By Christo Johnson
FREETOWN, Feb 11 (Reuters) - Four women journalists were abducted and stripped naked in Sierra Leone by members of a secret society that practices female genital cutting, one of the reporters and a press freedom watchdog said on Wednesday.
Female genital cutting is common across much of West Africa. In Sierra Leone, ranked bottom of the U.N. human development index, most women have undergone some form of cutting and are therefore regarded as members of the "Bondo" secret society.
The radio reporters were in the eastern city of Kenema reporting on the tradition, also known as circumcision or genital mutilation, when they were assaulted, one of the journalists said.
"The four of us were suddenly picked up at different areas in the town," Isha Jalloh, a reporter with Eastern Radio, told Reuters by phone.
"We were stripped naked in the bush for them to make sure that we have indeed undergone the various processes of the society, especially if we have gone through circumcision," Jalloh said. All four were members of the Bondo, she said.
Jalloh said she had been injured in her genital area during the examination and was on her way to the capital Freetown, 200 km (125 miles) west of Kenema, for a medical checkup.
Press freedom watchdog Reporters Without Borders said another of the reporters, Manjama Balama-Samba of United Nations radio and the Sierra Leone Broadcasting Service, had been forced to walk naked through the streets of Kenema.
"Such disgraceful behaviour worthy of a bygone age is very damaging to Sierra Leone’s image," the organisation said in a statement.
It said the four reporters had conducted interviews in Kenema to mark International Day of Zero Tolerance of Female Genital Mutilation (FGM) on Feb. 6.
Haja Massah Kaisamba, a senior Bondo member, said female genital cutting was a sensitive matter.
"It is their right as journalists to do their job, but at the same time they, as journalists and also members of the society, do know very well how talking publicly about the society is sensitive," Kaisambai told Reuters.
"Whoever may wish for our society, the Bondo, to desist from FGM should come to the bush and address senior members ... then we will all discuss it and come to a conclusion, rather than going to the radio and speaking," Kaisambai said. (Writing by Alistair Thomson; Editing by David Lewis)