Horrific violence against female journalists in Muslim world

The reaction to a single journalist being murdered, raped, assaulted, tortured or arrested is a reflection of how our society relates to massive human rights abuses in the Muslim world. 

Rachel Avraham

OpEds National flags in Bandar Abbas, Iran
National flags in Bandar Abbas, Iran

Russian journalist and human rights activist Anna Politkovskaya once proclaimed, “How we react to the tragedy of one small person accurately reflects our attitude towards the whole nationality and increasing the numbers doesn’t change much.”  In this article's context, how a society reacts to a single journalist being murdered, raped, assaulted, tortured or arrested is a reflection of how our society relates to massive human rights abuses in the Muslim world. 

Given that this is the situation, it is sad to note how little the community of nations stands up for female journalists who have been murdered, raped, assaulted, tortured or arrested, either for standing up for their rights or for just doing their jobs effectively.   

Recently, it was reported that Bangladeshi female journalist Suborna Nodi, the editor and publisher of the online Daily Jagrat Bangla, who also worked as a correspondent for Ananda TV, was hacked to death in front of her home.   According to her family, her ex-husband and his father are the prime suspects. Following her brutal murder, in which multiple men took part, over 100 journalists in Bangladesh demonstrated on the streets, demanding that the perpetrators of her murder face justice.   However, the story has not been picked up by the non-Bangladeshi press until now. 

This is a great travesty of justice that is being ignored by the community of nations.  Her mother said that on her deathbed Nodi sought the death penalty for her murderers, proclaiming that she identified them as her ex-husband, his aide Milon and several others.  Prior to the murder, Nodi had divorced her husband and had filed a complaint against him for torturing her.   According to her sister, she was murdered because her torturers feared being convicted. 

Sadly, Nodi is hardly the only victim of a justice system which failed to protect her from the violence perpetrated by her ex-husband and his family, who felt that this brilliant journalist had violated their honor first by seeking a divorce in order to escape their abuse and then when the abuse didn’t stop, reporting the abuse to the authorities.   To take such a courageous stance in a country like Bangladesh is unheard of and unforgiveable from the perspective of the murderers. 

In Bangladesh, minority women are systematically abducted, raped, forcefully disappeared, forcefully evicted, harassed on the streets and have their property seized from them.   None of the victims expects to obtain justice.   For the minorities of Bangladesh, Nordi is merely the latest victim of such wanton acts of violence that women are compelled to suffer while living under a totalitarian dictatorship that does not respect them both as minorities and as women. Unfortunately, this latest brutal murder of a female journalist in Bangladesh is just one of many such examples of violence being perpetrated against female journalists in the Muslim world.

In 2003, Zahra Kazemi, a Canadian-Iranian photojournalist, was raped, tortured and ultimately murdered by the Iranian government merely for taking pictures outside of Iran’s notorious Evin Prison.   According to Reporters without Borders, no one was punished for her murder: “In carefully staged judicial proceedings, one of the intelligence officers who interrogated Kazemi was charged with her death on 24 July 2004 only to be acquitted by a Tehran appeal court on 16 May 2005. The Kazemi family lawyers said they were unable to address these hearings, which the defendant did not attend, and that their requests for senior judicial officials to be summoned to testify were ignored, depriving the hearings of key witnesses.”

According to Reporters without Borders, although Mortazavi was never prosecuted for the crimes he perpetrated against Kazemi, he was arrested and sentenced to two years in prison for his complicity in the murder of Mohsen Roholamini, the son of a senior level regime official.  In other words, in the eyes of the Iranian regime, the life of a son of a senior level regime official matters more than an Iranian Canadian female photojournalist, who was merely doing her job; sadly, had he been prosecuted for murdering, raping and torturing Kazemi, perhaps Roholamini would have faced a different fate. 

According to Reporters without Borders, “Zahra Kazemi is a symbol of all the human rights violations perpetrated in Iran since the clerics seized power in 1979. She was a woman and a journalist who wanted to tell the world about the terrible conditions in Tehran’s Evin prison, a symbol of the regime’s relentless repression.”

Nodi and Kazemi were hardly the only female journalists murdered in recent years.  Last year, in 2017, Iraqi Kurdish reporter Shifa Zikri Ibrahim, who was also known as Shifa Gardi, was murdered by a roadside bomb while covering the Iraqi Army’s advance against ISIS.  She was on an assignment for Kurdish language TV to report on the mass graves containing hundreds of Mosul’s residents who fell victim to ISIS were buried.  And the number of female journalists being murdered continues to grow.  According to Reporters without Borders, twice as many female journalists were murdered in 2017 compared to 2016. 

The murder of female journalists is merely the tip of the iceberg regarding the harsh treatment female journalists experience in the line of duty. According to the Stockholm Center for Freedom, 55 female journalists in Turkey complained that they have been subjected to discrimination and violence at work with 32% being subjected to police violence.  

Turkey is the biggest jailer of journalists in the world, imprisoning 240 journalists according to the latest statistics.   180 other media outlets were shut down following the suppression of the Gulen Movement in 2016.   According to Iranian human rights activist Shabnam Assadollahi, there are now over 15,000 women imprisoned in Turkey.  Iranian human rights activist Minoo Moghimi claimed that Turkish journalist Sinem Tezyapar of A9 TV is among them. Furthermore, according to Bassam Tawil of the Gatestone Institute, two female Palestinian journalists were assaulted in the PA while covering a protest calling upon Mahmoud Abbas to lift his sanctions upon Gaza.    

Where is the voice of the international community, condemning such horrific violence against brave women who as part of their work speak out and are a voice for the victims of radical Islam and horrific dictatorships?   Sadly, except for a few international human rights organizations, their stories are invisible and do not get the attention that they deserve. 

In fact, according to the New York Times, when any journalists are murdered, prosecution of the perpetrators rarely occurs.   According to the statistics, prosecutions were made only in 13% of the murders of journalists between 1992 and 2016. 

This is outrageous and must change immediately!

Rachel Avraham is the President of the Dona Gracia Mendes Nasi Center for Human Rights in Middle East (under formation) and is a political analyst at the Safadi Center for International Diplomacy, Research, Public Relations and Human Rights.  She is also a contributing writer at the Haym Salomon Center.  Avraham is the author of “Women and Jihad: Debating Palestinian Female Suicide Bombings in the American, Israeli and Arab media.”