Why violence against female journalists must end

With a global conference for media freedom being held in London this month, Caroline Feldner explains the threats against female journalists and the possible solutions.

By: /
July 4, 2019
Lyra memorial
Flowers and a candle are left where 29-year-old journalist Lyra McKee was shot in Londonderry, Northern Ireland, April 20, 2019. REUTERS/Clodagh Kilcoyne

On June 11, Mexican journalist Norma Sarabia was shot dead outside her home in Tabasco state. Her case is a recent example in a long thread of similar tragedies: Mena Mangal in Afghanistan, Lyra McKee in Northern Ireland and Daphne Caruana Galizia in Malta. All were female journalists killed for performing their job and making their voices heard.

According to figures from UNESCO, recent years have witnessed an increase in the murder of female journalists worldwide — 38 in total between 2012 and 2016, compared to 21 between 2008 and 2012. These tragic events highlight a widespread yet little discussed phenomenon: being a female journalist multiplies the risk of being the target of violence. As one Iranian journalist explained under cover of anonymity to the Committee to Protect Journalists: “You have a special vulnerability because you are both a journalist and a woman.”

Gender-based violence against women journalists is a global problem that takes many different shapes and forms, including intimidation, threats of rape, threats against family, and sexual harassment in the newsroom and in the field. According to the report “Women Journalists and Freedom of Expression,” published by the Office of the Special Rapporteur for Freedom of Expression of the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights, attacks most commonly reported by women journalists are “rape in retaliation for their work, sexual abuse in captivity or detention, and sexual violence by mobs against journalists covering public events.”

However, the advent of social media means that gender-based violence can now also be spread online. While both men and women face harassment online, many female journalists have to deal with hateful comments directed at their appearance, gender or sexuality. A study conducted by Amnesty International and Element AI found that seven percent of Twitter mentions of female journalists were problematic or abusive, amounting to one in every 14 mentions.

According to Hannah Storm, former director of the International News Safety Institute, women are three times more likely to receive online harassment than their male counterparts. In a recent study by Trollbusters and the International Women’s Media Foundation, around 30 percent indicated they had considered leaving the journalistic profession altogether as a result of the impact online abuse had had on them. Clearly, attacks against women journalists result in the silencing of those targeted. They have the effect of intimidating the messenger into self-censorship, ultimately blocking the effective dissemination of news and information.

Overall, the major concern is that physical and online violence are intrinsically linked and essentially inseparable; often digital threats lay the foundation for future physical attacks and the violence moves from online into the real world. That is especially true for journalists who are victims of “doxing,” a practice that involves searching for and publishing private or identifying information online, putting not only the journalist but also their family members at risk.

"The major concern is that physical and online violence are intrinsically linked and essentially inseparable."

How has this situation been able to perpetuate and even worsen over the past few years? First, social media has made it possible for anyone to disseminate hateful content with a simple click. Furthermore, the lack of transparency from digital media companies when it comes to their regulation methods contributes to those platforms being a toxic environment. Second, we are witnessing a new surge of populism and far-right movements, of which United States President Donald Trump is the personification. Since his arrival in office, he has consistently targeted the media as the “enemy of the people” and publicly encouraged both verbal and physical violence towards journalists.

Undeniably, when such behaviour is being normalized at the very top of the political system, it becomes acceptable to replicate it in the lower spheres of society. This initiates a vicious cycle, in which hateful political speech feeds public distrust of the media, itself sparking violence towards journalists, especially females.

Nevertheless, gender-based violence against female journalists is a direct assault on the rights to freedom of expression and access to information, as internationally guaranteed by article 19 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. The absence of women’s voices and perspectives in the media on major issues comes with serious implications for a free, pluralistic, and overall democratic media.

Faced with this persistent problem, governments must take positive measures aimed at ensuring that female journalists can enjoy substantive equality in the exercise of freedom of expression. It is necessary to act; not only after-the-fact but by publicly acknowledging that female journalists are more likely to be harmed than their male counterparts, implementing prevention mechanisms and supporting initiatives that address the root causes of violence against female journalists.

Now that the United States’s traditional role as custodian of press freedom worldwide is declining, and with limited international moral leadership, Canada and like-minded countries are coming together to address this critical issue.

Next week, Foreign Affairs Minister Chrystia Freeland, herself a former journalist, and her British counterpart Jeremy Hunt will hold a two-day international summit in London focusing on press freedom and the protection of journalists. While Hunt’s capacity remains unclear with him in the running for leader of the UK’s Conservative Party, the summit represents an opportunity for both countries to step up and address violence against women in the media. (Indeed, the safety of female journalists is listed as a topic of discussion for the first day of the summit on July 10.)

Freeland has previously displayed solidarity with the profession by taking a stand and condemning the conviction in Myanmar of two Reuters journalists who covered the Rohingya crisis. But, aside from advocating for the release of detained journalists, more concrete measures that address impunity for the crimes against journalists or which might provide more protection against them have yet to be seen. As highlighted by the United Nations General Assembly resolution on “the Safety of Journalists and the Issue of Impunity,” significant measures aimed at creating the conditions for effective investigation, prosecution and protection of female journalists need to be implemented by all UN member states. Gender specific measures are even less available, although safety training for both police forces and female journalists themselves have the potential to provide effective protection and empowerment. (The work of the International Women’s Media Foundation is one such example.) Because, as Nada Josimovic, programme coordinator at Free Press Unlimited, said: “There’s no story worth dying for.”