Female Journalists and Online Bully: A Problem Spilling Offline
The insidious problem of online violence against women journalists is increasingly spilling offline with potentially deadly consequences, a new global survey suggests. Are women not even allowed to feel safe when they follow their passion?
Every year United Nations (UN) Women, highlights the emergence of violence against women by different sets of campaigns. Before starting, let’s dig in as to why we need to take this more seriously. Like every year, on the 25th of November, we observed this year’s International Day For The Elimination Of Violence Against Women we need to question the upsurge in violence against Female Journalists worldwide, both Offline & Online.
Violence against women and girls (VAWG) is one of the most widespread, persistent, and devastating human rights violations in our world today remains largely unreported due to the impunity, silence, stigma, and shame surrounding it.
This year, it is important to focus on the growing threat that women journalists are facing today, the insidious problem of online violence is increasingly spilling offline, with potentially deadly consequences. In a global survey of 1,200 media workers, conducted by the International Center for Journalists (ICFJ) and the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO), some 20% of women journalists and media workers reported being targeted by offline abuse and attacks that they believe were connected with online bully they had experienced.
These preliminary research results also point out to a surge in rates of online violence against women journalists. Nearly three-quarters – 73% – of participants identifying as women said they have experienced any sort of online abuse.
Online violence is the new front line in journalism safety which is particularly dangerous for women. The female section of the society experiences higher levels of harassment, assault, and abuse in their daily lives. They are at greater risk during the course of their work, especially on digital platforms. In the online world, we see exponential attacks at a much higher scale on women journalists, particularly concerning hate speech and disinformation.
What is worse is, the risk extends to their families, sources, and audiences. Online attacks are often accompanied by threats of harm to people connected to the main source, or to those whom they interact with, as a means of extending the “chilling effect” on their journalism.
The amalgamation of misogyny and online violence becomes a real threat to women’s participation in the field of journalism and public communication in the digital age. This is both a gender equality struggle and freedom of expression crisis that needs to be taken very seriously by all of us. A collaborative, comprehensive, research-informed solutions are needed to be taken at the earliest.
According to a research published in Al Jazeera, every fifth of the women journalists who responded to our survey reported to experience abuse and attacks in the physical world that they believed were associated with online bully targeting them is particularly disturbing. It underlines the fact that online violence is not contained within the digital world.
In 2017, the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) reported that in at least 40% of cases, journalists who were murdered reported receiving threats, including online before they were killed, “highlighting the need for robust protection mechanisms.” In the same year, two women journalists on opposite sides of the world were murdered for their work within six weeks of one another: celebrated Maltese investigative journalist Daphne Caruana Galizia and prominent Indian journalist Gauri Lankesh. Both had been the targets of sustained gendered online attacks before they were murdered.
Connecting the dots between online violence associated with Caruana Galizia’s death and attacks being experienced by another high-profile target, Filipino American journalist Maria Ressa is so striking that the murdered journalist’s sons issued a public statement expressing his fear for Ressa’s safety. “This targeted harassment, chillingly similar to that perpetrated against Ressa, created the conditions for Daphne’s murder,” they wrote.
Likewise, the murder of Gauri Lankesh, which was associated with online violence propelled by right-wing extremism, also drew international attention to the risks faced by another Indian journalist who is openly critical of the current government: Rana Ayyub. She has faced numerous rape and death threats online alongside misinformation campaigns designed to counter her critical reporting, discredit her, and place her at greater physical risk.
Pointing to the emergence of a pattern, the targeting of Ayyub led five UN special rapporteurs to intervene in her defense. Their statement drew parallels with Lankesh’s case, and called on India’s political leaders to act to protect Ayyub, stating, “We are highly concerned that the life of Rana Ayyub is at serious risk following these graphic and disturbing threats.”
This ongoing and fairly alarming trend of online attacks against women journalists only appears to be increasing over time. Back in 2014, when these issues first began to attract mainstream media attention, a survey of nearly 1000 women journalists conducted by the International Women’s Media Foundation (IWMF) and the International News Safety Institute (INSI), which was supported by UNESCO, found that 23% of women respondents had experienced “intimidation, threats or abuse” online in relation to their work.
A follow-up survey conducted by IWMF and Trollbusters in 2018, involving a smaller but still substantial sample, found that 63% of women respondents had been harassed or abused online at least once. And in the recent survey, 73% of women reported experiencing online abuse, harassment, threats, and attacks. Although these surveys cannot be considered exact comparisons, still they point towards a disturbing pattern.
Measure for preparedness
It is of utmost importance especially for news organizations to have better preparedness programs that are gender-sensitive, guidelines, training, and leadership responses. Together, these measures must ensure awareness of the problem, build the capacity to deal with it, and trigger action to protect women journalists in the course of their work. These strategies also need to be connected and holistic in the sense that they bridge physical, digital, and psychological threats, and address them accordingly.
We know that physical attacks on women journalists are frequently preceded by online threats made against them. These can include threats of physical or sexual assault and murder, as well as digital security attacks designed to expose them to greater risk. And such threats even without being followed by physical assault often involve very real psychological impacts and injuries.
So, when a woman journalist is subjected to violence online, this should be taken very seriously. She should be provided with physical safety support (including increased security when necessary), psychological support (including access to counseling services), and digital security triage and training (including cybersecurity and privacy measures.) But,, she should also be well supported by her editorial managers, who need to signal to staff that these issues are serious and will be responded to decisively, including with legal and law enforcement intervention where appropriate.
The stigma needs to be removed from feeling and expressing the impacts of online violence. In particular, we need to be very cautious about suggesting that women journalists should build resilience or “grow a thicker skin” in order to survive this work-related threat to their safety.
They are being attacked for following the rights provided to them by the law. For daring to report. For doing their jobs. The onus should not be on women journalists to “just put up with it”. The question that needs to be asked instead is: How do we protect women journalists from exposure to such violence in the course of their work, or at least minimize it?
The answers ultimately lie not in temporary measures like requiring them to retreat from digital journalism practices, including audience engagement. The solutions lie in structural changes to the information ecosystem designed to combat online toxicity generally and exponential attacks against journalists, in particular.
This will require rich and powerful social media companies living up to their responsibilities within international human rights frameworks, which are explicitly designed to protect press freedom and secure journalism safety. It will also require them to deal decisively, transparently, and appropriately with disinformation and hate speech on the platforms as they affect journalists.
This will likely mean that these companies need to accept their function as publishers of news. In doing so, they would inherit an obligation to improve their audience curation, fact-checking, and anti-hate speech standards. Regulatory work is also likely to be a feature of this process.
Ultimately, collaboration and cooperation that spans big tech, newsrooms, civil society organizations, research entities, policymakers, and the legal and judicial communities will be required. Only then can concrete action be pursued.