Threats that Silence: Violence against women journalists  

By Theresa Chorbacher, Kate Musgrave, Rachel Pollack

Insights from the World Trends in Freedom of Expression and Media Development: Global Report 2021/2022

In recent years, civil society, researchers, and international bodies have increasingly recognized the extent and impact of violence against women journalists—offline and online, verbal, visual and physical. 

Many women journalists report suffering physical and online violence perpetrated by colleagues, sources, public figures, anonymous perpetrators, and strangers. 

That violence, in its many forms, poses a threat to diversity in the media, as well as equal participation in democratic deliberation and the public’s right to access information. 

From 2016 through 2020, 37 women journalists were killed, accounting for roughly 9 per cent of the total 400 killings recorded in those five years. This proportion is consistent with previous years. 

Research on the global level as to why women journalists are underrepresented among fatal victims is still lacking. 

In some cases, women journalists may be less involved in traditionally dangerous beats: according to the Global Media Monitoring Project (GMMP), women reporters were least likely to cover issues of “Crime and Violence” (33 per cent women) and “Politics and Government” (35 per cent women).

Further, in many countries, women are excluded from top editor and manager positions. 

This means that issues that affect women journalists, such as misogynistic online violence, may also be less likely to be prioritized at a decision-making level, including the fact that women journalists face specific challenges related to gender-based violence that may go beyond longstanding understandings of journalist safety.

Mapping the scale of online abuse and hostility 

Women in the public sphere, off-line or online, risk being targeted for gendered harassment, abuse, and violence that seeks to make their participation in public space difficult or impossible. 

The more public visibility a woman has, the more she is exposed to these risks. Recent research has shown that gender is only one of many factors that impact the likelihood that a person will be targeted by abuse, harassment, and violence in the public sphere.

Mounting calls for integrating an intersectional perspective on gendered harassment of journalists have highlighted how individuals are targeted by multiple and intersecting forms of discrimination. 

This dynamic was clearly illustrated in a 2016 study of abuse in comments on the Guardian news site, which found that violence against women journalists was compounded by stereotypes and prejudice related to ethnicity, religion, and sexual orientation/gender identity. 

“We knock on many doors, thousands of doors, for only one to open, and to be believed. And the most difficult thing, I think, is when it involves a crime of sexual violence. Because you have to fight every day for people to believe you were raped.”
JINETH BEDOYA LIMA, Colombian journalist and UNESCO/Guillermo Cano World Press Freedom Prize laureate

In 2021, the findings were released of a two-year global research project led by UNESCO in cooperation with the ICFJ on online violence faced by women journalists.

The study included a large-scale global survey of 901 journalists from 125 countries, as well as long-form interviews with 173 journalists and experts and two case studies analysing over 2.5 million social media posts directed at prominent journalists Maria Ressa (The Philippines) and Carole Cadwalladr (United Kingdom). 

The survey found that 73 per cent of women journalist respondents said they had experienced some form of online violence. Twenty per cent had also been attacked or abused off-line in connection with the online violence they had experienced. 

The survey further showed that harassment was compounded with multiple stereotypes and prejudice related to ethnicity, religion, and sexual orientation/gender identity, as respondents identifying with these categories experienced both the highest rates and most severe impacts of online violence. 

The study additionally established that attacks against women journalists are also often closely related to coordinated disinformation campaigns.

The study also found that online attacks on the women journalists surveyed had increased in the context of the COVID-19 pandemic. Due to the pandemic-induced reliance on online spaces for communication, a rise in online abuse against women has become one of many “shadow pandemics”, similar to the “disinfodemic”. 

In the case of women journalists, this mirrors how media workers have become even more reliant on online tools to perform their work, but also how online abuse has worsened for members of marginalized groups. 

In December 2020, a UNESCO-supported study by African Women in Media (AWiM) found that 69 of the 108 women journalists surveyed had experienced increased online harassment during the pandemic.37

A growing coalition to fight gender-based violence targeting journalists

Launched in 2020, the Coalition Against Online Violence spearheaded by the International Women’s Media Foundation (IWMF) brings together over 30 civil society organizations to advocate for change and offer journalists collective support. 

A variety of other civil society organizations have also begun new initiatives to support to journalists targeted by online harassment. Trollbusters, OnlineSOS, Vita Activa, and the Coalition Against Online Violence typically serve individual women journalists and provide capacity-building for newsrooms. 

International organizations have also emphasized the issue of gendered online violence in their own campaigns. These include the Safety of Female Journalists (#SOFJO) initiative of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), which also published a resource guide on this issue, and UNESCO’s #JournalistsToo campaign. 

In line with the UNESCO General Conference 39C/Resolution 39, which invited the UNESCO Director-General to “reinforce activities (…) aimed at addressing the specific threats to the safety of women journalists, both online and offline”, UNESCO has prioritized the gender dimension of journalist safety through research, outreach, and training initiatives. 

Increased recognition of the problem at international level has also helped produce a series of resolutions and decisions within the framework of international human rights law. 

Two recent examples include the UN Human Rights Council Resolutions 39/6 (2018)40 and 45/42 (2020)41 which recognize the specific risks faced by women journalists in relation to their work and underline the importance of taking a gender-responsive approach when considering measures to address the safety of journalists.

This article first appeared in the UNESCO research paper titled:  Threats that Silence: Trends in the Safety of Journalists and is republished here under a Creative Commons License. 

Read about the World Trends in Freedom of Expression and Media Development. Access the full report here.

Image by Shutterbug75 from Pixabay

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