UNESCO has just announced Maria Resa, a Philippine investigative journalist and media executive, as the winner of the Guillermo Canoe Award for Press Freedom, which honors media freedom champions, especially those who are in danger of doing so. Ressa risks her own personal security every day because she follows events and keeps strong accounts. He is often the target of anonymous online attacks – in 2016 he received 90 online hate messages an hour – most of which were primarily involved in miserliness and racism.
But Maria Resa is by no means alone. Women everywhere are being attacked online for showing the courage to practice journalism. In 2014, 23 percent of female journalists who responded to a UNESCO survey said they had been threatened, intimidated and insulted online at work. By December 2020, that number had jumped to 73 percent.
Women journalists from more than 120 countries around the world are now talking about how they were attacked online, according to a new study conducted by the UNESCO Commission and the Center for International Journalism Research (ICFJ). They work for the BBC, CNN, Al Jazeera, The Guardian and other national and local media outlets.
The survey revealed a worrying trend: female journalists threatened with physical violence, rape, kidnapping, and doxixing – disclosing their addresses on social media. Some have been accused of using sexually explicit stories in public. Their inboxes and their newsroom colleagues have their faces photoshopped by spamming them with lies, chaos and pornographic images. In some cases these women’s partners and children are directly threatened, or photoshopped images are sent. Not surprisingly, a quarter of female researchers said they wanted psychological support; Some were suffering from PTSD.
Increasingly, online violence leads to offline abuse, attacks, and harassment: some women who were trolled via email or social media were then verbally abused, or physically assaulted. This was the case with more than 50 Arab female journalists surveyed. The late Maltese journalist Daphne Caruana Galicia was first told by an online bomb that she would be burned as a witch before being killed by a car bomb.
I can’t stress enough the issue of online abuse in order to shut down online journalists and prevent them from reporting on controversial stories, activities. After being targeted, 30 percent of the women surveyed said they self-censored on social media and 38 percent took less public profile. Some women have been beaten for reporting less inflammatory stories, some have quit journalism or emigrated.
I was concerned when young female journalism students recently took part in a debate in which they said they were considering dropping out because of the horrific stories they had heard about trolling female journalists. Even at a young age women become aware that their gender will be used by those who want to prevent them from investigating and revealing their truth.
Like online violence is taking a devastating force towards freedom of expression. It undermines public confidence in observation journalism and the truth. It is also turning the clock back on the diversification of the media. Although mostly targeted at female journalists, the report found that blacks, Jews, lesbians and bisexual women were inadvertently attacked. The media plays a key role in reporting and representing all parties to the debate. If we can lose the voice of these journalists from the media, then the debate of genuine people breaks down by itself.
The problem of old misfortune will not be solved overnight. But we must hold social media organizations more accountable and demand that they do their part to fight the spread of hatred and isolation online. For example, according to a study by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, lies spread online six times faster than real news.
Also, social media companies need to be more transparent about how they handle abuse reports and content removal requests. Many of the journalists the researchers spoke to were forced to police their own social media feeds and then have a tough exchange with host platforms about deleting every offensive comment.
The UN Action Plan on the Protection of Journalists and the issue of impunity give us a framework for policy reform built around the prevention, protection and prosecution of these crimes. More sophisticated measures need to be put in place and tools developed to protect women journalists, including access to legal advice and mental health assistance. Judges need to be trained to apply international human rights standards when dealing with these cases.
Journalists interviewed for this report were well aware that contributions mean they face a second acute risk of online abuse, yet 98 percent of them have yet to be named. They did it because they often wanted to hide it, but wanted to help reveal the ultimate global problem.
The opinions expressed in this article do not necessarily reflect the views of the author and his editorial position on Al Jazeera.