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Women journalists threatened with death, sexual, physical violence on duty

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A research jointly conducted by the United Nations Education, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) and International Centre for Journalists (ICFJ) has revealed that women journalists experience continuous online violence in the course of their work.

The findings of the survey were discussed during a session entitled ‘Online violence: The New Front Line for Women Journalists – #JournalistsToo’, hosted by UNESCO and the ICFJ at the World Press Freedom Conference.

73 percent of women journalists who responded to the survey reported having experienced online violence in the course of their work while twenty-five percent had received threats of physical violence whilst 18 percent of respondents had been threatened with sexual violence.

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Affecting female journalists, professionally and personally, thirty percent of those participating in the survey said they self-censor as a result of the abuse with 26 percent reporting impacts on their mental health.

Sharing stories of abuse, Carole Cadwalladr, a British journalist who came to prominence by exposing the Cambridge Analytica scandal in 2018, shared her personal experience of online abuse. “As my work started to have an impact, I started getting more followers, and more trolls,” she said. Rana Ayyub, an Indian investigative journalist, provided her own testimony saying, “It started with rape threats, death threats and doxxing. I wanted to quit social media and journalism. These things don’t happen to men. The cost that we are paying to amplify our work on social media is not something that journalists should face,” she said.

The onslaught of online hate is often interlaced with disinformation as 41 percent of respondents to the survey said they had been targeted in online attacks that appeared to be linked to orchestrated disinformation campaigns. “It’s specifically targeted to discredit journalists, to discredit their work,” explained Cadwalladr.
The journalists called for more transparency and accountability from social media platforms when it comes to the spread of online attacks against women journalists, “The way these platforms treat us is absolutely pathetic,” said Ferial Haffajee, a South African editor and investigative journalist. “We have to call out these platforms and demand accountability,” Cadwalladr added.

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Results from the survey found that Facebook was rated the least safe of the top five platforms or applications used by participants, with nearly double the number of respondents rating Facebook “very unsafe” compared to Twitter. Although the effects of online violence on journalism and press freedom can be disastrous, many female journalists continue to show great resilience in the face of constant abuse. “This is an essential frontier for protecting media freedom,” explained Haffajee. “I’m not going to be pushed aside, it took us too many years to get us here and it is necessary for us to make some noise about it,” Cadwalladr added.

The speakers saluted UNESCO/ICFJ’s survey as an important milestone in the fight against online violence against women journalists as Julie Posetti reminded, “Whilst the crisis is deepening, it is not an option for women to be invisible”.

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