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Foreign Reporting and the Perils of Freedom

By Tala Dowlatshahi

Many of the protests across the Middle East and North Africa are in the process of transforming Muslim society. They are a cause for celebration as democracy establishes a foothold in Egypt. The possibility that its legacy will spread, perhaps even into Iran, is one that all of my fellow comrades who support the Green Movement can only hope for. But along with the rallies and touching speeches, there was also chaos--as there always seems to be in any kind of large celebratory gathering. We have seen similar chaos in the past--with British footballers at the European finals, and Puerto Ricans in New York at the annual Puerto Rican parade. In all of these circumstances, individual morality sometimes gives way to mob behavior as participants exploit the feeling of anonymity offered by the crowd.

I have perused many discussion boards this week concerning the sexual assault on CBS journalist Lara Logan in Cairo the night that Mubarak resigned. Dozens of people made nasty, x-rated comments about Logan that were shocking to me. Referring to her as "tasty" and "deserving" of what happened to her because she was "too hot," commentators called on media agencies to rethink sending females on missions in dangerous security zones.

As a woman, I know well the dangers of foreign reporting. During the winter of 1999, I flew to Tokyo to cover the millennial New Year 2000. At 12:00 AM, I was in Shinjuku Station Square, when the crowd erupted. Immediately after, while I was hugging my friends Tomoko and Hitoshi, I was, to my terror, dragged away by three men of Indian origin. They started kissing my face and pulled me off my feet onto my back in the crowd. As one of them started putting his hands all over me, the other poured his alcoholic drink into my eyes. I remember thinking just how swift the whole act had been. Only thirty seconds later, Hitoshi came to my rescue. He shoved the men off me and quickly got me to my feet. On the car ride home, as I wiped my eyes clean with water, Hitoshi asked me if those men were from my country. I suppose he wanted to reassure me that Japanese men would not behave that way, but I couldn't help but think that he was placing me in the same category as my attackers, and imagining that such violence was somehow endemic to my culture. I did of course look foreign, but another significant reason that I drew attention to myself may have been the journalistic act I was committing, taking photos and interviewing people on the streets. Years later when I was sent to Afghanistan, the Ethiopian/Eritrean border, and the Democratic Republic of Congo, I always made sure to stay vigilant in crowds. The memory of that brief attack never left me.

I had the opportunity to meet Ms. Logan a couple of years ago in Washington when we were both attending a press freedom symposium. I remember thinking she was rather soft-spoken, and had a genuine interest in the Middle East and the plight of women in particular. I don't recall an inflated ego, nor a desire to stand out in a crowd. She came into the room, sat in the very back, and remained silent throughout the whole symposium. It's so tragic to think Ms. Logan escaped sexual abuse in her native country of South Africa, which ranks the highest in the world for these crimes, only to be the victim during what should have been monumental moment in her reporting career in Egypt.

And yet the reaction to this incident has been at times unsettling. Just as anonymity enabled the crime that was committed against Logan in Egypt, the discussion boards also allow commentators to remain incognito and thus post all variety of hateful remarks. Some employed orientalist rhetoric, blaming the incident on the primal sexual tendencies and lack of rationality among Egyptian men. Others, equally offensive, blamed the victim, insisting that she had it coming. Some, especially clever, combined the two explanations, arguing that she she should have known better than to spend time with a bunch of irrational Muslims. In all of these cases, there seemed to be a dearth of critical understanding of the complex set of causes responsible for these heinous acts. Was it animosity against a liberated western female that led to the sexual assault? Was it hostility toward foreign journalists? Was it an act of resentment by those who feel disempowered against a member of the professional elite?

It is time to give up the habit of deploying ethnic stereotypes in our efforts to explain sexual violence; the circumstances that can lead to such crimes are unfortunately present in all societies. Indeed, there is a disturbing irony in the street protests and online discussions: both have galvanized hope for radical reform across the world, but both are also capable of unleashing vicious, socially unacceptable behavior. Relinquishing our individual identity in these situations can lead us to do things we wouldn't ordinarily do, and this can mean extraordinary heroism but also extraordinary depravity.

I am a staunch defender of free speech and have seen the benefits of blogging and social media activism in Iran and the world over. But when the language becomes vitriolic, I am often reminded of how hate speech in Rwanda on various media networks was the driving force causing hostile groups to kill off nearly one million innocent civilians in a little over three months. The crime against Logan does not compare to the crimes committed in Rwanda, but in both incidents a rhetoric of blame served to dehumanize the victims. I am also sure the thousands of Egyptians who reside in Queens were not in the least amused to find The New York Post on their front doorstep with the headline labeling Egyptians as "Animals." How productive is this rhetoric at a time when Americans and Middle Easterners are just beginning to find commonalities not only in their use of social networking sites, but also in their political and social ideals?