Let's Talk: Personal Boundaries, Safety & Women in Journalism


June Cross: So you said you'd never had the situation come up where a man did anything inappropriate or a woman did anything inappropriate with you?

Christiane Amanpour: Not really and I can't figure out why in retrospect because obviously I have heard about people in all sorts of compromising positions, women in compromising positions. Whether it was during the Arab Spring, wherever it might be. It's not just in foreign lands. I don't really know why it hasn't happened to me. I think I've been quite fortunate. I've never had any overt, violent aggression whether sexual harassment or sexual aggression or any sort of area where I've felt incredibly unsafe.

Once I do remember when I was covering the Islamic uprising in Algeria in 1992 after the election there. The FIS won these elections and then the election process was stopped and there was a huge military crackdown. I remember covering it for CNN. I was a very young foreign correspondent at the time and we were taken, a group of us, into the police headquarters. And I was concerned there. I was concerned that something might happen to me because, you know, you hear of all these, you know, prison situations where you've got figures of authority who can do whatever to you and it happens today in many part of the world to men and women, but particularly the sexual violence often towards women in certain parts of the world.

So I remember feeling very, very nervous that I might be sexually abused, be raped or whatever and nobody would know about it. And certainly, that does follow me around, that thought, that fear, that I'm always on guard and on the lookout for that kind of thing because you see that it happens to people in ordinary society. And you know that often in places where we go where they don't want the lights, the oxygen of lights shone upon them, the disinfectant light, the transparency, they can lash out. And to women it can be in a sexual, aggressive, violent, criminal manner. Men are not immune from this either, but in general women have to really fear that situation.

I'm very fortunate that it hasn't actually happened to me. I have had people make lewd suggestions, lewd comments, maybe try to come on to me or whatever. But my way of dealing with it is to completely and utterly freeze it out. And I just don't respond physically. Verbally I'm very clear that they need to move away. And as I say I'm very fortunate that I haven't suffered that kind of aggression and that kind of violence.

June Cross: What advice would you give to young women starting out today in an environment where they're less likely to be staff members, they're most likely to be working as freelancers?

Christiane Amanpour: I think things have changed so much since I started in this business. And of course because I work in television, it generally means I work in a group. I'm the correspondent, but I'm not the camera person. I'm not the sound person. I'm not the producer. And therefore, there is safety in numbers. I do genuinely believe that.

And I would always give the advice, sometimes it's difficult to follow this advice 'cause you have to sometimes go on your own to meet a source or you have to, if you're doing some undercover work or whatever it might be, sometimes you have to be alone. My advice is don't be alone. If there's any fear or any suspicion that something might happen to you, don't be alone. Make up some excuse, some reason. Because what can you do if you're alone? What can you do? You're at the mercy of one person who may be stronger than you or maybe a group of people who together are stronger than you. You don't know what is out there.

And I would also say don't go to remote places. Don't go to places where you're completely cut off from the rest of the world. It was a tragedy what happened to Kim Wall. I mean the fact that she went to a submarine, who can get to you in a submarine? And it's tough because clearly, clearly journalists are fighting for their survival in this environment. As you say, there are so many people who have to be one-man-bands. People don't have the luxury of being able to travel in teams.

Many people don't have the resources like we do at CNN and many other big organizations. We hire professionals to teach us combat skills or combat survival skills. Skills to protect us against aggression, whether it's in an actual combat situation or some individual who wants to do us harm. How to recognize who may or may not be, looking for a fight.

June Cross: How do you recognize it?

Christiane Amanpour:  I think it's instinct. But then again it's never foolproof. It's never 100 percent. Otherwise, so many people wouldn't be in so much trouble. I think one of the things that is very scary is the flash mob factor, which is different from a single individual cornering you and wishing you harm and doing harm to you. But flash mobs on streets, in squares. You're covering something and all of a sudden a crowd develops.

That happened to me in Sudan a long, long time ago. I was actually covering the famine after the first Gulf War. So this was 1991 and it was kind of politically motivated. They, I guess they just didn't want white western journalists looking into their situation there. And I do remember my team and myself being surrounded by very angry and very hostile people. And at one point they start to rock the car. And then all bets are off. You have no idea what's going to happen. That may or may not be sexual violence but it was potentially very violent. And I don't even remember how we stopped them from going over the top and rolling the car and, and the crowd sort of falling on top of you.

And I remember another time this happened and it was very scary. This was during the Arab Spring. We were all in Egypt and I was actually going from Downtown Cairo to a secret destination. I'd been told I was going to go meet, the person who took over for Hosni Mubarak. At the time, he was the acting president and he had been the intelligence chief. But it was all sort of secret locations and so they hadn't really told us where we were going. And we were in two cars, but very quickly in a location quite close to where we were going, the cars got separated and a huge crowd developed around my car.

And if I remember correctly, I was in a car with a driver, a man. There may have been another man in the car, but definitely my producer and I were in the back and she was a woman like me and that was very scary. I was very, very scared. I didn't know how we were going to get out of this situation. Because already there was quite a lot of violence by one side or the other against the press there. You know, when people believe that the press are there to harm them or take sides that will, that will harm them ...

June Cross: Is this before or after Lara Logan's?

Christiane Amanpour:  It was before.

June Cross: Before.

Christiane Amanpour:  Yeah. Same time frame, but it was before. And we were surrounded. And I remember talking people down and just kept talking. Kept talking and fortunately at some point, I kept saying the names where we were going and fortunately at some point, they just parted and off we went. But that was very touch and go. And again we were out of the town. We were not in phone contact with the base. We didn't know where we were going because they hadn't told us.

So we couldn't actually say, "We are here, come and rescue us." There was none of that to be had. So we had to use our wits and keep as calm as we could and persuade people that we were just journalists doing our job and tell them as much as we could about what we were doing and very fortunately, it diffused the situation.

June Cross: How do you define sexual harassment?

Christiane Amanpour:  Well, there are obviously degrees but everything unwanted is harassment. It's about boundaries and it's about consent. We all are taught about consent. Unwanted approaches breach our right to consent and, if we don't consent, then people shouldn't invade our space.

The problem with that is, it's all very well to be taught that in a nice Western university and in our Western homes and in our Democratic environments. But when you go out into the field in places where there is no respect for women's rights, there is the patriarchy. There is the politics. There is the religion. Whatever it might be that is fundamentally anti-women. And I have spent a lot of my time in those kinds of situations. And while I haven't faced sexual harassment in a way that I found dangerous or compromising, I've definitely faced the anti-female vibe whereby just to do your work you have to really be firm that you are not a female or a man, you are a journalist and they have to let you through and they have to respect you as such.

But, sexual harassment comes in every kind of form, whether it's verbal, whether it's pinching your butt, whether it's giving you a little pinch on the cheek, whether it looks like it's friendly. But if it's not welcome it's not welcome and it's not friendly. You just have to be prepared for everything. Keep your cool as much as you can. Do not play their game. Do not enter a sort of flirty kind of, mistakenly believing that you can sort of play them at their own game and get out of the situation. You have to be very clear about your boundaries, very tough and not give an inch.

And I think sometimes potentially some people think that maybe, oh, there's a cultural thing that I'm not understanding or perhaps I can smile and wiggle my way out of it. You have to be very clear about what you're not going to tolerate. And of course it doesn't always work. I mean, there are criminals out there. There are violent people out there who can be very dangerous.

I guess you must always tell your team, your friends or whoever it is where you are at all times. These days, it's slightly easier than it was in the past. You have phones where you can be tracked. You have sat navs on cars. You have the ability to communicate and you must make very good use of that. But, you know, I work with many female organizations, many women's journalist NGOs and organizations, and we hear stories all the time in various different parts of the world how difficult it is for women to do their jobs in safety. And so, it's an ongoing process.

June Cross: Do you feel it's gotten worse?

Christiane Amanpour:  Not particularly. I think it's always been there. It's always been difficult.

June Cross: Just don't put out the vibe?

Christiane Amanpour:  Yeah. I think you have to be very clear about who you are, what you'll tolerate, and what, and what you won't. And don't be so eager for a story. And don't believe that your life or death depends on that story. And trust your instincts.

You know, sometimes people think, "Well you know, it's not really ... I don't feel so good about it, but I'm going to do it. I have to get the story." My advice would be if there's anything that messes with your internal radar, listen to your internal radar. Don't be brave. Don't be foolhardy. Don’t go with people who you really know nothing about.