Three quarters of women journalists said that they have experienced some form of online violence, in a global survey conducted by UNESCO and the International Centre for Journalists (ICFJ).
The report, The Chilling: Global Trends in Online Violence Against Women Journalists, indicates that threats of physical and sexual violence were the most common forms of abuse. Although more than half of these attacks were from anonymous users, more than a third came from political actors.
"We had 901 people in 125 countries who responded to the survey. Then, we interviewed 176 journalists, editors and experts, produced 15 detailed country case studies and analysed 2.5 million social media posts directed at two prominent women journalists (Maria Ressa in The Philippines and Carole Cadwalladr in the UK) to produce this report," says Nabeelah Shabbir, co-author of the report and ICFJ freelance journalist.
Women journalists from around the world told us their reporting is met with gendered online abuse targeting them – also intersecting with racism, sectarianism, antisemitism, homophobia, and religious bigotry.— Nabeelah (@lahnabee) April 30, 2021
It's worsened in the pandemic.@ICFJ @UNESCO https://t.co/z4TczE6BxH pic.twitter.com/496d7djYkL
She added that Arab women around the world are substantially more at risk of physical attacks, harassment and abuse connected to online violence (53 per cent compared to 20 per cent overall).
Despite that, 95 per cent of the women interviewed agreed to make their names public, which Shabbir said was both a mark of their courage and a "very encouraging sign" that this issue is starting to get the attention it needs.
Among the respondents was Lebanese journalist Ghada Oueiss who works at Al-Jazeera TV. She has been the target of an intense online violence campaign focused on her gender, her religion (Christianity) and her age. She was described as a prostitute and received death threats. This sustained pressure has led her to file a lawsuit against a number of officials and individuals who she suspected took part in the coordinated online attack, including Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman.
Cultural, political, and social context
"We should support [women journalists] to take legal action," says Kiran Nazish, founding director of the Coalition for Women in Journalism, a worldwide support organisation for women journalists.
Almost half (41 per cent) of the survey respondents said that online attacks they were targeted in appeared to be linked to orchestrated disinformation campaigns and political extremism. Most of the women journalists experienced disinformation-based attacks aimed at smearing their reputation.
...they use very vulgar words that you can never use to describe a human being.Reem Abdellatif
"In Arab countries, you cannot look at online violence without considering the cultural, political, and social contexts," Shabbir explains.
Misogyny is thriving in the Middle East because of inefficient public authorities and weak laws, all of which gives the bad actors the freedom and space to commit acts of violence against women.
"It is related to the infrastructure and the culture in this region," Nazish agrees.
Another woman journalist in the Middle East recounts her experience with online violence. Reem Abdellatif, an Egyptian-American journalist who has worked in the Middle East for 12 years, says: "It has been impossible to report on anything against the governments or even dare to criticise the government. In the Middle East, if the government allows women to speak up, that means other people will start asking for freedom.
"The attacks are always gendered attacks; they use very vulgar words that you can never use to describe a human being."
Attacks from individual accounts make the process of identification faster and easier. However, anonymous accounts and multi-platform attacks raise questions about how to deal with orchestrated campaigns aimed at silencing women journalists.
Over a third (37%) of @ICFJ @UNESCO respondents identified political actors as top sources of— Nabeelah (@lahnabee) April 30, 2021
online attacks against them. This is also really shocking. Women journalists in Brazil, US, UK, Lebanon, Philippines & South Africa shared their stories with ushttps://t.co/z4TczE6BxH pic.twitter.com/c59oWI2EUf
According to the report, 20 per cent of women journalists said that they self-censored on social media or withdrew from online interactions altogether. Many also saw their productivity taking a hit or they missed work to recover from the impact of online abuse. Some women journalists even left their jobs (4 per cent) or the media industry (2 per cent).
This was the case for Liliane Daoud, an Egyptian-Lebanese TV presenter, after being subjected to abuse on the audio app Clubhouse which led to anxiety and mental health issues. She has since left the platform.
I decided to abandon journalism. Is it worth it?Lilian Dawood
In 2015, she was also an object of an online violence campaign calling for her extradition from Egypt to Lebanon.
"The same tweet has been repeated with the same wording several times on a number of platforms. I believe this is an orchestrated campaign," she says, criticising NGOs and the media in the Middle East for the lack of support at the time.
"I decided to abandon journalism. Is it worth it?" she asks.
Many women journalists are suffering from PTSD linked to online violence and seek medical or psychological help as a result. In the survey, mental health issues were the most cited (26 per cent) consequence of online violence.
In most countries, women journalists who are subject to online violence cannot rely on their employer or the authorities alone. Here are some resources to help:
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- Rebecca Whittington, online safety editor at Reach plc, on fighting abuse against journalists
- #HeForShe: the role of male allies for women journalists
- What can be done to support women journalists targeted for doing their jobs?
- Kiran Nazish, founder of CFWIJ, on violence against women journalists
- Tip: How to enhance diversity of women in your reporting