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Online abuse of women journalists is a major threat to free speech and democracy

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By Fiona Davidson, project worker, A Stronger Voice for Women in the Media

Women journalists are no strangers to violence – in the newsroom, on the front line and in cyberspace.  In fact online abuse is a growing problem for journalists and the nature directed at women is particularly vile, insidious and threatening.

However cyberbullying of women journalists is not merely a gender issue.  It is silencing women at a time when women in the media need to be heard.  And if it means journalists are avoiding certain stories, that is a major problem for free speech and democracy.

Violence is not part of the job
World Day for the Elimination of Violence Against Women was on 25 November, marking the start of 16 days of activism.

Many are under the misapprehension that violence against women is confined to physical acts.  That is not the case and includes a range of actions that harm, or cause suffering and indignity to, women and children. These include physical, sexual and psychological violence, sexual harassment and intimidation at work and in public.

For many women journalists, abuse in cyberspace has become an everyday event.  But just because it’s not physical doesn’t mean it’s not abuse.

Discrimination and inequality are at the root of violence against women and girls.  There is a spectrum linking various forms of violence against women and on the spectrum, some behaviour is accepted as “normal”.  Research by Zero Tolerance found that while rape is at the extreme end of a range of sexual violence, it also includes sexist jokes, inappropriate comments, online abuse and sexual harassment.

Online abuse was identified as one of the most pressing problems facing women journalists in a recent survey under the Stronger Voice for Women in the Media project, along with the gender pay gap, lack of career opportunities, flexible working and male bias.

Having recently attended an international workshop in Vienna to exchange ideas on ways to address the safety of female journalists online hosted by the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE), it is evident that the problem has magnified.

Journalists are regular targets of online attacks and female journalists face a double burden – being attacked as journalists and as women.  Threats of rape, physical violence and graphic imagery show up all too frequently in their inboxes and on their social media platforms.  The threats extend to family members with harassers threatening to rape journalists’ children, attacking them with sledgehammers and slashing their faces. Journalists have had to flee their homes and have personal security.

International human rights lawyer Nani Jansen Revenlow told the workshop earlier this month that online harassment of women journalists was not “just” a gender issue, but a threat to democracy.

She supported the OSCE’s Representative on Freedom of the Media recommendation that “online abuse must be dealt with in the broader context of gender discrimination and violence against women to ensure that the same rights that people have offline must be protected online.”

She said “The online harassment of women journalists hinders the free press from operating as it should, which negatively affects the democratic process.”

The online abuse has a grave chilling effect on freedom of expression which is crucial for journalists on their role as public watchdogs.  Journalists have a duty to inform the public, yet a consequence of online abuse is that many are self-censoring for fear of being targeted.  If stories are not being covered or coverage is censored, that is dangerous for democracy and dangerous for press freedom.  A further consequence is that there are even fewer female journalists in an already male-dominated field.

In Scotland, online abuse is so pervasive that advice for journalists is being included in media guidelines when covering potentially controversial issues. For example, women journalists are especially vulnerable when they report on violence against women and feminist issues.  It gets worse for women when race, religion, disability, sexual orientation or gender identity are also involved.

A free media is essential to a free and open society.  Any attempts to silence female journalists are direct attacks on freedom of expression and the role of journalists as public watchdogs, keeping the public informed.

That’s why it is imperative that there’s an end to impunity and the police, prosecutors, employers, ISPs and social media platforms take online abuse seriously, adopting a zero tolerance approach.

In particular, governments should show political will to treat online abuse of journalists seriously and ensure perpetrators are prosecuted.  In Scotland, there is legislation providing for prosecution.  It is very much in the public interest that prosecution is the default position.

If you have a problem with online abuse, contact or call 0141 248 6648.




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