WASHINGTON – Online harassment is the new frontline for journalists’ safety, with female journalists disproportionately confronted by harassment that threatens physical harm, according to a newly published report.
The report, based on a global survey of more than 700 journalists who identify as female, found 73% had experienced some form of online violence, with threats of physical or sexual violence most common.
The findings and the impact harassment has on journalists were discussed during a panel on “Online Violence: The New Front Line for Women Journalists,” hosted by UNESCO and the International Center for Journalists (ICFJ) earlier this month.
“More than just damaging individual journalists, online violence also has a chilling effect on journalism more broadly and freedom of expression, along with the diversity in public debate,” Julie Posetti, global director of research at ICFJ and co-author of the report, said during the panel.
Online harassment has ramped up in recent years, with women—including female journalists—most often bearing the brunt of attacks.
The harassment can lead journalists to self-censor, remove themselves from online platforms, sometimes permanently, or even lead to women quitting journalism altogether.
As well as the online misogynistic abuse and threats of sexualized violence and insults, women journalists are targeted by disinformation campaigns that try to undermine their credibility and damage their reputation, including through false accusations of professional misconduct or attempts to smear their character, the joint ICFJ-UNESCO report found.
These journalists also were found to be more at risk of privacy and security threats such as hacking, being featured in doctored images or photos that are then shared online, or doxing—where information like addresses is shared online. By sharing details online like addresses, attackers increase the risk of a physical attack, the panel said.
Reporting on feminism, male-on-female-violence, reproductive rights and transgender issues, along with politics, human rights and social policy, are most associated with online attacks. In most cases, attackers are anonymous.
Online threats aren’t just directed at the journalists. Of the 714 respondents to the survey, 13% said threats of violence also were made against those close to them.
Trolled for reporting
Award-winning Finnish journalist Jessikka Aro is well aware of the pressure from online harassment.
Aro, who works for the Finnish national broadcaster Yle, was subjected to an intense online harassment campaign after reporting on Russian troll factories in 2014. Harassers spread false stories about her in the Russian media, accused her of abusing drugs or having mental health issues and shared her personal details online. Soon after, the journalist started to receive threatening phone calls and messages as well as death threats.
“It’s targeting me with disinformation and defamation to the anger of disillusioned readers and viewers of these fake news stories,” said Aro, who in 2020 received the International Women’s Media Foundation’s Courage in Journalism award. “They get the wrong impression. They believe these lies and then they themselves attack me.”
In October 2018, a Helsinki court sentenced Ilja Janitskin, the founder of a pro-Russian website, to 22 months in prison for defamation and negligence. Another person, Johan Bäckman, received a year’s suspended jail sentence for aggravated defamation and stalking.
In addition, Aro said she was attacked for taking the perpetrators to court, and that “mafia-like” attacks extended to the witnesses, police, prosecutors and judges.
“They aren’t just some kind of abstract threat to people’s freedom of speech or freedom to receive information, but they’re also threats to individual reporters and people like me,” Aro told VOA.
The journalist said she believes the objective of her attackers was to disrupt her ability to report.
“When I’m being attacked, I cannot do the job that I’m supposed to do,” Aro said. “I should be able to just do the thing that I love the most, which is to investigate and publish stories.”
As well as being forced to move temporarily abroad for her safety, the harassment had an impact on Aro’s health. The journalist has experienced fear, anxiety, insomnia and nightmares.
“It really makes everyday life, and also everyday working life, so much more slow because you have to take time to be able to handle all the new threats and handle all the new crimes,” Aro said.
Elisa Lees Muñoz, executive director of the IWMF, told VOA earlier this year that online attacks like those Aro experienced are becoming the norm. “They are incessant and pernicious and drive women journalists out of the profession, accomplishing what they are intended to do; to shut women up,” she said.
Aro continues to report on Russian trolls, saying it makes others less susceptible to the disinformation, and that she is driven by a strong sense of “responsibility to my audiences and to my readers.”
Call for protections
Several journalists who responded to the global survey said online threats have led them to self-censor, or remove themselves from social media and end audience engagement. Some said they increased their physical security, sought psychological help, missed work or abandoned journalism altogether.
“We have to hold the line together. We have to refuse to be silenced,” Posetti said at the panel. “We need to respect and support the women who have felt sidelined and silenced as a result of this.”
Among recommendations in its report, the ICFJ and UNESCO suggested that countries should ensure laws and rights used to protect female journalists offline are also applied to cases of digital attacks. It added that countries could better protect female journalists by collecting data on incidents, and publicly and systematically condemning attacks.
The authors suggest women report harassment to their employers and to the social networks platforms where the threats are made.
“One of the biggest challenges is the structural failures within the new information ecosystem that we all operate within,” Posetti said at the panel. “It’s not an option for women to be invisible. It’s not an option for women to abandon digital technology, social platforms when it comes to actually doing their jobs in journalism anymore.”
Companies including Facebook and Twitter should ensure that complaints of harassment and abuse are dealt with quickly and transparently, the report said, adding that news organizations need to provide better support and training regarding online safety.