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Another journalist reports sex assault in Tahrir Square

People gathered in Tahrir Square Sunday. (AFP /Khaled Desouki)

The story sounds hideously like another--one of a chaotic, predatory attack on a woman journalist in Cairo's Tahrir Square. Clothes torn from her body, hundreds of men surging to grab her breasts and claw at her. A woman wondering, "Maybe this is how I go, how I die." It has been almost a year and a half since CBS correspondent and CPJ board member Lara Logan endured an attack like this. Now, an independent journalist and student named Natasha Smith reports that it has happened to her.

Smith reported the attack on her blog today, describing how a horde of men descended on her Sunday night, pulling her limbs and throwing her around as she tried to protect her camera. She said she soon lost her camera, her backpack, and began to pray: "make it stop."

"They were scratching and clenching my breasts and forcing their fingers inside me in every possible way," Smith wrote. "So many men. All I could see was leering faces, more and more faces sneering and jeering as I was tossed around like fresh meat among starving lions."

In Cairo to film an independent documentary on women's rights and abuses against women in Egypt since the revolution, according to her website, Smith shared an account of her attack that is eerily parallel to Logan's. Smith did not immediately reply to an email request for an interview. Atul Singh, editor-in-chief at Fair Observer, confirmed that Smith is an associate editor for the website. He said that "the attack occurred" but declined to elaborate.

Here's what I mean by eerily parallel. This February, Logan described what happened to her for Women Under Siege, a project I direct at the Women's Media Center on sexualized violence in conflict:

"I kept appealing for mercy, begging them to stop in the midst of the violence and the chaos, as they tore my clothes from my body and raped me with their hands," Logan wrote. "Hundreds of them."

When I spoke to Logan today, she told me that Smith's account was hard for her to read, that she felt the same terror again "the way the mob came after her; the way the men looked--so close to you--and the faces of the people who looked away."

At one point, Smith wrote, women surrounded her and "frantically tried to cover" her naked body. "I fell to the ground and apparently temporarily lost consciousness." When she awoke, she said, the women told her the attack had been prompted by "rumors spread by troublemaking thugs that I was a foreign spy, following a national advertising campaign warning of the dangers of foreigners."

Smith is apparently referring to an ad campaign that ran on Egyptian television the week of June 8. While it's not entirely clear who was behind the campaign, the government acknowledged pulling it "because we were concerned that it was being misunderstood," according to The New York Times.

There have long been rumors that the Egyptian government coordinates mob attacks against journalists in Tahrir Square. In February 2011, U.S. State Department spokesman Philip Crowley called the abuse "'a concerted campaign' orchestrated from within Mubarak's inner circle," according to the Los Angeles Times. Logan and others have said they believe that recent attacks on international journalists--and on foreign and local women in Egypt--were directed from above, despite Mubarak being ousted from power early last year.

"It's a systematic campaign against journalists, who are enemies of the state," Logan said. "They want to get the foreign media out. They don't want foreigners from the media, aid organizations, or doing democracy work. We are regarded as a threat to the regime."

While an assault as severe as what Smith and Logan experienced may not happen frequently, violation is a tedious reality for many women journalists, especially those who report on protests or in crowds. A number of women I spoke to last year for my CPJ report, "The Silencing Crime: Sexual Violence and Journalists," talked about multiple levels of sexual abuse--from groping to gang rape--while on assignment in this kind of venue.

In May, CPJ released a new Journalist Security Guide with sections on how to protect oneself from sexual violence and how to cover protests.

"If you can find a single female journalist who hasn't been groped in a crowd, I will be stunned," said reporter Gretchen Peters, who has covered Pakistan and Afghanistan for more than a decade, first for The Associated Press and later for ABC News.

Smith described how she was in the square amid an atmosphere of "jubilation, excitement, and happiness" Sunday when in an instant, "everything changed." That description reminds me of another attack on a journalist which occurred in 2007 but only came to light in my report.

New York-based Swedish correspondent Jenny Nordberg was in Pakistan in October 2007 to cover the return of Benazir Bhutto, the exiled former prime minister who would be assassinated two months later. During a chaotic procession in Karachi, Nordberg became separated from her colleagues and surrounded by a voracious crowd of men who sexually assaulted her. She was freed only after people in a passing truck pulled her to safety. It took her four years to speak about what happened to her.

"I did not tell the editors for fear of losing assignments," Nordberg said in 2011. "That was definitely part of it. And I just did not want them to think of me as a girl."

Today, Nordberg told me that for Smith to share her story is "both brave and very important for others--journalists as well as editors." I agree. In February, CPJ published this piece in Attacks on the Press about editors' perspectives on how to protect their journalists on assignment. "It's important to know [about assaults] so you can orient yourself how to put your people in the field," Jamie Wellford, Newsweek's photo editor, told me at the time.

Nordberg went on to say that "nobody is safe in a crowd, regardless of your nationality or hair color"--both Smith and Logan are blonde. "It's just a particularly humiliating and awful assault, meant to silence someone. For a victim to then not stay silent is an act of courage."

Logan too praised Smith for speaking out clearly and quickly. "I know exactly what she's talking about and I commend her for going into detail and creating such a vivid description because I think it gives people an opportunity to truly understand how horrific it is and what it feels like," she said. "You have to understand how savage it is to feel truly enraged, to care, and to want to do something about it and at least take a stand."

UPDATE: This post has been corrected to reflect that CPJ spoke to Atul Singh, editor-in-chief of Fair Observer, and not Middle East Editor Abul-Hasanat Siddique as previously reported. Also, Singh did not say that Smith had relayed the attack to Fair Observer editors, as previously reported.

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Comments

I am a reporter for Dow Jones (covering venture capital and tech). In order to support free speech and journalism, in general, I try to keep up on the kind of issues covered here.

I shared Lauren Wofle's post, and the first person account of Natasha J. Smith from her WP blog here...

http://natashajsmith.wordpress.com/2012/06/26/please-god-please-make-it-stop/

...to my Facebook page where I am lucky to have 106,000 subscribers, many from outside of the U.S., many English language readers from Egypt.

The first response, from a man named Ahmad Shaker, was to completely disavow Natasha's account of her assault, as if she could or would fake her injuries or all of these details, as if she would include her trusted colleague in those accounts for some twisted purpose (hoping he would lie too).

Shaker's assertion is that there is no "evidence" of her assault. No tweeting. No photographs. No statements from doctors or politicians. If anyone would like to come forward and offer their witness testimony, that would be outstanding.

It is simply awful that the world's response to a brave soul is to discredit her.

My question for you, here, is in cases like this -- is this common? And will anyone be able to testify as to the validity of her story, and soon, before this discrediting campaign spreads beyond a few social media "troll" comments?

If you would like to respond to Shaker's comment or get in touch with me, please join the discussion, here:

https://www.facebook.com/lorakolodny/posts/142148202589253

(Hope that does not seem self promotional. I'm not here for that at all.)

Unfortunately, I do see a lot of this, yes.

There is no "hard evidence" in most cases of rape because of the simple fact that women do not often seek out doctors or police in places where they are likely to be shunned, laughed at, or even asked for bribes or re-raped. For some reason, this appears to anger many men--or seems to be used as a way to discredit women who are strong enough to speak out.

But I don't think it's lack of evidence that creates such an angry response. Just talking about reasons for rape provokes incredible rancor in some. (See: http://laurenmwolfe.com/?p=278)

I view these kinds of responses as an underpinning to why sexualized violence continues unabated, and with near-total impunity--the subjugation of women's rights and denial of women's voices leads to further violence. We're stuck in a terrible cycle.

In response to Lora Kolodny, about validation of the story, CNN spoke with Ms. Smith, and according to CNN, the British Consulate, as well as the hospital that she sought treatment, corroborated Ms. Smith's account.

Interestingly, according to CNN, the doctor who treated Ms. Smith attributes the seemingly lack of concern for Ms. Smith as a "language miscommunication."

When I told a friend about this assault, *her* immediate reaction was that it "couldn't be true; the details are too similar to Logan's assault." I was nearly speechless. Besides the obvious--the details of ANY mob sexual assault, particularly in the same place, are going to be fairly similar from case to case--I was struck by that fact that a *woman's* first reaction would be one of doubt. But then I looked at a few comments on Twitter and saw that others, too, doubted Natasha. I can only imagine how awful it is to be doubted; as if the original assault wasn't enough!

I suspect this tendency to doubt comes not only from the erroneous view that women tend to lie about or exaggerate sexual assaults AND from the "education" we've all had on social media that much of what we read isn't true or isn't exactly as originally heard. (We've all had that experience by now, RIGHT?)

According to several studies of rape statistics in the US, the incidence of false reporting ranges from 3-8%. The vast majority of women who report their rapes (keep in mind many do not) are not lying about them.

I never doubted Natasha (or Logan or Eltahawy or Sinz). I wish them all well and hope the least the rest of us can learn to do is BELIEVE.

I'm not a journo, but I'm a feminist and an abuse survivor who follows these stories when they are reported in the media. If it's an incident that happened in an Arab nation. it's almost certain that there'll be a commenter (or several) identifying himself with a male Arab name who quickly seeks to discredit any claims of sexualized violence in that country. It would be funny if the topic itself wasn't so abhorrent. But there's a definite and telling pattern: 1) male, 2) claims native knowledge of that culture/country, and 3) defends country (honor) over the victim. And when you realize that still in many Arab countries that a man's word is more authoritative than a woman's, and much is invested to preserving the honor of one's identity--familial, cultural and national--it makes sense, sadly. These men, if we assume they are honest in identifying themselves as native Arabs, see this as a personal attack on them and their honor, and lash out in a predictable manner.

I don't know why people assume that in such incidents there'd be a lot of documented evidence but it's an all too easy way to make a seemingly legit yet totally bogus case against any victim. I think people's gullibility to such arguments stems from a profound (and willful) ignorance of what happens (or doesn't) when rape victim try to seek justice. Even in the US, documenting rape evidence has considerable obstacles, from bias against the victim to laws and procedures that either make reporting difficult or put undue burdens on the victim. I can only imagine what obstacles there would be for a female foreigner in a country where sexualized violence and misogyny have been reported.

Lastly, I live on the Mexican border, and have known women who were sexually assaulted there--their first instinct wasn't to go to the police or a doctor from documentation. They first instinct was to get somewhere safe and recover from the horror and shock of it. People who have never experienced such trauma too easily trivialize, intentionally or unwittingly, the extent of terror and confusion such an event can induce. It really does batter a person down at the core of their being. You don't simply pick yourself up and go, Oh, hey, I was raped! I want justice now! It doesn't work like that. Victims are wounded in their bodies and their minds, and most often, people who survive a sexual assault need to recover enough *just to process* what happen to them, let alone seek out the police or a doctor. And of course, there's all the shame and self-blaming a victim often feel once they have processed what happened to them, that discourages a lot of victims from seeking help or justice. This is why we as a society must be far more compassionate and supportive so these women and men can make those first, difficult steps from being a victim to a person seeking justice. What is not needed for the victim, as they try to emerge from that terror and confusion, is to be met with a barrage of "She/he's making it up"--especially from people who may have personal, cultural or nationalistic motives to deny such incidents happen.

Cade DeBois (@lifepostepic) June 28, 2012 5:15:01 PM ET

Cade -- Couldn't agree more.

Thank you for the responses, Lauren and Tom especially. I brought them to the attention of the commenter on my FB community.