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UNESCO releases pioneering discussion paper on online violence against women journalists

04/05/2021

UNESCO has released a pioneering discussion paper pointing to a sharp increase in online violence against women journalists and dissecting the orchestrated campaigns behind this toxic phenomenon. The Chilling: Global trends in online violence against women journalists was presented on 30 April 2021 at an online panel discussion held in the framework of the World Press Freedom Conference.

The 30 April online panel, moderated by Kenyan investigative journalist Catherine Gicheru, brought together celebrated journalists and experts to discuss the findings presented by ICFJ Global Director of Research Dr Julie Posetti (Australia).

The laureate of the 2021 UNESCO/Guillermo Cano World Press Freedom Prize, Maria Ressa (CEO of Filipino news website Rappler), and the US NBC journalist Brandy Zadrozny, testified that the intense online harassment they recently went through was a response to their investigations into disinformation and populist networks.

The goal is to impose silence, to manufacture consensus and to seed metanarratives such as ‘this journalist is a criminal’… Tearing down my credibility is a way to attack the media I founded.

Maria Ressa, laureate of the 2021 UNESCO/Guillermo Cano World Press Freedom Prize

“This is about terrorising journalists… so that they avoid certain topics and leave way for the trolls’ agenda,” elaborated the UK-based CEO of the Center for Countering Digital Hate (CCHD) Imran Ahmed, who provided insights into the disinformation tactics leveraged in these attacks.

An edited extract from a forthcoming interdisciplinary study carried out for UNESCO by the International Center for Journalists (ICFJ), the discussion paper is based on a global survey involving over 900 journalists, 15 country case studies, big data analysis of more than 2.5 million social media posts, and interviews with over 170 journalists and experts.

This unprecedentedly wide data set reveals that online attacks against women journalists are prevalent, organised, and inextricably linked with disinformation and populist politics. It warns that social media is increasingly weaponised by politicians, partisan media and disinformation purveyors, who operationalise gendered online abuse to chill critical reporting and undercut public trust in journalism. ‘The Chilling’ provides alarming statistics on the real-life impacts of these attacks, particularly for those women journalists who are already disadvantaged by various forms of discrimination, whether based on race, religion or sexual orientation. It calls on social media platforms and news organisations to acknowledge the scale of the threat and to urgently step up their responses.

The panellists exchanged views on the devastating impacts of online violence and the coping mechanisms they sought and developed. “Reporting is the best revenge”, said Brandy Zadrozny, while acknowledging the support she received from her employer when she was targeted. “Any journalist going to cover a protest gets a gas mask, a gear, and a training. That should (apply) online too’”, she suggested. “News organisations must respond, but they can’t fix the problem… which is technological and political”, Julie Posetti stressed. The panel concluded with an urgent call to end the impunity enjoyed by the political actors instigating online attacks against women journalists and the platforms enabling them.

The Chilling was featured by leading media outlets across the globe including The Guardian, Al Jazeera, Le Monde, Lusa, Rappler, The Washington Post, CNN, EFE, RTVE, and BBC World Service.

To further raise awareness of the prevalence and impact of online violence against women journalists, UNESCO has launched a social media campaign using the hashtag #JournalistsToo.