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We must address the war on women journalists, online and offline

February 25, 2021 | By Kiran Nazish, Founding Director – The Coalition For Women In Journalism @kirannazish

Women journalists work on the frontlines of online and offline violence. In the past three years, The Coalition For Women In Journalism (CFWIJ) has documented a significant rise of organized troll campaigns, as well as physical threats, targeting women journalists. This threat is one that should not just trigger anger and outrage, it must inspire political, structural, and societal change. 

From India, the world’s largest democracy, to Northern Ireland, CFWIJ monitored cases of violence and threats against women journalists. We documented how women journalists have been subjected to violence both online and offline across 74 countries. These cases included various forms of physical violations, from kidnapping to murder, harassment, and attacks. We also observed increasing attempts to silence women’s journalistic work through state persecution and the weaponization of law, among other tactics. 

In 2020 alone, CFWIJ documented 716 cases of threats and violence against women journalists. This was an increase of 138.6% in comparison to 2019, when we documented 291 cases. These include impediments in the field, detentions, imprisonments, legal harassment, and physical attacks — including four murders. 

Signs of the times

The significant increase of targeting emerged right after the pandemic. We found most of these violations to be linked to the widespread efforts to suppress Covid-19 related coverage by many governments. Astonishingly, this includes The United States. 

2020 was also a year of protests. Despite the fact that the entire world faced a pandemic, hundreds of thousands of people across many nations — from the United States, through Belarus to Hong Kong — took to the streets in protests against government policies and civilian deaths due to state brutality or its indolence. These protests were covered around the clock by the media.

We saw women journalists on the frontline, consistently targeted while trying to document demonstrations. Police brutality against protesters garnered global attention. However, journalists working on the ground to document these unprecedented historic moments also found themselves among those injured, attacked, and detained. Their press credentials and rights to report were not respected by the authorities. The CFWIJ documented numerous examples of physical injuries and other incidents of harsh impediments to women journalists at work. 

Trolls, threats, and power

Our work reflects the deteriorating working conditions in which women journalists continue to do their jobs. They remain alarmingly vulnerable to attacks. Certainly, the physical threats are a major call for concern. However, online trolling remains one of the most critical tools that has been weaponized against women in the media. We tracked the sources of many major troll campaigns. And in many countries like Pakistan, Turkey, Mexico, Egypt, and the Philippines, online trolls were linked to the state or authorities who have also been aggressively trying to silence the press. 

We have noticed that these threats have often also leaked from the virtual into the physical world. This has resulted in physical attacks against women reporters. In Pakistan, one of our members and leading news anchor Asma Shirazi has faced many waves of online trolling. These threats became all too real when she was physically approached by her trolls trying to break into her house one night. In Northern Ireland, journalist Patricia Devlin has faced consistent trolling for over a year, to an extent that her child got rape threats. Her reporting is considered biased by some of her readers. Their retaliation has escalated from online trolling to physical threats. Earlier this month (Feb), some of these trolls sprayed threatening graffiti in several locations with a bullet sign. This followed targeting of another Irish journalist, Allison Morris, in a similar pattern, which included graffiti targeting women journalists. 

Big picture, big problem

Threats and violations against women journalists have become more than a job hazard. This is a threat to their lives. And it poses a threat to journalism itself. 

These attacks are directly linked to the journalistic work of the individuals. However, there is very little thought or resource invested by media and journalism institutions into thinking about solutions for this massive — even deadly — problem. 

Media organizations do not take sufficient responsibility when these threats take place. Often, they do not even report on the violations their reporters face. A lack of institutional support can be especially difficult for the many women who are freelance journalists.

Building a support network

In the absence of information about the status of safety challenges journalists face, we cannot grasp the gravity of the issue. Some of the ways we at the Coalition For Women In Journalism try to offer support is by documenting each and every threat and attack we can track down. 

We have learned that support systems are extremely critical to ensure journalists that are not dealing with threats on their own. Through our various regional and local support networks, women journalists can report any violations they face and reach the needed help. 

When journalists are targeted, they should be able to reach a trusted colleague, mentor, or organization that can acknowledge and advise appropriately. Newsrooms and media organizations can easily build such systems. And they should in order to defend freelancers, staff, and the institution of journalism itself.

About the author

Kiran Nazish is a former foreign correspondent, who reported from several countries like Iraq, Afghanistan, Mexico, Turkey and Pakistan. After working for two decades, she noticed the various difficulties women journalists faced in many parts of the world. To tackle the problems, she launched The Coalition For Women In Journalism, a global mentorship and advocacy organization that aims at an equitable journalism industry worldwide. She is also the Stanley Knowles Distinguished Professor at Brandon University in Canada.

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