Women journalists experience chilling threats, UNESCO reports
Online violence has become the new frontline in journalism safety for women, reports a study commissioned by the UNESCO, the UN’s cultural agency.
According to the ‘The Chilling: Global Trends in Online Violence Against Women Journalists,” which surveyed 901 journalists from 125 countries, 714 of them women, online attack against women journalists has been increasing significantly: nearly three quarters the female respondents said they had experienced online violence, including threats of sexual violence and murder.
Women journalists from diverse backgrounds experience both the highest rates and most severe impacts of online violence, as misogyny intersects with racism, religious bigotry, homophobia and other forms of discrimination, the report reveals. The most commonly reported threats come in the form of hateful language and sexual harassment via unwanted private messages. It also includes hacking, doxxing – the publishing of personal information – and spoofing.
The aim is “to belittle, humiliate, and shame; induce fear, silence, and retreat; discredit them professionally, undermining accountability journalism and trust in facts; and chill their active participation in public debate,” the report unveils.
Social media platforms are seen as the major enablers for online violence against women journalists. Facebook was disproportionately identified as the platform to which female respondents most frequently reported online attacks (39%), with Twitter attracting complaints at the rate of 26%. Although social media platforms have policies against online abuse, the report finds that when women journalists report online attacks and request for the deletion of offensive content or accounts they are frequently ignored.
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News organisations also struggle to respond effectively to online violence experienced by women, the report states. Most of the time their response was unhelpful, and journalists were asked to “toughen up” or “grow a thicker skin.”
Ultimately, women journalists are left to be responsible for their own defense. “They are the ones required to ‘report’, ‘block’, ‘mute’, ‘delete’, and ‘restrict’ their attackers, potentially compounding the effects of the abuse, and creating unbearable pressures when the attacks come at scale,” the study reports.
Online violence has damaging consequences on women’s journalists careers: one in three women journalists surveyed said they started self-censoring and one in five withdrew from all online interaction. It also has an impact on their mental health: many suffer from PTSD, and one in ten women journalists has sought medical or psychological help as a result.
“There is a climate of impunity surrounding online attacks on women journalists which must be more urgently and effectively addressed because impunity emboldens the perpetrators, demoralises the victim, erodes the foundations of journalism, and undermines freedom of expression,” the report concludes.
“This amounts to an attack on democratic deliberation and media freedom, encompassing the public’s right to access information, and it cannot afford to be normalised or tolerated as an inevitable aspect of online discourse, nor contemporary audience-engaged journalism.”