How Digital Harassment of Female Journalists Threatens Freedom of Expression

by Elisa Lees Munoz

In some regions, digital and online spaces are the only platforms where journalists may exercise freedom of expression. One result is that online harassment is a growing problem for all journalists, and especially women journalists, across the globe. There is, however, no empirical data with which organizations can identify the scope and impact of the problem and address them.

The International Women’s Media Foundation in partnership with TrollBusters and Dr. Michelle Ferrier, and supported by Craig Newmark Philanthropies, is conducting a poll that will measure for the first time the scope and impact of online attacks in the United States on individual journalists and news they produce. The data collected in the study will be used to provide recommendations to both media organizations and journalists working in this environment to mitigate the impact of online harassment.

We are asking journalists for their help by participating in the survey. Only journalists can provide valuable feedback on key issues they face in today’s media landscape, be it on the ground or online. We are aiming for at least 1,000 responses, which will be completely anonymous. The survey takes about ten minutes to complete and will provide data that will inform future organizational policies and programs to support journalists to work more safely online. U.S.-based journalists can complete the survey by clicking here.

Misogyny Can Deter Expression

Recent Gallup Poll findings show a downward trend in Americans’ trust in the media over the past few decades, due mostly because of increasing perceptions of bias in news reporting. This distrust and animosity is playing out in the physical and digital world. There is ample anecdotal evidence suggesting that, like sexual harassment in the workplace, female journalists also bear the brunt of online attacks. The survey is intended to provide the first set of empirical data. In the case of women writers, misogynistic attacks can create a chilling effect that silences their voices online and create a deterrent to freedom of expression that ultimately erodes the freedom of the press. The effect is accentuated for minorities and those from the LGBTQI communities.

In the nearly 30 years of its existence, the International Women’s Media Foundation (IWMF) has repeatedly heard of aggressions perpetrated against remarkably brave journalists in all corners of the world. These are often the first women in their newsrooms, the first to push into the ranks of leadership, and the first to be attacked just because of their gender. In the IWMF’s 2015 report ‘Violence and Harassment against Women in the News Media: A Global Picture,’ two-thirds of those surveyed experienced acts of intimidation, threats and abuse, and one-fifth had experienced digital hacking or electronic monitoring.

We Need More Data

We are now seeing an increased demand for attention to digital security to reduce risks; the IWMF regularly hears anecdotes and testimonials of female journalists experiencing online harassment. However, at this point, there are few tools available to help journalists protect themselves online.

The data collected through this study will enable us to truly understand the size and scope of the problem, which is essential to mounting an effective response and supporting female journalists who live with this threat. The study will update the data on the scale and scope of online abuse against journalists. It will enable deeper insights into how online trolling – which is almost always violent or sexualized in nature when directed at women – is aimed at silencing and censoring female journalists.

While some news organizations have policies on digital security, many organizations do not yet have digital security training or policies in place to support the targets of such attacks. In addition, there is little legislation that adequately address digital harassment; in many cases, law enforcement agencies simply issue a report and take no further action. Digital harassment against women journalists in particular has kept some journalists from pursuing a story.

At the 2017 Internet Freedom Festival in Valencia, Spain, the IWMF, The Committee to Protect Journalists, and TrollBusters facilitated an active discussion on the threats and dangers faced online by women journalists. From this, and as a result of interviews with a range of media professionals around the world, the IWMF developed a list of next steps and guidelines for those interested in the issue of journalist’s online safety. We will be continuing the discussion at the upcoming 2018 Internet Freedom Festival, again next week in Valencia.

The impact of online harassment is the same as the impact of physical harassment, namely intimidation inhibits women journalists from doing their jobs. As one attendee stated at the 2017 conference, ending the impunity for crimes against journalists ‘should be a top priority of civil society, professional organizations, governments and multilateral institutions worldwide.’

What Needs to Happen

The industry can promote as many good practices and sanctions as possible, but journalist safety will not improve without focused attention on the issue from governments demonstrating a real commitment to journalist safety. Specifically, attendees recommended improving monitoring and tracking mechanisms for states’ reporting on journalist safety; pushing for greater transparency in the treatment of and value of the press; and focusing on diplomatic and political attention to the issue.

We need to create a holistic culture of safety, embedded within all levels of news organizations. As one attendee stated, ‘It’s not enough that a freelancer is aware, it’s not enough that an editor is aware, they both need to be aware. It’s a culture of safety. Every actor, every stakeholder, needs to be in line in making that a priority.’

For the last five years the IWMF has focused extensively on increased training and access to resources for journalists, including digital security training, mental health and trauma training and access to emergency assistance. We encourage news organizations to subsidize or cover hostile environments and first aid training (HEFAT) for all journalists.

There is a need for increased security protocols for journalists working in hostile environments or covering dangerous topics. Most journalists who are killed or injured while reporting are local journalists and may be covering crime, corruption or business practices; media professionals therefore recommend an increase in both physical and digital security training at the local level.

The IWMF encourages all professionals related to the media industry to be actively working to make journalists safer. For example, media organizations should conduct risk assessments (many of which have no cost) before dispatching journalists, whether staffed, freelancers or local; and should have standard processes, training and toolkits. Journalism schools should include safety training, especially digital safety; educate their students to expect and demand safe environments from their employers; and include courses on international laws and human rights standards, as well as national laws and the cultural, ethnic, religious, historical and political relations of the states or regions in which they may be reporting.

The media industry must take more responsibility for those who are involved but not directly related to them, including fixers and drivers. It is these individuals who are the front line in ensuring journalist safety when operating away from their home countries.

To ensure the best implementation of journalist safety measures, we need to collaborate and share results and best industry practices. Journalists need to participate by providing the data that will be used to support them.

Portions of this story were originally published in ‘New Challenges to Freedom of Expression: Counting Online Abuse of Female Journalists, OSCE.’ Elisa Lees Munoz is Executive Director of the International Women’s Media Foundation.