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Violence against women journalists ‘silencing women’

Julia van Leuven
November 26, 2020

Female journalists worldwide are experiencing violence and harassment, impacting them physically and psychologically. Online abuse and hate speech increasingly influence their work. How can they protect themselves?

Malta demo nach mord an Journalistin Daphne Caruana Galizia
Image: Reuters/D. Zammit Lupi

According to the United Nations, violence against women and girls is one of the most prevalent human rights violations in the world. It is estimated that one in three women will experience sexual or physical violence in her lifetime. 

For women journalists, the odds are significantly worse: In a 2017 study conducted by the International Federation of Journalists (IFJ), one in two women journalists have been subjected to gender-based violence, for instance sexual harassment, psychological abuse or online trolling. According to the study, 85 percent say that no or inadequate action has been taken against aggressors. 

At least 97 women journalists have been killed in connection to their work since 1992, according to the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ). In 2019, 20 women journalists were behind prison bars globally, with several of them being abused in custody.

Silvia Chocarro, Head of Protections Journalists
Silvia Chocarro, Head of Protection Journalists & Human Rights Defenders at Article 19Image: privat

Online violence: What state and non-state actors can do

Silvia Chocarro, Head of Protection Journalists & Human Rights Defenders at the international human rights organization Article 19, is one of the authors of a 2020 OSCE report on the Safety of Female Journalists Online. It proposes ten steps that key actors can take to tackle the issue.

Chocarro stresses that “online harassment and abuse against women journalists is not only about silencing journalism, it is about silencing women. This is why addressing the issue in the long term requires to put in place and implement strong gender equality and non-discrimination policies.” The measures that can be taken include and are not limited to “legislation and comprehensive public policies; capacity building of public officials, including judges and law enforcement, and awareness-raising; monitoring and documentation, and mobilization by civil society and other actors; commitment to human rights by internet intermediaries and to protect journalists by media outlets.”

When implementing legislation, it is crucial to ensure this does not “lead to undue restrictions that could undermine the rights of the very women for whom governments may seek to provide redress,” thereby eroding their right to freedom of speech, Chocarro told DW.

‘The new frontline in journalism safety’

Julie Posetti International Center for Journalists
Julie Posetti, Global Director of Research at the International Center for Journalists (ICFJ)Image: Tim Anger

The general risk of women journalists to fall victim to sexual harassment and assault is a pattern replicated in the digital sphere, said Global Director of Research at the International Center for Journalists (ICFJ) Julie Posetti. She is currently leading a study on online violence against women journalists: “We see exponential attacks on women journalists, particularly at the intersection of hate speech and disinformation. Online violence is the new frontline in journalism safety.” She said there was evidence of direct links between online violence and offline attacks – and online violence has escalated during the ongoing coronavirus pandemic. 

A particularly cruel case of online violence translating into physical attacks is the murder of Maltese investigative journalist Daphne Caruana Galizia. After years of severe physical and psychological violence, she was killed in an explosion caused by a car bomb in 2017. To this day, the fight for justice in the case continues.

Malta Gedenken Daphne Caruana Galizia
Maltese journalist Daphne Caruana Galizia was killed in 2017, after years of being harassed and threatened. Image: picture-alliance/Zuma/S. Babbar

Threats of physical and sexual assault, murder and digital security attacks “often involve very real psychological impacts and injuries,” even if they are not actually carried out. Thus “it is vitally important for news organizations to have gender sensitive policies, guidelines, training, and leadership responses that together ensure awareness of the problem,” said Posetti. These policies should include physical safety support, psychological support and digital security triage and training, as well as judicial intervention. Otherwise, “women's participation in journalism and their progression through the ranks will decline.”

‘A genuine freedom of expression crisis’

Silencing women journalists would be “a major blow to diversity in the news media at a time when gender and racial diversity is recognized as a critical element of journalism's 21st-century transformation,” Posetti said.

Finnish investigative journalist Jessikka Aro has experienced severe abuse in connection to her journalistic work. Following her legal case, two men were incarcerated on several criminal charges in 2018. Aro told DW that she has considered quitting journalism, as this “would likely end or at least decrease the amount and brutality of the harassment targeted at me.” Nevertheless, she continues her work. Messages of support from readers and viewers keep her going whenever she struggles, she said. But not all who are subject to cruel comments, threats and attacks online and offline continue the work.

Posetti: “Research dating back five years indicates women journalists are withdrawing from frontline reporting, removing themselves from public online conversations, quitting their jobs and evening abandoning journalism in response to their experience of online violence.” Ultimately, the concerning development seen in the last few years alone could increasingly mute female voices. It is, in Posetti’s words, “a genuine freedom of expression crisis.”

Journalistin Jessikka Aro
Finnish investigative journalist Jessikka Aro has experienced severe online and offline harassment due to her work. Image: Nelli Kivinen