A secret crime - more than half of journalists in Kurdistan have been sexually harrassed

“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. They came from her director when she refused his advances to engage in a private affair with him.

By Koral Noori (Al-Quds Al-Arabi/Sulaimaniyah)

“I screamed in his face 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 her director’s speech. 

Before joining the channel affiliated with the Kurdish parties represented in parliament, Aras, 29 years old, 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 final weeks of her work, which lasted about seven months, the director’s requests were accompanied by attending meetings that had no professional justification. “I enter the meeting and I find no one else in the office. I sit and he stares at me and flatters me. More than once he offered to me to travel with him out of the country, and I was making excuses in order to decline his requests”. “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 she did not communicate with the channel’s management to clarify the situation. “If I spoke up, I would not be given any consideration, and the director would not be fired from his job. I would lose my reputation as well”, she says.

This journalist is one of dozens of women journalists who have faced similar situations, according to an investigation of harassment in the media industry. The results of a survey, the largest of its kind in the Kurdistan region and the disputed governorate of Kirkuk, show that sexual harassment – from looks, verbal expressions or touching to explicit sexual harassment – is common in the media environment, no matter if the media is partisan or civil.

Aras’s story is repeated in slightly different detail with reporter Dilovan Azad, also a young woman, who was asked by the Head of the Department to go to his house to spend a “beautiful day”.

“He whispered words in my ear  that almost made me drop to the ground”, says Dilovan Azad. She didn’t leave her job though. Instead she keeps the texts and voice messages her Head of the Department sends her on her phone – but without any 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 as a condition for her to talk to us.

“When I go to work I try as hard as I can to maintain a low profile, avoid attention and ignore all the disturbing 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 the investigation, which consisted of a questionnaire distributed to 400 journalists, most of whom are registered with the Syndicate for Kurdistan Journalists. Sulaymaniyah and Erbil is where most of the headquarters of the ruling Kurdish parties and Kurdish-language media are concentrated, and the majority of the questionnaire papers were distributed here . The rest of the forms went to journalists in Duhok, Halabja and Kirkuk.

The most main questions were whether the female journalists experienced sexual harassment by their colleagues in the workplace, what kind of harassment they experienced, the nature of the job position of the person harassing them and their reactions to their harassment.

Once the results were clear, 127 journalists refused to answer the questions asked in the questionnaire. The three most common reasons for not responding were: first, the sensitivity of the subject and responding may harm their reputation; second, out of fear of blacklisting the media institute; and third, the statement may cause the journalists to lose their job and/or lead to abuse of employees.

In the Duhok governorate, only one journalist out of 16 accepted to answer the questionnaire. 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 organisation. She contacted the author of this investigative report to share 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 could improve my abilities and stand out among the crowd. I loved my work and had great dreams for my future. He was always chasing me with his glances.  I tried to convince myself that the way he looked at me was normal, and I ignored it. But when he began talking to me and courting me, I stopped him. And hence began the harassment, the arguments and the threats of losing my job”. She talks with a muffled voice, wiping her blushed face and squeezing her pen firmly.

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 among the governorates of the region or in Iraq in general. 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.

However, this percentage wasn’t very different from the 53% in Erbil’s provincial capital, which is governed by close tribal and clan ties. In Kirkuk, the proportion of victims of harassment rose to 76%, while the number was lower in the newly formed Halabja governorate, where a small number of female journalists were present, with 40%.

The overall survey shows that 140 out of 273 women working in newspapers, television, radio and web sites have encountered explicit sexual harassment – more than half of the respondents.

The survey also reveals that two-thirds of the participants have already been subjected to verbal harassment, while a third of female journalists have been subjected to  some form of 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”.

"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."
"Dilovan Azad"

A journalist from Erbil ave details about 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 he 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 raise the alarm over of the high rate of incidents of sexual harassment of various kinds and the exploitation of female journalists because they depend on their job and salary. In light of the economic crisis that has been taking place in the region for the last two years, followed by the closure of dozens of media institutions, he says: ”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”. He also adds that: “It’s complicated and worrying in light of a reality that allows institutions to let their journalists go without following any rules for worker’s rights”.

Only five complaints 

“My colleague was watching me throughout his working hours. The last time I closed the office door, he grabbed my hand and tried 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 remained silent and never went to the Syndicate or the judiciary to expose the identity of their 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 handled by addressing departments and warning the harasser – as in the case of Yasmine, whose colleague apologised 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 the complaint was not filed as a case of sexual harassment.

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

A lengthy route of the judiciary

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

The Iraqi Journalism Act does not contain any special article addressing sexual harassment of women journalists. The Iraqi Penal Code enables detention of the harasser for a period not exceeding three months and a fine not exceeding thirty dinars. The law does not provide enough incentive for journalists like Dilovan Azad to file a lawsuit against her department head, despite despite the ongoing harassment. ”It is not worth losing my reputation and social status”, she says. 

Saman Fawzi, a researcher specialising in press law, notes that it is difficult to prove harassment. “The courts’ way is long and it may take years. Instead the matter might get resolved by forcing the harasser to pay a small sum of money, and then the case is simply resolved”.

Resorting to the instritutions

“I wish I had not done it,” says Sarah Fouad, who left the journalism even before she learned the basics of the profession. When she accused her colleague of sexual harassment, no one supported her. “My manager accused me of lying and asked me to apologize to my colleague,” Sara explains. She recalls how she complained to her direct manager, but with no luck: “I was even blamed by some colleagues as if I was guilty”.

The results of the survey indicate that just 13% of the participating journalists are directed to the higher echelons who seek to punish the harasser. 19 journalists were lucky with this, some left work and 18 journalists were transferred to other administrative departments or the matter was resolved without any punishment of the harasser. The survey reveals that most of the harassers are high-level career leaders, as editor-in-chiefs, department directors and editors. Therefore, the investigation team surveyed the views of senior journalists through a phone call, including 13 managers of media organizations. 11 of these denied the existence of such cases in their institutions.

"When we confront harassment we are defending the whole society, not just ourselves"
Nayaz Abdullah
programmer and programme presenter at Nawa Radio

When confronted with the results of the questionnaire, the director of a satellite channel based in Sulaymaniyah said: ”these 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.

Parliament is closed

In 2011, a group of women activists drafted a law to combat sexual harassment in the region. “The project did not receive any attention. It was not put before parliament for preliminary reading”, says MP Talar Latif, a member of parliament’s legal committee.

Evar Ibrahim, head of the Women’s Affairs Committee in the parliament, points 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 in itself. The solution, in her opinion, starts with the parties that run a huge network of newspapers, radio stations and satellite channels.

“Why don’t these parties start reforming their own institutions before reforming the laws? Can’t they do that instead?”, she asks and notes that no legislative step can be realised before the reopening of the doors of parliament which is closed to the 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 new legislation and working conditions for women come true, Salwa, Sarah and dozens of others will give up their dreams in the world of journalism. More women journalists will be subjected to harassment, and few will try to confront the harassers and uncover the truth in the hope of creating change”. 

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.

The article was originally published June 13, 2019 by Nirij (Network of Iraqi Reporters for Investigative Journalism. Read the original here.

Navigating a changing world: media’s gendered prism

IMS’ media reader on gender and sexuality

Navigating a changing world: media’s gendered prism

IMS’ media reader on gender and sexuality