Is Press Freedom Incompatible with Gender Empowerment?
By Thalif Deen*
UNITED NATIONS, May 2021 (IPS) – In the
contemporary world of journalism, female reporters face a double jeopardy: they
are increasingly targeted both as journalists and as women– particularly in
repressive regimes and misogynistic societies.
As the United Nations intensifies its
campaign for women’s rights worldwide—even as it annually commemorates World
Press Freedom Day on May 3 — one of the questions lingering in the minds of
women activists is: Is press freedom incompatible with gender empowerment?
Marianna Belalba Barreto, Civic Space
Cluster Lead at CIVICUS, the global civil society alliance based in
Johannesburg, told IPS the CIVICUS Monitor has documented many cases of women
journalists facing online harassment and the gendered nature of it.
In its annual report: People Power Under
Attack (PPUA) 2020, CIVICUS documented the use of intimidation as a tactic to
deter journalists and human rights defenders (HRDs).
In particular, several cases of
intimidation of women journalists were documented in the Balkan region, with
threats often gendered in nature.
In North Macedonia, a woman journalist received messages via
Facebook and Twitter containing verbal abuses and hate speech. She received
dozens of messages threatening her with rape as well as death in response to
In Bulgaria, a woman journalist, whose story portrayed a
far-right group in a negative light, had to flee the country with her family
after allegedly receiving threats from unknown people against her and the
family, with her personal information leaked online.
The UN Educational, Scientific and Cultural
Organization (UNESCO) in Paris and the Washington-based International Center
for Journalists (ICFJ) conducted a global survey last year to assess the scale
and impacts of online violence targeting women journalists, “and to help
identify solutions to this pernicious problem.”
ICFJ says it is the most comprehensive and
geographically diverse survey ever undertaken on the theme, having been offered
in five languages and receiving responses from 714 women journalists* across
The top findings include: Nearly three in
four women respondents (73%) said they had experienced online violence; threats
of physical (25%) and sexual violence (18%) plagued the women journalists
surveyed; and one in five women respondents (20%) said they had been attacked
or abused offline in incidents seeded online.
Lucy Westcott, James W. Foley Emergencies
Research Associate at the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ), told IPS
women journalists around the world face a number of safety hazards while
reporting, and risk having their voices silenced for being both journalists and
women in public life.
CPJ has spoken to women journalists across
the world—including in many of the countries highlighted from the UNESCO-ICFJ
report, such as Brazil, South Africa, the U.K. and the U.S.—who described dealing with threats to their safety
while reporting, online harassment, misogynistic attacks, and threats of sexual
violence and death.
She said women journalists are also at risk
of physical attack while reporting in the field, especially if they are
reporting alone. Freelance women journalists face a particular risk, as they
lack the backing of a traditional newsroom and its support.
“Online harassment continues to be one of
the biggest risks to the safety of women journalists globally, and online
threats can and do spill over into a real-life setting. The impact of online
harassment is far-reaching, and can also result in trauma and mental health
difficulties, said Westcott, a former staff writer for Newsweek, and UN
correspondent for Inter Press Service (IPS) news agency.
She added: “Journalist safety is a press
freedom issue, and women journalists should be able to do their job and report
the news without fearing for their safety and livelihoods. Editors need to be
aware of the risks their female journalists face, and help them take steps to
mitigate those risks.”
Tara Carey, Head of Media at Equality Now
told IPS women journalists around the world are speaking out about their
experiences of online violence and harassment, and studies are reporting a
disturbing increase in misogynistic digital abuse targeting female journalists.
“Online trolling and psychological abuse manifests
in various ways and is carried out to intimidate, stigmatize and silence women.
It can range from sexual harassment, and threats of sexual and physical
violence, including murder, through to privacy violations such as hacking,
non-consensual dissemination of intimate images, and “doxing”, which involves
personal information and contact details being leaked to the public.
“Trolling is sometimes part of an
orchestrated campaign involving multiple attackers, and abuse is often worse
when it intersects with other forms of discrimination, such as associated with
race, nationality, religion, caste, ethnicity, and sexual orientation,” she
Online violence and harassment can take a
heavy toll, leaving those who are targeted feeling stressed, scared, depressed,
and in some instances, at greater risk.
Worryingly, digital abuse is closely
associated with offline violence, with many women journalists confirming they
have experienced threats, abuse or assault in face-to-face encounters whilst
working, said Carey.
“This onslaught is curtailing women’s
participation in the media and undermining our ability to engage freely in
public debate, report on contentious issues or challenge discrimination. Some
women are being pushed to censor what they say, withdraw from public online
conversations and frontline reporting, or even abandoning journalism entirely.
“Online abuse against women journalists is
an attack on freedom of speech and expression. A reduction in female representation
in news reporting erodes gender diversity in public discourse and risks
marginalizing gender-sensitive reporting on issues impacting women and girls,”
Meanwhile, on the occasion of International
Women’s Day last March, UNESCO launched a campaign to highlight the specific
risks faced by women journalists online.
Guy Berger, Director for Policies and
Strategies, Communication and Information, at UNESCO, says, “this violence
harms women’s right to speak and society’s right to know”.
“To tackle this increasing trend”, he adds,
“we need to find collective solutions to protect women journalists from online
violence”. This includes strong responses from social media platforms, national
authorities and media organizations.
Belalba Baretto said CIVICUS also continues
to document cases in different regions of the world, as indicated by the
Brazil, CIVICUS documented several cases (https://monitor.civicus.org/updates/2020/03/28/journalists-under-assault-brazil-judicial-harassment-smear-campaigns-and-vilification/). In addition, a report published by the Associação
Brasileira de Jornalismo Investigativo (ABRAJI) on violence against women
journalists in Brazil, identified 20 attacks on Brazilian women journalists
between January 2019 and February 2020, including misogynistic and sexist
offences, smear campaigns and disclosure of personal information. Of the 17
cases recorded in 2019, 13 were carried out by members of the federal and state
congress, ministers and President Bolsonaro himself. 84% of the journalists
interviewed in the study also said they had faced gender-based violence at
Carey of Equality Now said: “Dealing with
online abuse mustn’t fall on the shoulders of those being targeted. Media
houses need to develop and implement gender-specific guidelines and training
that incorporate anti-harassment policies. Women journalists should feel
comfortable raising concerns about abuse and newsrooms should take
responsibility for ensuring they feel safe and supported.
“Laws need to be updated and implemented to
address this problem. Criminal justice systems should be providing support and
redress to victims and punishing perpetrators. Justice being done, and being
seen to be done, is important both for the individual and because consequences
can act as a deterrent for others.
“There also needs to be better awareness
and understanding amongst law enforcement agencies and social media companies,
along with the adoption of zero-tolerance policies that involve duty bearers
taking swift and appropriate action against perpetrators.”
Bureau Chief and Regional Director IPS North America, has been covering the
U.N. since the late 1970s. A former deputy news editor of the Sri Lanka
Daily News, he was a senior editorial writer on the Hong Kong daily, The
Standard. Thalif Deen is a former Director, Foreign Military Markets at Defense
Marketing Services (DMS); Senior Defense Analyst at Forecast International; and
military editor Middle East/Africa at Jane’s Information Group.Thalif Deen is
the author of the newly-released book on the United Nations titled “No Comment
– and Don’t Quote Me on That.” The 220-page book is peppered with scores of
anecdotes– from the serious to the hilarious– and is available on Amazon
worldwide and at the Vijitha Yapa bookshop in Sri Lanka. The links follow: https://www.rodericgrigson.com/no-comment-by-thalif-deen/https://www.vijithayapa.com/