ACME event highlights gendered freedom of expression concerns

“Protect women’s voices” was the rallying cry of more than 50 women in media and communication gathered for a meeting in Kampala, Uganda hosted by the African Centre for Media Excellence (ACME) ahead of International Women’s Day. The meeting was convened to build partnerships and strengthen pathways to increase awareness of gendered freedom of expression violations and to push for greater protection of women’s voices online and offline.

Gender-based violence, hate speech and disinformation are being used extensively to mute women’s expression. In an October 2021 report to the United Nations General Assembly, Irene Khan, the Special Rapporteur on promotion and protection of freedom of opinion and expression, noted the rise in pervasive gendered censorship, online and offline. She said, “Women’s voices are suppressed, controlled or punished explicitly by laws, policies and discriminatory practices, and implicitly by social attitudes, cultural norms and patriarchal values.”

These concerns were reiterated at the meeting in Kampala by Dr Zahara Nampewo, the Deputy Principal of Makerere University School of Law. Setting the scene for the day’s discussion, she stated that women’s voices and participation in the media are often muted and relegated to a token participation in public affairs.

“Women are less represented than men either as news subjects or reporters, and face problems with access to promotion and career development. They suffer cultural and sexist attitudes from their male colleagues,” she said.

Zahara Nampewo outlining the challenges of women’s rights to free expression at the ACME event.

Nampewo noted that the internet is another area where there is inequitable experience of freedom of expression between the genders. She said that while the internet created enormous opportunities for free expression, “it is a double-edged sword for many female journalists based on the very fact that it has been built, anchored and largely governed by the patriarchal systems of domination right making it very difficult for women to maneuver through. Women are constantly dealing with power dynamics online which subjugate their being.”

For female journalists, practicing their right to free expression can be what the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe calls a “double-burden”. It is the threat of being attacked for being a journalist and for being a woman. Just because of their gender, female journalists face an additional layer of risk that leads to self-censorship, retreating from the public sphere and leaving the field of journalism with declining numbers of female representation.

Dr Nampewo advised the gathering to adopt a multi-pronged approach to push-back against gendered freedom of expression violations faced by women in the media. She proposed using existing legal frameworks to eliminate discrimination against women, integrating gender equality into national media law and policy, strengthening internal institutional protections of female journalists, and pushing for a feminist internet that empowers everyone and dismantles patriarchy.

Participants of the meeting that was organised in partnership with the Ford Foundation and the Usalama Fund assented to this proposition. They also developed a series of strategies that will be included in ACME’s broader blueprint to amplify and defend women’s voices. Actions assented to in the meeting will be implemented by ACME as part of its continuing freedom of expression advocacy programme.

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