Journalists and Activists

Since interviewing Maria Ressa recently for “Women’s Media Center Live with Robin Morgan,” I’ve been haunted more than usual by thoughts of my special sisters, women journalists. Ressa, a former CNN Bureau Chief, is one hell of a journalist, and founder of, an online news site under fierce attack by Philippines President Rodrigo Duterte’s authoritarian government.

Me, I’m a journalist, yes, but. I’m also an activist, who believes that “objectivity” is usually subjective. And I’m basically a writer, one all over the map. My foundational rock is poetry. But having fallen in love with the English language and decided I wanted to be a “woman of letters” when I was about nine, I grew up into someone who writes novels, stories, plays, essays, editorials, works of feminist theory, political analyses, polemics, and any other form of writing I can lay hands on—from grocery lists to broadcast/podcast commentaries to, now, blogs. So I doubt that I really qualify for the honorable title of journalist per se.

The Journalists
Women like Maria Ressa—single-minded, focused on news, targeting the story and following it against all risks, checking and rechecking and editing and paring and clarifying and finally publishing—to me, that’s a journalist. Women like Maria, who face death threats daily and must fight prison sentences for simply doing their job, getting the truth out by whatever means possible, are real journalists, newswomen.

This is not to ignore or disparage newsmen. A free press in general is the single most necessary ingredient for a democracy—which is precisely why it’s the first target for autocrats and authoritarians.

At least 42 journalists were killed last year, as reported by The Committee to Protect Journalists, and 19 percent were women, more than double the annual average of 7 percent. Of the total number of journalists imprisoned worldwide, 97 percent were arrested in their own countries and 8 percent were women, according to CPJ.

These women do their jobs by pushing against every hazard and obstruction faced by male journalists, as well as the additional obstacles and perils they had to face in getting the job and the assignment in the first place, plus all the other hazards that come just with being female in a patriarchal world. Sometimes, heartbreakingly, the harassment, threats, and sexual assaults they encounter come from their own male colleague journalists in the field or at home.

Lauren Wolfe, reporter, correspondent, and Director of the Women Under Siege Project of the Women’ s Media Center, has noted that often, those who are supposed to protect journalists in conflict zones, such as guards and drivers, can pose the biggest threats on the job. Sexual abuse is surfacing as one of the largest impediments to press freedom when it comes to women journalists—yet CPJ doesn’t track that in their annual reports. Online harassment is also experienced far more frequently by women journalists than by their male colleagues.

That fits into the pattern of online abuse of women in general, as documented and confronted by the Women’s Media Center Speech Project, which is dedicated to expanding women’s freedom of expression and curbing online harassment and abuse by offering information, tools, and resources. Ashley Judd—one of the earliest “mothers” of the MeToo Movement—is Chair of the Speech Project, and journalist and author Soraya Chemaly is the Director.

And now PEN, the international organization (with PEN America) has recently done a survey of 230 writers and journalists targeted by online harassment: Two-thirds reported severe reactions to being trolled, including refraining from publishing their work, deleting social media accounts, and fears for personal safety. More than a third reported avoiding certain topics in their writing. Writers were under assault for their viewpoints, but also based on their sex, race, religion, and sexual orientation. In response, PEN America has assembled an Online Harassment Field Manual, to equip and empower writers, journalists, and all those active online with tools and tactics to defend against hate speech and trolling.

These free, digital resources now exist—even if the solutions as yet don’t. As a co-founder of the Women’s Media Center, I’m deeply proud of the pioneering work the WMC has done on this front. I’m even prouder of the women who fight to become journalists and then fight to stay alive and get the real story out as journalists.

So please, join me in developing the habit of noticing the name on the byline or the rolling credits. And give a silent nod of respect to what it took for her to report the story beneath it.

The Activists
Not even male journalists can report certain stories in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, an absolute monarchy where a media blackout is routinely imposed on any and all forms of political, social, and human rights protest—and also on the retributions deployed against those who still dare to protest.

Like this story, for instance:

Between May 15 and 18, during Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman’s current “modernization reforms,” at least five women’s rights activists have been arrested, some reportedly charged with treason, a capital offense. The women are Aisha Almana, Madeha Al-Ajroush, Aziza Al Youself, Eman Al Najfan, and Loujain Al Hathloul. The men are Ibrahim Mudaimeegh, Hathloul’s lawyer, and Mohammed al-Rabea, a writer supportive of the women.

Dr. Almana was trying to cross the bridge from Saudi Arabia to Bahrain on business when she was stopped; she had been banned from traveling without being informed of that. State Security arrested the others in their homes. Almana and Al-Ajroush, two of the original drivers who defied KSA’s driving ban for women in 1990, are older women, and Almana is in ill health. For the past two years, these women were also trying to register an NGO to establish a women’s shelter; one of the men arrested had donated land to build the shelter. So far, all attempts to obtain registration have failed.

No reasons for the arrests have been given, although the Saudi Interior Ministry has confirmed that those arrested were suspected of communicating with “foreign entities,” infiltrating the government and providing financial support to “hostile elements abroad to undermine the security and stability of the kingdom”; this was possibly referring to rumors about a discreet “underground railroad” helping women runaways from forced marriages and domestic abuse—though the above-named women have no connections to such a rumored action. It’s also thought that Crown Prince MBS wants no mention of women’s successful protests when the driving ban is finally lifted by his “generosity” as planned in June.

We have just re-released my exclusive interview with Madeha Al-Ajroush, which ran as a Breaking News Special on “Women’s Media Center Live with Robin Morgan” October 26, 2013, marking the third major driving action of women across Saudi Arabia.
We are re-releasing the interview because Madeha’s words are so movingly relevant to the current detention:

In answer to my noting that previously Al-Ajroush and other Saudi activists had done interviews anonymously and that now she was openly using her name:

Al-Ajroush: “I’m using my name, yes. I don’t know if there’s any repercussions, but I dare to do so, and whatever happens, I just have to be responsible enough to face it, because that’s where we are right now. We need to move forward, and be strong enough for the next step, whatever it may be . . . we can no longer stand aside anymore, because revealing our names is extremely important and it’s a sign of moving forward, and of facing any consequences that may come. . . . We will not stop. . . . One thing that really helps us and protects us is [international] media coverage, having the world know more about us, and supporting us . . . we want the world to see us and stand by us. . . . It’s a global world, a small world, and every woman out there is our sister.”

It’s up to each of us to prove to them she is.

Please Tweet @SaudiEmbassyUSA with appeals for their release. Keep the tone respectful or it will be counter-productive.

Journalism itself is a form of activism, after all. Perhaps such women turn me, in my own small way, humbly, into a journalist.