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03 August 2018

Violence against women online is a direct challenge to pluralism and democracy

Jennifer Adams and Sinead Carolan, Office of the OSCE Representative on Freedom of the Media

We can't achieve freedom of expression without first addressing the toxic environment many women face on the internet

Woman on laptop
Woman on laptop

Since 2014 Arzu Geybullayeva, a freelance journalist from Azerbaijan, has been the target of an extensive online abuse campaign including dozens of rape and death threats because of her work as an independent journalist covering Azerbaijan and publishing in an Armenian newspaper.

She told me, ‘I feel like had I been a male journalist, of course they would not try to threaten me with rape or take pleasure in the many ways of imagining rape. It’s a really dark place to be in and if you are stuck in it for a long time it has real repercussions on a person.’

Michelle Ferrier, the first black female columnist for her newspaper in Florida, received regular letters threatening her and her family. She sought out support from the newspaper, her editors and the police before eventually leaving the profession to teach journalism and move her family to another state.

Julie Lalonde, an award-winning public educator and women’s rights advocate, was hired in 2014 to lead a training programme with the Royal Military College of Canada on preventing sexual violence. While teaching her students, she herself was sexually harassed and degraded. An online smear campaign began as soon as Lalonde filed a formal complaint. She received death threats, rape threats, and threatening phone calls once the cyber mob discovered her personal information.

These stories are, tragically, not the exception – online violence continues to raise the stakes for women speaking, blogging, writing and reporting in the public sphere every day. We run a project at the Office of the OSCE Representative on Freedom of the Media called #SOFJO, short for ‘Safety of Female Journalists Online’. We focus on the issues of equal representation and media pluralism by looking at the gendered component of online violence and the way it silences female voices and female stories in the media.

During our time working on #SOFJO we have come across countless anecdotes full of horrifying details about sexual harassment, coordinated online attacks, slandering and smear campaigns targeted against female journalists. Taken together, these produce a ‘chilling effect’: a situation in which individuals and journalists self-censor, or stop writing and reporting altogether out of fear.

Attacks like these are both gendered and life-altering events. This is why we talk about online violence and the safety of women online, rather than the issue of their polite treatment. In fact, the chilling effect that online violence and cyber-misogyny has on female voices is a direct challenge to democracy.

The non-profit group Working to Halt Online Abuse found that from 2000 to 2013, 70% of the 4,043 people who reported cyber harassment were female, while 25% were male and 5% were unknown.  British think tank Demos found in a 2014 study that on Twitter female journalists and TV presenters received roughly three times as much abuse as their male counterparts

Online threats can and do lead female journalists to leave the profession. They can also lead female journalists to remove themselves from social media to avoid trauma, or stay quiet about their experience with sexual harassment online for fear of repercussions for their career. This is having a devastating impact on freedom of expression. 

It is a fact that journalism can be a very dangerous profession. Investigative reporters are targeted for bringing to light unflattering information about those in power. War correspondents face constant physical danger when they are in the field. Yet, research has shown that the feeling of uncertainty and the general threat emanating from online violence has a particularly disruptive effect on victim’s lives and psychological wellbeing.

While some of the recommendations made to women facing online abuse – remain vigilant, walk with a friend, limit time on Twitter and other social media, move house – may improve their safety, they can also hinder a journalist in her ability to report.

Threats of rape, death, and stalking – in addition to the trauma, risk to physical safety and violation of privacy – cost female journalists money through legal fees, online protection services, and lost wages. Editors may choose men to report on more controversial stories. Self-censorship can also become an issue as women stop reporting on subjects their attackers and harassers don’t like. Cyber harassment also skews the representation of female voices in the public sphere and creates a situation of unequal opportunity.

Bold investigative reporting and quality journalism requires the ability to pursue stories without fear of punishment or backlash.

Responding to this issue is the responsibility of three main groups: media companies and conglomerates that are concerned for the wellbeing of their employees and their equal treatment in the workplace, internet intermediaries hoping to prevent earnest voices and perspectives from being crowded out by abuse, and, ultimately, democratic governments that have vowed to uphold and protect media freedom.