Intimidation, Threats, and Abuse

The survey defined intimidation, threats and abuse with the following acts (numbers indicate frequency of reported incidents)1:
Chart Intimidation Threats Abuse

Almost two-thirds (64.8%/597) of 921 respondents answered “yes” to the question “have you experienced intimidation, threats or abuse in relation to your work?”

  • Almost two-thirds of 921 respondents said they had experienced intimidation, threats or abuse in relation to their work.

The most frequently reported acts were classified as “abuse of power or authority,” “verbal, written and/or physical intimidation including threats to you,” and “attempts/threats to damage your reputation or honour.”

Most reported acts of intimidation, threats or abuse took place in the office. These acts included “abuse of power or authority” (70.8%/153 of 216), “verbal, written and or/physical intimidation including threats” (47.5%/69 of 202), and “attempts/threats to damage your reputation or honour” (34.2%/85 of 179).

Other reported incidents of “intimidation, threats and abuse” took place in the field (when reporting outside the office), at home, in the street (covering protests, mobs, rallies, etc.) and online.

According to respondents, most acts committed in the office were perpetrated by a boss (31.7%/597 of 1882 incidents where perpetrators were cited) or supervisor (13.2%/260 of 1882).

One example came from a U.S.-based journalist, who said “I was slapped, regularly insulted and called demeaning names, not given certain assignments that were given to male co-workers instead, and forced to work overtime without being paid for it.”

Other perpetrators included co-workers, police, government officials, and subordinates. A respondent from India said “general discrimination is a major problem,” but especially for her, as a manager. “No one likes [a] female boss,” she said, “especially in the media field.”

Dozens of respondents from several different regions said their supervisors or co-workers had used public criticism of their work, personality or general competence as a humiliation and intimidation tactic. This kind of abuse largely occurred in the office, in front of other newsroom staff. Examples given ranged from “character assassination” to direct insults, including one woman who was routinely berated by her boss for resembling the boss’ ex-wife.

Interviewees were also reported perpetrators. A journalist from the Philippines said she was threatened by an interviewee after publishing a story about the subject’s abuse of a home staff member. The same woman said she had been “shouted at and intimidated a number of times by male reporters from different media outlets” in the course of her work.

An American journalist working in the Middle East recalled entering an Orthodox Jewish community to report and being told to leave or face stoning.

When perpetrators were members of the government or officials, reported incidents typically included threats of imprisonment or detention, blackmail and public defamation. One Mexican journalist said that a prison director attempted to discredit her, telling other reporters that she paid inmates at his prison for information about drug sales.

Some respondents said they were forced by state officials to sign pledges promising not to write critically about the government. Other acts of “intimidation, threats and abuse” by public officials include surveillance of journalists, written and verbal intimidation and withdrawal of press passes or accreditation. One journalist said:

“I was forced to leave my country, Zimbabwe, in 1985 after years of threats and intimidation and scary surveillance by intelligence officers because of my reporting. At the time I was the only Zimbabwean working for the foreign media. Three times my accreditation was withdrawn, making it very difficult for me to do my job. I finally left when I was threatened with imprisonment if I wrote another story unfavourable to the government.”

A number of respondents reported threats against their family members in retaliation for their work. These included threats to harm or kidnap their children and threats to harm their spouses, parents and siblings.

A respondent from Pakistan said she repeatedly received death threats and threats against her family members. For all acts defined in this section, the main perpetrators were male (63.6%/1029 of 1617 reported incidents where perpetrator’s sex was cited).

Reporting Intimidation, Threats and Abuse

Respondents were asked if they reported any acts of “intimidation, threats and abuse” to their employers, police or another authority (selecting multiple options was possible). More than half (58.4%/188 of 322) of respondents said they reported such acts to their employers, fewer than one in five (17.5%/43 of 246) said they reported to the police and less than a quarter (23.5%/57 of 242) reported to another authority.
Did you report the abuse

When asked “what was the outcome of reporting the intimidation, threats and abuse?” a small number of the 238 qualitative responses indicated a positive outcome for the respondent. But the overwhelming majority of responses alluded to a climate of impunity, such as a Pakistani journalist who said there was “no justice for female[s] in her country,” a British journalist who said she was told to “stop complaining” and an Indian journalist who said “my boss didn’t believe me and said I was over-reacting and told me to grow up.”

One journalist from Cameroon said, “I never reported it. To whom should I report? The same person who intimidated me is the same person to whom under normal circumstances, I was to report. “

One journalist from the United States said, “I was too freaked out to report my situation (this was my first job right out of college), and the person I was working for who was causing the abuse was/is a very well-known figure in this industry. It would have been my word against his, and I felt completely powerless. I also felt that it would be career suicide to bring something like this against this guy.”

When respondents did report acts of “intimidation, threats and abuse,” results ranged from nothing changing to being forced out of a job. Some said they regretted reporting abuse, as negative responses from supervisors, colleagues and authorities made the situation worse.

An American journalist wrote: “After reporting…harassment and intimidation, I was the one sent home and removed from my normal responsibilities. Quickly the investigation turned on me. Embarrassing details about my personal life were dragged out and discussed by my supervisors. The HR department ruled against me based on incorrect factual information, and I appealed the decision. After the appeal, which also caused me extreme emotional duress and panic, my harasser was let go with a very generous severance package, though the institution still did not acknowledge wrongdoing. I never really recovered from the stress of reporting, and am not sure if I should have done it.”

Several respondents said their news organisations were more supportive of the perpetrator than the complainant.

Though not in the majority, some respondents said they experienced positive outcomes to reporting abuse. Incidents were cited when authorities took complaints seriously, leading to those responsible being convicted or sent to jail. When acts of intimidation or abuse took place in the office, some reported that perpetrators were dismissed from their jobs or reprimanded.

Impact of Intimidation, Threats and Abuse

When asked to describe the effect of “intimidation, threats and abuse,” respondents said they were concerned for their personal security and in some instances became depressed and experienced psychological trauma.

Some women said they started using pseudonyms or pen names after receiving threats. Others decided to stop reporting from specific regions, while a few were forced to permanently relocate. One respondent from Bahrain said, “I had to leave the country fearing for my safety…I have been living in the United Stated since then (more than 2 years now).”

A number of the women explained how they were forced to give up journalism entirely, while others left their jobs – either of their own accord or after being fired, as this Australian journalist described:

“I was sacked from my job – the management made it clear that they would not discipline the perpetrator.”

Many stayed at their jobs but were no longer able to cover certain beats, or were discouraged from reporting specific stories by their editors.

Other journalists dropped stories because they feared for their own security, such as this journalist from South Africa: “I was too scared to publish their article as they also send me threats, that I must not even think of publishing that article, I pulled the story for my safety instead.”

Some respondents reported suffering repercussions in the workplace after receiving threats from external sources. Some said their salaries were cut, while others reported being demoted and subjected to gossip and unwelcome comments.

One Cameroonian journalist described what happened when she reported threats: “I was ostracised by other colleagues. No one wanted to be seen with me. I was removed from my office and asked to stop all work but continue reporting to the office. My salary was slashed.”

A number of respondents said they became accustomed to harassment and threats or chose to ignore them, though many of these still reported a psychological effect.

  • Digital Threats and Abuse

    Increasing attention is being given by the media to digital threats and abuse. In the past year, a number of stories have been written about the online harassment of women journalists. In July 2013, three women journalists in the United Kingdom received bomb threats via Twitter, and a Guardian story from November 2013 looked into the issue of such attacks, stating that the Internet “provides a conduit that enables many who hold [misogynistic] views to attack and abuse women and girls, from what they rightly perceive to be an incredibly secure position.”

    A January 2014 article in Pacific Standard by journalist Amanda Hess includes the author’s own experience with online harassment, when she was sent graphic death threats via Twitter. She interviewed a number of women journalists who have received public threats of rape, torture and death.

    Survey respondents reported threats, substantial criticism, name-calling and verbal abuse online. More than 25% of “verbal, written and/or physical intimidation including threats, to family or friends” took place online.

    Online Sexual Harassment

    One of the most common ways in which women respondents are targeted online is through the use of sexual harassment. A definition of online sexual harassment has not been established, exacerbating the difficulties of redress. According to Danielle Keats Citron, a professor at the University of Maryland School of Law, “cyber gender harassment has a set of core features: (1) its victims are female, (2) the harassment is aimed at particular women, and (3) the abuse invokes the targeted individual’s gender in sexually threatening and degrading ways.”2

    Survey respondents said they had been subjected to such harassment by email, and on social networking sites such as Facebook and Twitter. One journalist from India said: “They will upload my photograph with ugly comments and people used to start commenting using abusive language in Facebook,”

    Some respondents said threats against them detailed sexualised violence, as in this comment from a Moroccan journalist who spoke of ‘the threat of murder, rape and publish[ed] photos of me to the Internet and Facebook with the discredit of lies.”

    One respondent from the United States said, “I frequently – typically after appearing on air as a commentator on political issues – receive threatening or harassing phone calls, emails and messages on Twitter that can range from comments on my appearance to threats of rape or other sexualized violence, to comments about my lack of intelligence.”

    Another example from the United States demonstrates that online abuse does not always relate to a journalist’s work:

    “For the nearly five years I worked as a technology journalist at a magazine, I was constantly criticized online. Often, this had nothing to do with the content of my articles. I was called a whore for writing a negative article about Apple, people searched me online to come up with embarrassing information and posted it beneath my articles, and people often made belittling or sexist jokes as comments. The conventional wisdom to ignore comments sections did not apply because my bosses required me to look at and respond to comments.”

    For journalists who experience online harassment, one of the most difficult aspects is that the perpetrators are often unknown, which gives them an added layer of protection. As this Canadian journalist explained:

    “Primarily the threats/insults come from anonymous online commenters. I’ve had people threaten to assault me repeatedly; one threatened to ‘human flesh hunt’ me. I’ve been called every name in the book (cunt, bitch, hag, slut, prude, idiot, etc.) and have had my education/intelligence/integrity questioned repeatedly. I’ve had people attempt to impersonate me to make it sound like I say horrible things.”

    Respondents said that the use of harassment online is sometimes effective in silencing them and their colleagues. A Canadian respondent said she rarely does online journalism after facing numerous threats and insulting comments through digital platforms. A journalist from Argentina said she writes online under a pseudonym to avoid abuse.

    As Keats Citron said, “Cyber gender harassment damages women as a group and society as a whole by entrenching gender hierarchy in cyberspace…they reinforce gendered stereotypes, casting men as dominant in the bedroom and the workplace and women as subservient sexual objects who are not fit to work online.”


1 Respondents were able to select all acts relevant to their experiences. For this reason, the sum of the responses equals more than the total number of respondents to this question.

2 Law’s Expressive Value in Combating Cyber Gender Harassment, Danielle Keats Citron, Michigan Law Review, Vol. 108: 373. P. 378; 390.


<< Executive Summary

Physical Violence >>





Executive Summary

Intimidation, Threats, and Abuse

Physical Violence

Sexual Violence

Sexual Harassment

Tapping, Hacking, and Digital Security Threats

Preparedness, Prevention, and Protection