Dubravka Šimonovic spoke to DW about the reality and implications of gender-based violence against female journalists.
DW: Based on your experience and research: Is it more dangerous to be a journalist as a woman?
Dubravka Šimonovic: Men and women journalists are both exposed to violence and threats to their safety in the course of their work; however, women journalists are disproportionately targeted by gender-based violence and sexual harassment, both within the workplace and online. Women journalists and media workers are operating in an environment whereby systematic and structural gender-based violence forms part of their daily routine. They are subjected to different forms of gender-based violence, including rape and sexual harassment in the newsroom and in the field, and other forms of intimidation, including threats to their family. Women journalists reporting on protests and riots are at ever-increasing risk of sexual attacks, yet only a few have come forward to report their ordeal. Those reporting on feminist issues are also threatened for the type of stories they cover.
Since 1992, 96 women journalists have been killed, approximately seven percent of all slain journalists. Recent statistics suggest that in 2019, 5 out of a total of 57 journalists killed were women, according to UNESCO.
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In addition to killings, sexual violence continues to be used as a form of gender-based violence and as a tool to undermine the credibility of women journalists and discourage them from working in the media. Many women media workers have reportedly experienced sexual violence in relation to their work, with the most frequently recounted act being unwanted touching of a sexual manner.
Mexican journalist Miroslava Breach Velducea was killed by a gunman in March 2017 after reporting on political and social issues.
How does harassment of female journalists affect plurality of opinion in media?
Online and offline harassment and abuse of women journalists is reflective of broader issues of sexism in society. The failure to address and reprehend these threats can be fatal, as is demonstrated by attacks on and murders of women journalists that were preceded by hate campaigns and threats. In response to persecution, some women reporters have had no choice but to drop investigative work, avoid reporting on certain subjects, or abandon their profession altogether, leaving the male-dominated field of journalism with even fewer female voices, and the ability of society to access information. Democracy only thrives when all voices are able to fully participate.
What other consequences do you see for the media industry?
Despite the fact that more women journalists are speaking up on cases of harassment to sexual assault, the vast majority continue to refrain from reporting on sexual violence perpetrated against them, often because of the cultural stigma attached to reporting sexual abuse or the fear they will dishonour their families and tarnish their own reputation.
While the media and information and communications technologies have enabled and expanded the opportunities for millions of women to actively participate in political, economic, cultural and social life, stereotypes and discriminatory practices continue to exclude many women around the world from participation in public debate and the free expression of their opinions, or from accessing information on an equal basis with men.
Women journalists who challenge patriarchal stereotypes of disapproval of their participation in public life face a situation of violence and gender-based discrimination, as well as differentiated forms of violence from state and non-state actors. The targeting and abuse of women journalists mirror larger patterns of sexism and gender-based violence that seek not only to punish women for voicing critical or dissenting opinions, but also for speaking out as women.
Does fewer women in journalism mean less coverage of violence against women in general?
The media, including both male and female journalists, plays a fundamental role in reporting on gender-based violence against women by highlighting it as a systematic and widespread phenomenon with a focus on State responsibility to prevent and combat it, particularly if they report in a gender- and victim-sensitive manner. The media is crucial to changing attitudes related to gender-based violence against women, as was demonstrated through its reporting on femicide, which led to the formation of popular movements such as #NiUnaMenos and #MeToo. Media reporting on such issues is an important game changer, as it can demonstrate how widespread gender-based violence really is. The media has the power to change public opinion and in doing so can put pressure on governments to introduce changes to law and practice to combat it.
Highly visible court trials against some of the perpetrators, which have resulted in lengthy prison sentences, demonstrate the importance of such movements in prosecuting cases of gender-based violence. They have also demonstrated the change in attitude of some prosecutors and the judiciary, especially in those trials involving a jury, which had the potential to reflect changes in societal attitudes. In general gender stereotypes need to be challenged, and this can be done through changes to schools curriculums and ensuring the inclusion of gender sensitive language.
Lina Attalah, editor-in-chief of media outlet Mada Masr, has suffered harassment and was temporarily arrested in May 2020.
Are media outlets doing enough to support female journalists?
Despite growing evidence of online violence against and physical attacks on women journalists, many media organizations do not have formal policies or protocols in place to protect their employees. In a global study of women journalists conducted in 2018 by the International Women’s Media Foundation and Troll-Busters.com, 26 percent of women journalists indicated that they did not know how to report threats and harassment. Online and offline abuse is often underestimated by media management and minimized by colleagues, the authorities, law enforcement agents and others who are best positioned to provide support.
More must be done my media outlets to ensure that women journalists experiencing online abuse, both staff and freelancers, have access to a comprehensive system of support including psychosocial and legal assistance; a culture of gender equality and zero-tolerance to threats and harassment against female should be developed; and work with other media organizations and associations to create support systems, including training and mentorship programmes, for female journalists and media actors.