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June 19, 2017, 11:46 a.m.
Reporting & Production
LINK:  ➚   |   Posted by: Christine Schmidt   |   June 19, 2017

Baited links in emails is nothing new for users of modern technology, from journalists to ordinary people. Being hacked by individuals associated with Russian or other foreign servers is unfortunately also not uncommon.

Receiving an email that accuses you of sexual escapades, on the other hand, watching your Gmail and Facebook accounts being taken over, and then having those fabricated materials used against you when you’re imprisoned by the Iranian government for being a journalist: That’s something that Yeganeh Rezaian is all too familiar with.

In a new report from Harvard’s Shorenstein Center on Media, Politics and Public Policy, Rezaian explores the challenges faced by local and foreign female journalists in Muslim societies in the Middle East. She draws on her own experience when she was detained for 72 nights, starting in July 2014, with 69 nights in solitary confinement, in Iran before being released on bail. She was one of 10 female journalists imprisoned in Iran at that time. Rezaian completed a fellowship at the Shorenstein Center this past fall.

Her husband Jason, former Tehran bureau chief for the Washington Post, was held for 18 months and convicted of espionage before being released to the United States in a prisoner swap. He was a 2016–2017 Nieman Fellow.

Rezaian, an Iranian native, describes the “double-edged sword” encountered by many native and foreign-born reporters covering the news in male-dominated societies:

On one edge of the sword it is common for female journalists to be perceived as little more than nonthreatening and benign presences. On the other is a cloud of undesired, uncomfortable sexual energy that envelops and dominates what should be a routine professional encounter.

Rezaian also explains how opening a suspicious email opened her accounts to attack:

The sender’s address was unfamiliar and in the subject line they demanded 100 million rials ($3,000). At first glance I was scared. I knew right away that something was wrong and yet I tried to calm myself down, to believe this was just a joke from a friend. I couldn’t stop myself from opening it. Inevitably, it was a huge mistake. The email said I had 10 hours to pay hush money or the sender would reveal the truth about a sexual scandal I was involved in. They claimed to have pictures and a tape as evidence.

Once Rezaian and her husband were freed, she dedicated herself to shining a light on the hardships female journalists in Muslim-majority countries overcome — especially for those raised in the communities they cover. She said in the most recent episode of the Shorenstein podcast:

As I went through and made different interviews with other female journalists who cover Islamic countries including [in the] Middle East I realized most of the Western women reporters who travel there and cover those countries, yes, they face those challenges but they unanimously said when they were working…they found that the job is difficult but also it’s as twice more difficult for local women covering those countries. I don’t say I was surprised, but it opens a whole new window to studying.

Rezaian highlights the dearth of resources and trainings for staff at major media organizations to deal with gender-based violence, discrimination, and other threats. She also notes the complete lack of support that freelancers, in particular, face, reporting on news in sensitive areas without the backing of an institution.

Still, Rezaian — who was a reporter from 2009 to 2014 for various outlets including Iran’s state-run English media service, Bloomberg News, and Abu Dhabi-based regional newspaper The National — sees a future for female journalists in the Middle East. She writes in her report:

Many may wonder why an increasing number of women in these Middle Eastern countries are entering journalism as a profession and why more Western female journalists feel empowered by covering these Islamic societies.

Indeed, as we have seen, not only does the state often try to pressure women into giving up this work, but there are subtler and less obvious factors working to deter them from journalism as a career path.

Yet, we can uncover stories with a lighter touch — sometimes major political ones — but also, and crucially, those…providing a window into an often misunderstood and long deemed inconsequential sector of society.

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