Monday, October 1, 2007

African female journalists: who writes their rights

The press in all forms and in healthy democracies, is the public watchdog. It is the one that uncovers those stories about corruption, human rights abuses and political scandals and thus may even force governments, corporations and individuals alike to be accountable for their actions or inactions.

The press takes huge risks in order to expose such stories. Risks that may even threaten the existence the involved publications. Yet there is one story that the press has chosen to ignore. An untold story that is happening right there in front of the press itself.
It’s the story of female journalists and their ordeal in male dominated newsrooms.

Being a journalist and a female for that matter myself, I have worked in different newsrooms and media organizations for the past seven years of my life. During all this time I have written stories that document how female journalists are subjected to gross human rights abuse either in the media institutions or in the field during practice. More often than not the stories ended up in the trash, the ones that made their way into the publication would either be totally changed or the headline would be highly misleading and irrelevant to the story itself.

A good example of how male editors can manipulate female journalists views on the issue in question is a story that I did while working for the PARADE magazine in Harare in May 2003. The story covered most of the issues outlined above. It looked on how female journalists felt about sexual harassment by male colleagues and bosses. All the female journalists that I spoke to didn’t hesitate to speak their minds out. In fact they were glad I had provided a platform of which to talk about their experiences without interference from their employers.

Surprisingly enough, a story that had nothing to do with female journalists’ competence came out in the magazine with a screaming headline; Are women journalists worth their salt? I couldn’t even relate the story that I had written with the headline. It was totally misleading. I took the issue with the then editor of the magazine who promised to do something about it. I wasn’t sure what that something was going to be but then the something never happened anyway.
“Men are scared of women who are educated and successful. They always want women to be underdogs, which we will not be. At least we will fight it to the bitter end. Thus they label us derogatory names and subject us to abuse. We become victims of our own success”, Victoria Munyoro then working for Thomson Publications said at the time.
“…the big problem is that of male colleagues who find a pleasure to take female reporters for a ride since they are the lowest in the ranks. After all they have their own families and a life to live after all”, observed Violet Mufori who was then working for the Sunday Mail in Harare.
She later phoned me after the story came out to say that she wished she had not said that because her male colleagues were not really pleased with the comment.
From the two quotes above you can tell the story had nothing to do with competence or professionalism yet my editor chose to distort it by a putting a headline that was, if anything, parallel to the story itself.
The question then at the end of the day is, is it just inherited social oppression or it is mere ignorance? And why have female journalists chosen to sweep this thing under the carpet. To protect their jobs or they are just too busy to let it get in their way? The most likely reason would be fear of further harassment.
It could have been a pure act of sabotage, maybe the editor was trying to say female journalists are incompetent and thus sell their bodies in order to gain privileges within the newsroom.
These are not just real life experiences that the female journalists go through but live testimonies that the world needs to wake up from its deliberate slumber and pay attention to.

Today many other female journalists worldwide will bear witness to the fact that women are subjected to sexual harassment and other violations of passion in and outside the newsroom. This is despite the emergence of numerous Non Governmental Organizations that barrage us with human rights, gender equality and equity nonsense. Hence the management structures of various media houses are in the hands of men.
This means female journalists often find themselves with chauvinistic male bosses who will either throw out that story which tackles women’s abuse or will ignore any sexual abuse complaints by a female employee.
During practice female journalists have to do stories that may involve interviewing sources like powerful politicians who may subject the journalist to sexual abuse that is usually difficult to prove in a court of law and one that your male editor will ask you to ignore. A sexually suggestive remark on your dressing for instance. My former editor (male) at a certain monthly publication used to remind me all the time that “it comes with your job”!

This is mere killing of freedom of expression while promoting it at the same time. What kind of freedom of expression is this if the very ambassadors of it cannot enjoy it? If accorded the opportunity female journalists have a chance to create something new, to be both architects and builders of a new generation of the media fraternity. One that provides enough space for women journalist practitioners to not just be a voice for others but to also have a voice themselves. To give them a chance to tell their story without fear of victimization or having to account for it to someone else. There is nothing as painful as having to account to someone who violated your rights why you spoke out.

One senior journo who could not be named on request said, “ women ask for it by dressing in figure hugging and highly exposing clothes. When a man sees this he cannot help it even if the woman is a journalist or colleague or whatever for that matter. Men will always be men, girl”
Female journalists are abused professionally and sexually in the newsrooms. According to the Southern African Research Documentation Centre (SARDC) in 2000, only 6% women were in management positions in the media industry in the entire region in 1994. This poses serious barriers to their freedom of expression when it comes to issues that affect them which involve their bosses.
This puts the female journalist in a vulnerable position so much hence it is much more comfortable to suffer in silence than to lose your job that takes care of your bills at the end of the month.
So much for the profession that promotes freedom of expression.

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