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Women Journalists Under Attack: A Global Problem and the UK is Not Immune

From the jailing of two women journalists in Belarus to the targeting of local reporters in Britain, women are on the frontline facing threats and repression

Two women preparing to march in solidarity with the women of Belarus from the Suffragette Memorial to Downing Street, London. Photo: Aaron Chown/PA Images/Alamy

Women Journalists Under AttackA Global Problem & the UK is Not Immune

From the jailing of two women journalists in Belarus to the targeting of local reporters in Britain, women are on the frontline facing threats and repression

Two women journalists in Belarus have been sentenced to two years in prison for reporting on the protests against President Alexander Lukashenko’s regime, which swept the country following last summer’s election. 

Many countries did not accept the result of Belarus’ 2020 Presidential Election, with the EU imposing sanctions on Belarusian officials for violence, repression and election fraud.

Daria Chultsova and Katsyarina Andreyeva, who work for an independent TV station in Belarus, deny any wrongdoing. 

In a statement, 27-year-old Andreyeva said: “Every time I went to work, I risked my health and life. I managed to hide from rubber bullets, explosions of stun grenades, blows from truncheons. My colleagues were much less fortunate. I have everything: youth, a job that I love, fame, and most importantly, a clear conscience.”

The Committee to Protect Journalists has condemned the women’s imprisonment, with its deputy executive director, Robert Mahoney, saying that “these prison terms are naked political persecutions designed to bully into silence any journalist who would dare report independently on democratic protests in one of Europe’s most authoritarian states”. 

The sentencing follows a 32% rise in women journalists being detained in 2020. Analysis published in 2019 reported that 29 women journalists were being held in “inhumane conditions” around the world simply for doing their jobs – that number has now increased. 

Last year, Filippino-American journalist Maria Ressa was imprisoned in the Philippines on “cyber libel” charges for reporting on the administration of President Rodrigo Duterte, including documenting his brutal anti-drugs campaign. Last summer, Russian journalist Ilya Azar was jailed for 15 days. In January, Habibe Eren, Oznur Deger and Eylul Deniz Yasar were detained by Turkish authorities while covering protests.

Women journalists are also being targeted by the police while doing their jobs and reporting.

In Poland, photojournalist Agata Grzybowska was dragged away from covering the autumn’s Women’s Strike protests and detained by the authorities. A few months before, in Russia, journalists working alongside Ilya Azar were detained for covering protests against Vladimir Putin’s regime. 

Following the shocking assassinations of Anna Politkovskaya, Daphne Caruana Galizia and Kim Wall, killings of women journalists are also on the rise. 

The arrests, attacks and detentions of women journalists form a pattern of repression combined with misogyny. This causes a chilling effect on women’s freedom of expression – including in the UK.

Threats to Women Journalists in the UK 

Last year, Reporters Without Borders ranked the UK at 35 out of 180 countries for press freedom, saying that its record on the issue “remained cause for concern throughout 2019”.

This was in part due to sectarian attacks on journalists in Northern Ireland, including the killing of 29-year-old Lyra McKee. A man has since been charged with her murder. 

But the attacks didn’t end with McKee’s horrific death. 

In Belfast, Sunday World journalist Patricia Devlin has been repeatedly targeted – most recently with graffiti of her name in crosshairs. She has also received threats from men saying that they will rape her infant son. She says that threats from paramilitary groups are “worse for women reporters” and the attacks have been “never-ending”. 

Séamus Dooley, of the National Union for Journalists in Northern Ireland, is clear that “women journalists in particular are being targeted with vile and misogynist abuse”, although both men and women are threatened by paramilitary groups.

Women journalists have also told Amnesty International in Northern Ireland about receiving sectarian threats on Twitter for their reporting. 

Women who cover the far-right and other forms of extremism are also regularly attacked or threatened for their work. Independent journalist Lizzie Dearden was targeted by far-right activist James Goddard, but the abuse went beyond him. Dearden described receiving messages saying “hope you get gang raped by jihadists then thrown off a rooftop” and calling her a “traitor”, “ugly motherf***er”, and a “f***ing stupid bitch”.

In the Ukraine, Katerina Sergatskova has been threatened with deadly violence for reporting on the far-right. 

Other women journalists have described how reporting on the far-right has led to threats and pile-ons, sometimes being sent photoshopped pornography. Even this reporter is not immune from attacks and hate mail for writing about feminism and LGBTIQ rights.

Women’s experiences of abuse are backed by the data: analysis published in 2019 found that one in 14 tweets sent to women journalists in the UK and US were abusive or “problematic”. 

A survey conducted by the International Centre for Journalists (ICFJ) and the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation (UNESCO) found that 73% of respondents had experienced online abuse, harassment, threats and attacks, while 20% of the women surveyed reported being targeted with offline abuse and attacks.

Global to Local: Attacks from Politicians 

The threats to women’s freedom of expression in the UK is not confined to internet trolls and extremist misogynists, however. A worrying trend is emerging of UK politicians calling out women journalists who are simply doing their job, leading to social media pile-ons and abuse.

Most recently, the Conservative MP Lee Anderson criticised journalist Katrina Taylor after she exposed claims that he was blocking his constituents on social media.

Taylor had temporarily joined a private Facebook group of critics of the politician so that they could speak to her about their concerns. Having gathered the information she needed, she posted to inform members that she would now leave the group and write up her report. 

Following the article’s publication, Anderson accused Taylor of being “part of a group” of “haters” and “encouraging Labour supporters to share the article which was a deliberate attempt to rubbish me” – claiming her actions crossed a line.  

Taylor then endured what she termed a “pile-on” on social media, with 400 abusive comments, emails and tweets directed at her. She was accused of political bias and being “another snowflake trying to make a name for herself”. 

Taylor’s experience of an MP instigating a pile-on that led to abusive messages came just after Huffington Post journalist Nadine White experienced a similar attack from Equalities Minister Kemi Badenoch. White was writing an article about black and minority ethnic MPs appearing in a video to encourage members of those communities to receive the Coronavirus vaccine. Badenoch did not appear in the video as she was taking part in a vaccine trial. 

When White emailed the minister with a right of reply to clarify why she was not in the video, Badenoch responded by publishing the emails on Twitter and calling White’s actions “creepy and bizarre”. The result – as with Taylor – was White receiving a deluge of online abuse. 

Labour has since called for an investigation into Badenoch’s tweets, while Huffington Post editor-in chief Jess Brammer has said there has been no response from the Government to her complaint. 

These are not the only examples of MPs attacking women journalists. In 2014, Conservative MP Michael Fabricant tweeted that he would “punch” journalist Yasmin Alibhai‑Brown “in the throat” while watching her debate columnist Rod Liddle on the BBC. 

Following the #MeToo revelations in 2017, which led to Sir Michael Fallon resigning from his ministerial role, Conservative MP Sir Roger Gale allegedly blamed women journalists for any inappropriate behaviour committed against them and said that “mainly female journalists are responsible” for fuelling the Westminster scandal.

The attacks are not confined to one party either. Labour MP Tulip Siddiq was forced to apologise after remarks made to the then pregnant journalist Daisy Ayliffe.

The National Union of Journalists has asked for political leaders to “do more to stem this spiralling antagonism and act to stamp-out attacks on journalists, who play a vital role in the spectrum of essential public services. Sadly, it’s clear that some leaders are a part of the problem”.

It also condemned the specific “vitriol” aimed at women and people of colour: “Words have consequences. Intemperate and polarised rhetoric on social media has real-life results.”

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