims are false. In reality, it’s estimated to be between 2 and 10 percent.

Also receiving attention was the fact that U.S. news sources are continuing their practice to not name the woman involved. We’ll be addressing that issue separately in an upcoming post.

Update (July 11): The next court date in the case has been postponed until Aug. 1 to allow time for further investigation, according to an Associated Press article.

This is the Gender Report’s Week in Review, a weekly post that highlights some of the major stories related to gender issues this week. Some of these stories may have already appeared in our News Feed or in the week’s Gender Checks. We’ll at times include a longer analysis of stories as well as bring attention to stories that may have slipped through the cracks of the week’s news cycle.

Journalist’s sexual assault brings attention to larger issues of cultural norm of harrassment

On Tuesday, CBS news issued a statement saying “60 Minutes” correspondent Lara Logan had sustained “brutal and sustained sexual assault and beating.” As the news organization’s chief foreign correspondent, Logan was in the midst of the jubilation in Tahrir Square after former President stepped down. Logan was hospitalized upon her immediate return to the United States and is currently recovering in her Washington D.C. home, according to a CBS update.

After the story broke on several broadcast, print and online news organizations, controversy came from several different areas.

NYU Fellow and freelance journalist Nir Rosen tweeted that Logan was just trying to outdo CNN correspondent Anderson Cooper and she fabricated the assault. He posted apologies that added to public outrage, tweeting “ah f*** it, i apologize for being insensitive, its always wrong, thats obvious, but i’m rolling my eyes at all the attention she will get.”*

Rosen resigned from his NYU fellowship soon after. The Poytner Institute also reported other media mishandlings of the story, including a reader’s poll that asked if Logan was to blame for her own assault.

Logan’s assault and resulting news coverage finds us looking at several different aspects of this story: the cultural norm many women in Egypt experienced long before the assault, different media policies on covering a sexual assault and the treatment of female journalists on foreign assignments.

The Associated Press (as printed in the Washington Post) interviewed Egyptian women about their own experiences during the protests. Many women reported a “new Egypt” in which they were seen as equal participants in the political demonstrations, free to smoke, wear jeans and mingle in mixed sex groups. The Gender Report commented before on the critical role women were playing in the developing protests.

However, some women feared this norm would not last. A 2008 survey by the Egyptian Center for Women’s Rights found that 83 percent of Egyptian women and 98 percent of foreign women in Cairo said they had been harassed – while 62 percent of men admitted to harassing.

CNN’s American Morning aired an interview with Egyptian columnist Mona Eltahawy, who since the assault has used her Twitter page to discuss women’s rights in the Arab world. Eltahawy said as a woman and as a journalist who has been groped and harassed on several assignments, she wanted to open the discussion up to women in both Egypt and the U.S. who shared their own experiences with harassment and assault.

Ms. Magazine posted similar sentiments, saying,  “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.”

The Committee to Protect Journalists commented that they currently did not have good data on the sexual assault, rape or harassment of women journalists because the cases are rarely reported or the women ask that their stories not be made public. However, the site did review cases from the Congo, Columbia, Mexico, Pakistan in which journalists were attacked, kidnapped, or sexually assaulted. The story quoted journalist Franchou Namegabe Nabintu’s 2009 report to CPJ regarding sexual assault:

“Sexual violence against journalists will remain underreported until the stigma is removed. While that’s certainly true in principle, we also recognize that the decision to discuss sexual violence is a very personal one. We will continue to document incidents of sexual violence as they are brought to us, but always with the consent of the journalist involved.”

The Poynter Institute also reported information regarding the coverage of sexual assault cases. After it become a referenced piece in early articles about Logan’s attack, the Columbia Journalism Review reposted its 2007 article that looked at foreign correspondents and sexual abuse.

As best I can tell, the Associated Press (as published in the Washington Post) was the only news organization to formerly comment on the use of Logan’s name, saying “The Associated Press does not name victims of sexual assault unless the victim agrees to be identified.” Most news organizations follow a similar policy.

Read other commentary on this story:

  • Fox News, criticizing Rosen’s tweets
  • The Daily Beast, on harassment experiences of women in Egypt
  • The Atlantic, on Rosen’s tweets and the role of Twitter in journalism and public opinion

*Actual tweet used full spelling of profanity

This is the Gender Report’s Week in Review, a weekly post that highlights some of the major stories related to gender issues this week. Some of these stories may have already appeared in our News Feed or in the week’s Gender Checks. We’ll at times include a longer analysis of stories as well as bring attention to stories that may have slipped through the cracks of the week’s news cycle.

Update: We follow the same standards as news sites with our comment section, which means no personal attacks, threats or victim blaming will be allowed. If you do any of those, your comments will be deleted.