A Secret Crime…More than half of Journalists in Kurdistan have been Sexually Harrassed

Al-Quds Al-Arabi/Sulaimaniyah: Koral Noori “You do not understand anything and will not become successful in your life”. These words served as an early warning to the journalist Razan Aras to leave her work on a television channel based in the city of Sulaimaniyah in the Kurdistan Region of Iraq. This is how her director told her directly when she refused his advances to engage in a private affair with him.

“I screamed in his face to stand at this point and left the station headquarters with my nerves collapsing,” says Arras, raising her eyebrows and raising her voice as if to regain the tone of his speech.

Before joining the channel affiliated with the Kurdish parties represented in parliament, Aras, 29 in age, participated in a training workshop on television and radio presentation skills. Once the training was completed, the department manager asked her to join a one-year contract. “He told me he was looking for broadcasters blessed with beauty and a good voice. Of course I accepted the show. It was the dream of my life to be a broadcaster”.

In the last weeks of her work, which lasted about seven months, the director’s requests were repeated by attending meetings that were unjustified. “I enter the meeting and I find no one else in the office, I sit and his eyes staring at me and talking to me in flattery. More than once he offered to me to travel with him out of the country and I was making excuses to respond to his request”. “The last time he grabbed my hand and pulled me towards himself, and when I pushed him away he started talking to me like a madman telling me that I had no future in this profession”.

Aras did not tell her family about the reasons for her resignation and did not communicate with the channel’s management to clarify the situation. “If I spoke, I would not be given any consideration and the director would not be fired from his job and I would lose was my reputation as well’. She said.

This journalist is one of dozens of women journalists who have faced similar situations, according to the investigation. The results of a survey conducted by the investigation equipment, the largest of its kind in the Kurdistan region and the disputed governorate of Kirkuk, show that sexual harassment through looks, verbal words or touching to explicit sexual harassment is a close sign of the media environment whether the media is partisan or civil.

Aras’s story is repeated in slightly different detail with reporter Delvan Azad, who was asked by the Head of the Department to go to his house for spending a “beautiful day”. “He whispered in my ear with words I almost dropped the ground when hearing those words” says Dilovan Azad. But this young woman did not leave her job. All there is that she keeps her mobile phone with text and voice messages her Head of the Department sends her, without a clear purpose or plan. “I do not intend to file a lawsuit with the judiciary,” says Dilovan Azad, who asked us to conceal her real name and work,  her only condition to talk to us.

“When I go to work I try as hard as I can to maintain a low profile and  avoid attention and ignore all the words I hear,” she says. “What matters to me is that I keep working and get my salary at the end of the month”.

A Sensitive Questionnaire

Aras and Azad took the road of silence. This is the case for most of those surveyed in this investigation by distributing a questionnaire to 400 out of 600 journalists, most of whom are registered with the Syndicate for Kurdistan Journalists.

In Sulaymaniyah and Erbil, the headquarters of the ruling Kurdish parties, most Kurdish-language media are concentrated. The bulk of the questionnaire papers were distributed (200 in Sulaymaniyah and 142 in Erbil), while the rest of the forms went to journalists in Duhok, Halabja and Kirkuk. The most prominent questions for female journalists were whether they were sexually harassed by their colleagues in the workplace, what kind of harassment, and other questions about the nature of the job position of the person harassing them and their reactions to their harassment.

Once the results were sorted out, 127 journalists refused to answer the questions asked in the questionnaire. In the second section of the second paper, three reasons for not responding were the most frequent in the order. First, the subject is “sensitive” and may harm their reputation. For fear of blacklisting the media institute and the statement may cause the journalist to lose its job and or lead to abuse of employees.

In Duhok governorate, only one journalist out of 16 accepted the questionnaire and the others refused. The newspaper cited the reasons for rejection on the front page of the form saying: “Duhok is not Sulaymaniyah. We can not talk about such issues at all”.

Dr. Shino Khalil Hassan, an expert on Social Work at the Faculty of Education at the University of Koya commented “This happens every time we conduct a statistical survey or questionnaire on a sensitive social issue, such as domestic violence, abortion or sexual harassment”.

However,  Salwa, a former journalist, was harassed by her manager when she was working for a local media organization. She contacted the author of this investigative report to expose what happened to her and how it has changed her life.

I was 19 at the time, I was studying in the morning and working in the evening. I was trying to convince myself that it I can improve my ability and stand out among the crowd. I loved my work and had great dreams for my future. He was always chasing me with his looks, I tried to convince myself that the way he looks at me is normal and I ignored them. But when he began talking to me and courting me I stopped him. And hence began the harassment, the arguments and the threat of losing my job. She talks with a muffled voice, wiping her blushed face and as a reaction carrying a pen on her table squeezing it firmly between the grip of her hand and fingers.

Half of the women were harassed

Many women journalists describe the city of Sulaymaniyah as the most open and receptive to the work of women from among the governorates of the region or at the level of Iraq as a whole. However, 52% of the female journalists who participated in the questionnaire stated that they had already faced explicit verbal or physical harassment by their colleagues at work.

This percentage did not make a clear difference from Erbil’s provincial capital, which is governed by close tribal and clan ties. Almost repeating themselves (53%). In Kirkuk, the proportion of victims of harassment rose to 76%, while a decrease was recorded in the newly formed Halabja governorate, where a small number of female journalists were present, up to 40%.

The overall survey results, 140 out of 273 people working in newspapers, television, radio and web sites encountered positions in the framework of explicit sexual harassment, more than half of the women involved. The survey reveals that two-thirds of the participants have already been subjected to verbal harassment, while third of female journalists were subjected to harassment and the rest of the of female journalists has taken the form of physical contact.

Social workers define sexual harassment as “any form of unwanted words or acts of a sexual nature that violate the bodily integrity, privacy or feelings of a person and make them feel uncomfortable, threatened, fearful, disdainful or insulted”.

A journalist from Erbil, revealed the behavior of her Departmental Officer who was accustomed to harass. “He said a journalist had to be free and break the rules of behavior. He considered his verbal and other transgressions socially free and culturally progressive, and described all those who objected to his advancing behavior as backward people who can not succeed as a media”.

Fears of rising numbers

The activist Jamil Ahmed warns of the high rate of incidence of sexual harassment of various kinds and the exploitation of female journalists because of their need to work. In light of the economic crisis that has been taking place in the region since the last two years, followed by the closure of dozens of media institutions. He says that ” Many women journalists have lost their jobs in the last two years because of the economic crisis, some of them may have to make concessions to work in other institutions”. Also adding that  “It’s complicated and worrying in light of a reality that allows institutions to give up their journalists without giving them any rights”.

Only five Complaints

” My colleague was watching me throughout his working hours. The last time I closed the door of the office he grabbed my hand trying to hug me, “says Yasmin Kardu, 32 year old, an editor at a Kurdish political party site. Yasmin is one of the rare cases in which a journalist in the region dared to file a complaint with the Syndicate of Journalists. The results of the survey show that 97 percent of them were silent about going to the Syndicate or the judiciary and exposing the identity of the harasser.

Yasmin chose to talk to a trade union official personally so that the news did not spread among the workers. This was one of only five complaints received by the Syndicate, all of which were oral and were not recorded in official records. Karwan Anwar, head of the Syndicate of Journalists in Sulaymaniyah, confirms that four of these cases have been tackled by addressing departments and warning the harasser – as in the case of Yasmine, whose colleague apologized and promised not to repeat the incident. The fifth case remains unresolved.

According to Capt. Hakim Azad, there is only one official complaint filed by a journalist working for an Islamic party station, who was prevented by the administration from appearing on the screen without wearing hijab, but not in the context of sexual harassment.

The officials at Syndicate of Journalists do not hide their confusion when dealing with these issues. “At first, the harasser denies the act and refuses to talk to us, and we face great difficulties in gathering evidence against him,” Karwan Anwar says. “I confirm that the percentage is even higher,” he said. “Most of those who leave journalism soon after are women.” “Why is that male journalists do not leave the media?” He asked.

A lengthy route of the judiciary

In the Kurdistan region there is one female journalist for every nine male journalists. The total number of registered members of the syndicate is 6,000, working in 143 radio stations, 92 local television stations, 34 satellite television, 860 newspapers and magazines and hundreds of websites, many of which have stopped working during the past two years due to the financial crisis.

The Journalism Act does not contain any special article to combat sexual harassment of women journalists. The Iraqi Penal Code provides for the detention of a harasser for a period not exceeding three months and a fine not exceeding thirty dinars, or one of these two penalties. The law does not provide enough incentive for the journalist, Dilovan Azad, to file a lawsuit against her department head, despite retaining text and audio messages sent to her as she says that”It is not worth losing my reputation and social status”.

Saman Fawzi, a researcher specializing in press law who has many publications in this field, notes that it is difficult to prove the fact of harassment through private sessions. “The courts’ way is long and it may take years. The matter might be resolved by forcing the harrasser to pay a little sum of money and the case is simply resolved”.

Resorting to the Institutions

“I wish I had not done it,” said Sarah Fouad, who left the journalism profession even before she learned the basics of the profession. “My manager accused me of lying and asked me to apologize to my colleague.” Sara tells how she complained to her direct manager and continues: “I was even blamed by some colleagues as if I was guilty”.

The results of the survey indicate that 13 percent of the participating journalists are directed to the higher echelons who seek to punish the harasser. Nineteen journalists were lucky and some left work, while 18 journalists were transferred to other administrative departments, or the matter was resolved amicably, without the punishment of the harasser. The survey reveals that most of the harassers are high-level career leaders, as editor-in-chief, department directors and editors. Therefore, the investigation team surveyed the views of senior journalists through a phone call, including 13 managers of media organizations, including satellite channels, newspapers, newspapers and major Internet sites, 11 of which responded and denied the existence of such cases in their institutions.

When confronted with the results of the questionnaire, the director of a satellite channel based in Sulaymaniyah said ” Things are resolved within the home institution and should not be discussed in the media”. The problem is part of the Iraqi society and is present in all other societies.” An editor of a monthly magazine said so.

Parliament is closed

In 2011, a group of women activists drafted a law to combat sexual harassment in the region. “But the project did not receive any attention, but it was not put before parliament for preliminary reading,” said MP Talar Latif, a member of parliament’s legal committee. While Evar Ibrahim, head of the Women’s Affairs Committee in the parliament, pointed out that more than one bill was prepared for the same issue. “We wanted to turn these initiatives into a unified anti-harassment law, but because of the disruption of the parliament, we could not do that”.

Ibrahim believes that the toughening of the sanctions on the harassers will not be enough alone. The solution, in her opinion, starts with the parties that run a huge network of newspapers, radio stations and satellite channels. “Why these parties do not start reforming their own institutions before reforming the laws? They cannot do that? ” She notes that any legislative step can not be seen effective before the reopening of the doors of parliament which is closed to the representative of the people.

Until this happens, Nayaz Abdullah, a programmer and program presenter at Nawa Radio, believes that the time has come to raise this issue in the Kurdish street and inside the working institutions without fear of social stigma or abuse. “When we confront harassment we are defending the whole society, not just ourselves,” she says.

Until the dream comes true, Salwa, Sarah and dozens of others will give up their dreams in the world of journalism. More women journalists will be subjected to and become the victim of harassment, while few are trying to confront the current and uncover the truth in the hope of creating change”. As journalists see.

The investigation was carried out by the Network of Iraqi Reporters for Investigative Journalism (NIRIJ) under the supervision of Kami El Melhem with the support of Al-Menasa.

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