The previous article “The safety position of female war reporters: Sexual intimidation and Abuse” described the sexual abuse and intimidation women might go through during their work as a war reporter, and how they get prepared to enter a war zone beforehand. This time Minka Nijhuis, war reporter for 30 years, will tell her story as a female war reporter.
From the outside, it looks like a regular bar in Amsterdam, but inside the bar, it feels like entering an oasis of peace and quietness, something Minka Nijhuis isn’t used to. Cambodia, Burma, Kosovo, East-Timor, Iraq, Afghanistan, and Syria are the conflict areas and dictatorship countries, where Nijhuis has been working and writing about for the past 30 years.
Sexual harassment as a female war journalist
The International News Institute (INSI) conducted several surveys with female reporters on sexual harassment within the job. In 2005 the survey was focused on female war journalists, with the outcome that half of the respondents reported being sexually harassed or abused within the job. In 2014 they conducted the latest survey with female reporters in general. Here the outcome was that nearly two-thirds of the respondents reported having experienced sexual harassment or violence during the job.
Do you think female war reporters are extra vulnerable to sexual harassment?
Nijhuis: “I don’t want to sound naïve, but I think that women can face sexual harassment everywhere in the world, not extra as a war journalist. The most important way to stay safe and avoid sexual harassment is a good preparation by building a network you can trust.”
Peter ter Velde, safety trainer and security coordinator for the NOS, points out that the biggest threat for sexual harassment for female war lays within the personal environment of the war reporter. For example, the local taxi driver, the local guide, or the local translator. He also points out that they always tell female war journalists traveling into Muslim countries is to tell that you’re married and make sure to change this on your social media as well.
Do you prepare a special background story yourself when you enter a warzone for your work?
Nijhuis: “First of all I think that making up lies to people who are risking their lives for you is a very disrespectful thing to do. Second, advocating for changing your Facebook profile and always say you’re married as a female war journalist when you go to Muslim or Arabic countries, I would say is a rather dangerous thing to do. Because if you go further on this thought, of generalization about Muslim countries, the next question would be ‘why would your husband let you go alone.’ You depend on the relationship with the people you work with. Of course, a small lie sometimes is okay, if you feel it’s necessary at that moment. But none of my fellow experienced female war reporting colleagues would give this is standardized advice before going into a conflict area.”.
“As a freelancer, you make sure you ask your colleagues for contacts in the area. When you work somewhere for a longer time, the bond you’re creating becomes stronger and stronger over the years. Don’t forget that you’re not only checking the people you’re going to work with, but they will also be checking you. Because you’re not the only one going into a dangerous situation. I’ve got some people that I owe my life to during these 30 years of reporting. And many people that went through great risks helping me and being warm and hospitable. This is why it touches me so much when I hear these generalizations about local people or Muslim countries made.”.
In an interview, you said: “Empathy is important in war-reporting and this is something I often miss.” What exactly do you mean by this statement?
Nijhuis: “For example, when you look at words, we are using now to describe refugee situations ‘the first LOAD of refugees arrived’, the ‘Turkey deal’ or ‘Tsunami of refugees’ these words are all dehumanizing and hiding and obscuring the fact that the story is about people. I find this a very worrying trend. Especially in a period where politics are to a large extent influenced by populism. Politicians are playing with feelings of fear, making the ‘other’ the enemy, playing up dangers, and I think that it is our duty as journalists to be very responsible with the words we use during our work.”
How to not dehumanize the situation when you write about war?
Nijhuis: “One of the advantages I have is having more time to do my work since my work as journalism exists of what I call slow journalism: following places and people for a long time. I Follow their daily life from very close-by and from these small chronicles I zoom out to the larger context for the analysis and the historical context. It’s much harder to fulfill this as a news journalist when you’re under this tremendous pressure of delivering fast news. So, I don’t want to judge. But I have the luxury that I have the time to spend with people to get to know the story, and I guess that it’s also just a natural thing. I don’t know any other way. If I don’t feel the need to describe the kind of effects a war or living under a dictatorship has on people’s lives, I would rather quit my job.
Minka Nijhuis describes a vivid special moment she’s been through while reporting in the field: