When the journalists Carole Cadwalladr and Rana Ayyub tweeted about participating in a panel about online violence for the UNESCO World Press Freedom Conference 2020, their trolls sprung to life almost immediately. Many of the appalling and abhorrent tweets don’t bear repeating, but they speak for themselves in terms of the urgency of this issue. The prolific and sustained online harassment that these women and their co-panelist Ferial Haffajee have endured is in line with the deeply entrenched nature of gendered abuse, harassment and sexualized attacks against women journalists around the world. The digital media environment of sexism, misogyny and racism, which also manifests offline, has led to what many in the industry are now calling “the new frontline” for female journalists.
“This is part of the threat landscape against journalists. You are operating in a hostile environment,” Cadwalladr said during the panel, as she recounted her experience as an investigative reporter covering disinformation.
The panel was one of a series of commendable sessions during the World Press Freedom Conference, which was broadcast online on 9-10 December under the theme “Journalism Without Fear or Favour.” Moderator Julie Posetti, the Global Director of Research at the International Center for Journalists, introduced findings from the ICFJ-UNESCO joint research on online violence against women journalists, which underscored the need for action from digital platforms, news outlets and through policy reform to better protect women amid a deepening crisis.
Shamed into silence
According to the research, online attacks against women journalists are increasing exponentially. Seventy-three percent of women journalists surveyed said they had experienced online violence in the course of their work. Of these women, 20% said they had been attacked offline in connection with online violence targeting them. These findings are particularly disturbing as they show the extent of psychological and physical danger women journalists face for doing their job.
This is particularly true for Ayyub, an investigative journalist in India and a reporter with The Washington Post. She described the overwhelming and terrifying abuse she has endured both online and offline, particularly upon publishing her 2016 book The Gujarat Files about an undercover sting operation within the Indian government. She received countless death threats and hateful messages, copies of her book were burned outside of her home, and her face was superimposed on a porn film. Many of the perpetrators were not just anonymous trolls, but political actors in the Indian government as well. She says that this culture of abuse is not being treated as a problem and it perpetuates a climate of impunity for the attackers.
“The onus of safety is on us, the ones who suffer,” she said, adding that in the absence of any regulation or accountability from social media platforms, many young female journalists are shamed into silence or discouraged from pursuing the profession altogether.
And as the methods of attack grow more sophisticated with technology, they are increasingly associated with orchestrated attacks and disinformation campaigns that are designed to silence journalists and undermine press freedom. This is evidenced in the 2018 documentary The Dark Place which features leading women journalists sharing their stories facing online violence and its implications for democracies, human rights and freedom of information.
Activism for accountability
These were key themes in the UNESCO-ICFJ report, which makes several recommendations for digital platforms, news outlets and policymakers to confront the problem. They include:
- Policies and laws that are designed and implemented to protect women online and offline
- Support for women journalists to report online violence to their employers and platforms
- Digital platform reporting systems that are designed and enforced in accordance with international human rights frameworks that protect journalists.
- Increased transparency about the types of abuse reported and the action taken from digital platforms
Despite the structural failures of the new information ecosystem to protect women journalists, it is not an option for them to be silenced. This panel presented some critical findings and shared experiences about online violence against women journalists, but it’s clear that more action needs to be taken at a higher level. As Ayyub put it: “The greatest need is … to accept that this is a problem that has plagued our profession. It is becoming unbearable. Asking us to become invisible is not a solution.”
Maxine Betteridge-Moes is a SOAS Digital Ambassador pursuing an MA Media in Development. Born and raised in Canada, she has worked in Asia and Africa as a journalist, podcast producer and occasional music blogger. Follow her on Twitter @maxine_moes