SKeyes Center for Media and Cultural Freedom - Samir Kassir Foundation

The Chilling: Global trends in online violence against women journalists

Wednesday , 05 May 2021

There is nothing virtual about online violence. It has become the new frontline in journalism safety - and women journalists sit at the epicentre of risk. Networked misogyny and gaslighting intersect with racism, religious bigotry, homophobia and other forms of discrimination to threaten women journalists - severely and disproportionately. Threats of sexual violence and murder are frequent and sometimes extended to their families. This phenomenon is also bound up with the rise of viral disinformation, digital conspiracy networks and political polarisation. The psychological, physical, professional, and digital safety and security impacts associated with this escalating freedom of expression and gender equality crisis are overlapping, converging and frequently inseparable. They are also increasingly spilling offline, sometimes with devastating consequences. 

The research underpinning this paper consists of: a global survey of 901 journalists from 125 countries conducted in five languages; long-form interviews with 173 international journalists, editors, and experts in the fields of freedom of expression, human rights law, and digital safety; two big data case studies assessing over 2.5 million posts on Facebook and Twitter directed at two prominent women journalists (Maria Ressa in the Philippines and Carole Cadwalladr in the UK) undertaken to validate the self-reporting of our interviewees and survey respondents with objective data; 15 detailed country case studies; and a literature review covering hundreds of scholarly and civil society research publications. A team of 24 international researchers from 16 countries contributed to the study. 

One of the unique aspects of this research is its focus on understudied developing countries recognising that online violence against women journalists is a global problem, but one with disproportionate offline impacts and complex intersectional challenges that inhibit effective responses. Our interviewees represent 17 States and span every UNESCO region. They are racially, ethnically and linguistically diverse. They also include a number of men (e.g., senior editorial leaders, digital security, legal and freedom of expression experts), people of different abilities, and they express a range of sexualities and gender identities. 

Online violence against women journalists is designed 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 (along with that of their sources, colleagues and audiences) in public debate. 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. 


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