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No Woman’s Land: on the frontlines with female reporters

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Anna Reitman
Freelance journalist

Published by the International News Safety Institute (INSI) “No Woman’s Land: On the frontlines with female reporters” offers an inspiring, at times harrowing, look at what life for women journalists is like on the (often violent) frontlines they visit.

It came about following a spike in requests for personal safety advice as news spread of the sexual assault suffered by American journalist Lara Logan while reporting Egypt’s revolution for CBS News.

“I do not really understand how I survived that night in Tahrir Square last February…And I now know how easy it is to die,” Logan writes in the foreword.

“Not in an intellectual way, more of a visceral, carnal understanding that obliterates the light.”

Helena Williams, news assistant at INSI, who compiled and edited the book along with deputy director Hannah Storm, says the high profile incident struck a chord with people in the industry.

“It is a dangerous profession and journalists need to be prepared when they are covering events like the Arab Spring…which has been relentless for news crews…and what happened to Lara brought one of [those] dangers to the forefront,” says Williams, adding that proceeds from the book will go to providing safety training for female journalists.

In some ways, the book reflects an urgent need for women venturing into the profession to get advice from women who have already been there.

If Logan’s story presented the catalyst for the book, then the death of Sunday Times correspondent Marie Colvin in Syria just before its launch on International Women’s Day this year, gave it urgent meaning.

In her honour and memory, a tribute was held at the event which brought together BBC’s Lyse Doucet as moderator, war photographer Kate Brooks, who both contributed to the book, Sky News’ Sarah Whitehead, CNN’s Nima Elbagir, Reuters’ Maria Golovnina and BBC World News correspondent Andrew Roy.

The discussion raised many of the same questions that the book’s contributors answered through their stories; stories characterised by diverse opinions from across cultures, resulting in interesting, honest, albeit sometimes contradictory reflections.

BBC’s Frances Harrison, whose photo appears on the cover, defends the choice to wear the “unusual status of foreign correspondent mother” and writes openly about being tear gassed while seven months pregnant, about her seven-year old son’s panic attacks at school and accepting that her career may be limited if she wants a family-friendly foreign posting in a place with good schools.

So are there in fact advantages to being a woman? Is there a stereotype that “western women” need to be protected? Should you be a war correspondent and a mother?

Williams and I are both graduates from City University London’s journalism school. In her first few days, she was told that women had to be “quite tough” in such a male dominated profession.

I was told by one of City’s lecturers that a certain Reuters journalist should not have been hired because she was “prickly” – I had been asking about her because she reported on some issues affecting women that tend to not see the light of day.

In other words, women entering the profession are made aware that it is going to be a rough climb, without much support. So don’t expect any.

It is partly what makes these contributions from a group of 40 climbers from across a dozen countries such a welcome and valuable addition to my shelf.

But I have a confession too. I did not read the book from beginning to end, but rather picked it up at moments, choosing a random vignette, taking time to observe the accompanying photography.

Doing so keeps me inspired to move forward but also reminds me that I have been safe. Though I have navigated conflict zones, I have never been kidnapped, raped, beaten or otherwise harmed. But I also know how quickly situations can become chaotic.

Contributors to the book detail horrors they faced for telling the truth or going ahead with the story: voices on the phone implying children are fair game, colleagues found decapitated with warning signs pinned to their bodies, being swarmed by mobs, sniper bullets, witnessing explosions and the aftermath.

Just as important, however, are the accompanying photos of street scenes, shots of interviews in progress, protests. The image of a woman whose face is fully covered taking a photo with a mobile phone.

Many of the book’s contributors talk about their work for human rights groups. One photo taken for the British Red Cross shows women in northern Bangladesh, snapped by Jenny Matthews, who has worked in El Salvador, Lebanon, West Bank, Chechnya, Afghanistan and Iraq.

An editor once told her she could not go to Eritrea because he didn’t believe women should go to war zones.

In 2003, she published “Women and War” and exhibits her work internationally, her photos highlighting the disproportionate impact of wars on women and children.

“INSI always says it is not worth dying for a story. It’s not worth going into an impossible situation. Perhaps there is a romantic image of the reckless war correspondent going to the front lines, but it is not worth risking your life,” Williams says.

She adds that one of the common themes among women in the book was respect for culture, a notion backed up by some final words from Lyse Doucet.

Doucet writes: “My own view, which has stood me in good stead, is that in many situations one of the best weapons is good manners, as well as a suitable does of humour rooted in an understanding how it’s used in the country where you find yourself.”

They are comforting words – that a healthy dose of common sense prevails. Other practical tips can be found in the back of the book as well as some notes on hostile environment training. For anyone considering the latter, my own experience was eye-opening. And as it turns out, Williams is set to go on the same course soon.

After finishing our interview and walking out past the buzzing Reuters newsroom overlooking Canary Wharf, I wish her the best of luck.

The book can be purchased from the INSI here.

  1. Wow! The book seems fantastic, thanks for such a great review.

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