UNESCO calls for protection for women journalists, as UN Commission reviews Gender and Media


Attacks on women journalists, both online or offline, are hurting democracies. This was the blunt message from a panel organized by UNESCO on 20 March 2018, during the 62nd edition of the Commission on the Status of Women (CSW) at United Nations headquarters in New York.

An observer commented from the floor that is was the most powerful event she had attended over the entire two-week long CSW session.

Speaking about gendered online harassment, panel member Maria Ressa, told how orchestrated trolling and instigated mob-misogyny online led to her receiving 90 hate messages per hour, 24 hours a day during an entire month.

“Things are getting worse, not better”, she said, highlighting also recent legal cases brought against her online publication Rappler serving The Philippines. “We need to break this cycle, and for that we need to break the silence and find our voices. We must talk global and talk local.”

Noting that women are targeted online three times more than men, Ressa emphasized the importance of repelling self-doubts that are infused with the very personal and sexual threats that are targeted against women journalists and often their families.  

Besides her role in Rappler, Ressa is chair of the independent jury that considers nominations for the UNESCO-Guillermo Cano World Press Freedom Prize which will be awarded on May 2 this year.  Details of her victimization and her fight back can be found online in a publication by UNESCO’s International Programme for the Development of Communication (IPDC), which was a part sponsor of the CSW panel.

Another panelist, Matthew Caruana Galizia, Pulitzer prize-winning journalist, spoke of the case of his mother, Daphne Caruana Galizia, a Maltese journalist who had 57 defamation cases against her at the time of her assassination for her journalism in October 2017.

“We need to do more about the context in which these attacks take place. We need to do more to prevent them from happening”, he said.

Caruana Galizia emphasized the need for perpetrators to be held accountable and pay for their crimes. “There has to be a cost for the perpetrator that is greater than the life of a journalist,” he stressed.

“After you continue fighting back and they see that the verbal threats do not work, they move on to legal threats, violence and ultimately murder. We want justice for the assassination of Daphne Caruana Galizia and justice for the crimes she reported on state corruption”, he underlined.

The event, supported by The Netherlands and Sweden, also included panelist Jennifer Clement, Mexican-American author, President of PEN International and the first woman to hold that position since the organization was founded in 1921.

She drew parallels between the situations of women writers and journalists, and the hostility with which social systems often regard a woman ‘who walks by herself’. Clement presented the PEN International Women’s Manifesto to combat the silencing of women writers. This is a set of principles that aim to protect free expression by combating and eliminating the silencing of women worldwide, whether through censorship, harassment or violence.

Panelist Alison Smale, UN Under-Secretary-General for Global Communications, and a former journalist with the New York Times, compared the current situation to that of 2003, when the CSW last covered the theme of participation and access of women to media.

She noted that there are a lot more women journalists today, and proposed that this offered leverage for combatting the increase in threats targeting of women journalists. “We have is language. Language is the distinctive tool of humanity. We must continue to use it”.

The importance of training and specific preparation for women journalists was addressed in the dialogue, with reference made to the ‘Safety Handbook for Women Journalists’ which The International Association of Women in Radio & Television (IAWRT) published wit UNESCO support.

Moderating the session, Guy Berger, UNESCO Director of Freedom of Expression and Media Development, said: “There cannot be a democracy where women are not empowered, and one cannot have women empowered if women journalists are not safe.”

He said the panelists had pointed the way to refusing victimhood for women journalists, and towards pushing back the tide of misogynistic-layered attacks which are not only grave enough when online, but which can also become fatal.

Berger also contextualized the discussion with data from UNESCO’s Report “World Trends in Freedom of Expression and Media Development” and covered the latest developments since the adoption of the UN Plan of Action on the Safety of journalists and the issue of impunity.

He urged the packed venue to help raise awareness about the kinds of threats women journalists encounter, online and offline, so that society could recognize such violations of rights and understand why these also put everyone’s right to information and democracy at stake.