A new study by Reporters Without Borders exposes the dangers faced by women journalists online and off

The internet has become “the most dangerous place for women journalists”, according to a new report from Reporters Without Borders – with 73% of those surveyed saying that they had experienced gender-based violence online. 

Published on International Women’s Day 2021, Reporters Without Borders gathered 112 responses from across the world, including from journalists who write about gender issues. It found that the “internet has become more hazardous for journalists than the street”.

In response to the question “do you feel that impunity prevails, that the violence could be repeated, and that another woman journalist could fall victim to the same perpetrator?”, 85% of respondents said “yes”. This question applied to violence offline as well as online. 

The report recommends that journalists are provided with training to help them “develop good reflexes and responses to cyber-harassment” and to create an “emergency internal mechanism to respond to threats and sexist attacks online”. 

It also suggests to women journalists that “while you are being attacked, ask a trusted person to manage your social media accounts for you, sifting through what you are receiving, deleting insults, blocking accounts that are the source of insults, and reporting those accounts”.

Online violence against women journalists can take many forms, from trolling and targeted abuse on social media to the hacking of email accounts and the posting of personal information. 

“I get rape and death threats every day, aimed at me and my family,” Syrian journalist Merna Alhasan told Reporters Without Borders. Indian investigative journalist Rana Ayyub said that she received “daily threats of rape and death” and a wave of hatred on social media.

Ayyub was targeted by abusers who used ‘deep fake’ technology to insert her image onto pornographic material. She said: “I felt like I was naked for the world. I was throwing up, I was in the hospital, I had palpitations for two days and my blood pressure shot up. I just couldn’t stop crying.” 

India was found to be the most dangerous place to be a woman journalist. 

Women journalists who call out gender-based violence online also find themselves becoming a target. For instance, French journalist Nadia Daam, who accused the Blabla forum on gaming site jeuxvideos.com of fostering a culture of online bullying, received threats from men claiming they would “rape her dead body”.

Women’s Rights in the Firing Line

Reporters Without Borders found that women reporting on gender issues were at a greater risk of violence, both online and offline.

According to Juana Gallego, head of Spain’s Gender Equality Observatory and a lecturer in journalism, writing about women’s rights “can prove dangerous in some countries where it means undermining traditions and arousing awareness in minds that have been subjected to a machista society”. 

Over the past decade, 942 journalists have been killed, of which 43 were women. Four of these women were killed for their work on gender rights – Mexico’s Miroslava Breach, India’s Gauri Lankesh, Iraq’s Nawras al-Nuaimi, and Malalai Maiwand who was killed by the so-called Islamic State. 

According to data collected in December 2020, two of the 42 women journalists currently in prison have ended up there as a result of reporting on women’s rights. They are Saudi journalists Nouf Abdulaziz al-Jerawi and Nassima al-Sada. A third Saudi journalist working on women’s issues, Eman al-Nafjan, was released on bail in 2019.

One survey respondent in Spain told Reporters Without Borders: “The fact that women often write about women and feminism, as well as sensitive subjects such as human rights and minorities, exposes them to a two-fold danger, of being bullied which almost always includes sexist insults.” 

Women who work in traditionally male-dominated fields, such as sport, are also routinely targeted with violence and harassment. 

The Trump Impact

Journalists were routinely targeted by former US President Donald Trump’s administration, with women journalists and women of colour singled out for sexism and exclusion. 

He repeatedly made comments designed to demean and belittle women journalists, telling PBS’s Yamiche Alcindor that she asked a “racist question” when she queried his statements on nationalism, and ordering CBS’ Weijia Jiang to “just relax”, telling her to “keep your voice down” and saying she had a “nasty tone”.

Trump told Cecilia Vega of ABC News “I know you’re not thinking, you never do” and called CBS’s Paula Reid “disgraceful” and “a fake”.

Members of Trump’s administration actively excluded women by refusing to take meetings with women journalists without a male chaperone.

A Chilling Effect

Sexist harassment, online and offline, has a chilling effect on journalism and women’s rights to freedom of expression. At its most extreme, it kills women journalists. 

Online violence in particular causes women to self-censor and discourages them from covering subjects which they fear will lead to harassment and abuse.

Considering that women journalists are more likely to be the victims of this abuse if they report on women’s issues, this violence creates a vicious circle and silences writing and reporting on the issue of gender-based violence itself. 

According to the survey, violence against women journalists caused 48% of respondents to self-censor, while 22% closed their social media accounts and/or left professional networks. 

Another impact is on pluralism. If women are harassed out of journalism, issues that impact specifically on women are not heard and therefore not taken into account by decision-makers in politics, the economy and industry. It also allows everyday sexism in the media to flourish.

But, in defiance of a male-dominated media landscape, women are coming together to fight back. In the UK, the Second Source was set up in 2017 following the #MeToo revelations against male journalists. The scheme runs events and a mentoring programme to support women in the industry.

Meanwhile, in Brazil, Agência Pública co-founder Natalia Viana – who is often the target of online attacks from persons close to President Jair Bolsonaro – has said that women journalists had taken steps to protect themselves and are trying to build a stronger form of mutual aid. And in France, Prenons La Une has built a support network for women journalists.  


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