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Safety of Women Journalists

Last edited: August 12, 2020

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Women of all backgrounds and in all countries are at risk of and experience various forms of abuse. Worldwide, one in three women has experienced some form of physical and or sexual violence in her lifetime [and this does not include sexual harassment] (WHO, LSHTM and MRC, 2013).  Women who face multiple forms of discrimination based on their race, ethnicity, disability, civil status (e.g. migrant), sexual orientation and other characteristics may be at higher risk or experience abuse differently.  This is also the case for women in professions that challenge social norms, the status quo and power dynamics within society, such as women politicians, human rights defenders and women journalists.  Of particular concern, is the alarming levels of online violence that women journalists face on a regular basis, including: trolling, doxing, non-consensual sharing of images, cyber-stalking and threats against them and their families. The violence that they face is a gross violation of their human rights, curtails freedom of speech and expression (principles of democracy and pluralism) and gravely affects their professional engagements and ability to work.

Women journalists are affected by gender-specific safety risks such as sexual harassment, sexual violence and threats of violence (IFJ, 2017; IWMF, 2018). Recent studies have shown that women journalists are particularly affected by online harassment (Reporters Without Borders, 2018; OSCE, 2016). An analysis of the 70 million comments recorded by the Guardian between 1999 and 2016 showed that among the 10 staff journalists who received the highest level of abuse, eight were women, while the two others were black men (The Guardian, 2016).

 

International Press Institute (IPI) OnTheLine Project

IPI is a global network of editors, journalists and media executives dedicated to quality, independent journalism by promoting the conditions that enable journalist to fulfil its public function operating freely and without fear of retaliation. 

OnTheLine is IPI’s digital media initiative seeking to expose and counter a range of threats against press freedom and free expression in the digital sphere, for example through Twitter, Facebook, email and other platforms. The initiative tracks:

  • Threats of violence, including threats of death or other harm
  • Abusive behaviour, including sexual or other harassment, cyber-stalking, smear campaigns, the posting of defamatory or false materials, or other similar conduct
  • Technical interference, including the use of malware or other means to attack content you posted or the ability to access it, or hacking of your accounts or personal information
  • Improper legal threats, including threats of criminal or civil actions, or improper takedown requests

The initiative maintains a database of online threats and has produced a number of publications on the topic covering global, as well as, country-level contexts.

For more information and to access the resources, see: https://ipi.media/programmes/ontheline/

 

Harassment against women journalists often takes the form of personal attacks, which tend not to focus on the content of the journalist’s reporting, but rather on the woman’s character or body parts, and in more extreme cases include threats of sexual violence (OSCE, 2016). In a report published in 2018 by Trollbusters and the International Women’s Media Foundation, a survey conducted among 597 women journalists and media workers revealed that nearly two out of three respondents stated that they had been threatened or harassed online at least once. Among them, around 40 percent said they avoided reporting certain stories because of online harassment. Fifty-eight percent of the women journalists surveyed stated that they already been threatened or harassed in person, while 26% indicated that they had been physically attacked (IWMF, 2018).

 

Safety of Women Journalists in the Organization for Security and Co-Operation in Europe (OSCE)

The Representative on Freedom of the Media is an OSCE Institution based in Vienna, Austria. The Representative maintains an early warning function and provides rapid response to serious non-compliance with regard to free media and freedom of expression. The OSCE participating States regard freedom of expression a fundamental and internationally recognized human right and a basic component of a democratic society (an open society with accountable governments). The Representative is mandated to observe media developments in the participating States and to advocate and promote full compliance with the Organization’s principles and commitments in respect of freedom of expression and free media.

Under this mandate, the OSCE manages an initiative to address ‘Safety of Women Journalists Online.’ Following a questionnaire to its members, an expert group meeting and conferences, the following recommendations were set forth (OSCE, 2015):

Participating States should: Recognize that threats and other forms of online abuse of female journalists and media actors is a direct attack on freedom of expression and freedom of the media; Strengthen the capacity of law enforcement agencies to understand international standards on human rights so they can identify real threats to safety and protect individuals in danger, including providing tools and training on technical and legal issues; Refrain from introducing new criminal laws that could stifle freedom of expression, opting instead to apply existing laws that are in line with international human rights standards; Commission and support the collection and analysis of data related to online abuse and its effects, including creating a database of specific occurrences and follow-up from law enforcement; and establish a network of working groups with participating States, international organizations, media, civil society and Internet intermediaries to develop educational materials, awareness-raising campaigns and create effective structures for dialogue.

Media organizations should: Adopt industry-wide guidelines on identifying and monitoring online abuse; Ensure that journalists experiencing online abuse, both staff and freelancers, have access to a comprehensive system of support including psychosocial and legal assistance; Create a company culture of gender equality and non-tolerance to threats and harassment against staff; Put in place clear and transparent procedures related to content moderation, with the view of protecting the right to freedom of expression, and train relevant staff accordingly, while ensuring that male and female staff be equally involved; and work with other media organizations and associations to create support systems, including training and mentorship programmes, for female journalists and media actors.

Intermediaries and social media platforms should: Inform properly about terms of services, guidelines and best practices in ensuring a safe space for all users; Ensure that terms of service, community guidelines and information about their enforcement are proportionate and adequate, clear, understandable and easily available to all users; Provide information to users about best practices for online safety and about technical solutions on how to best report abusive content; Engage in capacity building with civil society organizations on issues like counterspeech as a response to abusive content; and collect data and statistics on online abuse to help facilitate more comprehensive research on online abuse of female journalists and media actors.

For additional information, see: http://www.osce.org/representative-on-freedom-of-media/safety-female-journalists-online

In a report from 2017 spanning journalists across 50 countries, it was found that (IFJ, 2017):

  • Forty-eight per cent had suffered gender-based violence in their work
  • Forty-four per cent had suffered online abuse
  • Two-thirds did not make a formal complaint.
  • Of those who did complain 84.8% did not believe adequate measures had been taken in all cases against the perpetrators. Only 12.3% were satisfied with the outcome.
  • Only 26% of workplaces had a policy covering gender-based violence and sexual harassment.

To address the safety and security of journalist, the United Nations Chief Executives Board endorsed a first-ever UN Plan of Action on the Safety of Journalists and the Issue of Impunity in 2012.[1] The Plan of Action, spearheaded by UNESCO, aims to create a free and safe environment for journalists and media workers, both in conflict and non-conflict situations, and both online and offline, with a view to strengthen peace, democracy and development worldwide. Its measures include, among other undertakings, the establishment of a coordinated inter-agency mechanism to handle issues related to the safety of journalists as well as assisting countries to develop legislation and mechanisms favourable to freedom of expression and information, and supporting their efforts to implement existing international rules and principles. A consultation in 2017 to strengthen implementation included additional recommendations for various stakeholders. The Plan highlights the need for a gender-sensitive approach and the implementation strategy includes a number of initiatives to address the safety of women journalists. Among others, it calls on Member States to „take action against discrimination and violence against women journalists, including sexual violence, online and offline, and ensure training and awareness-raising” on these issues.  The Outcome document of the 2017 consultation additionally encourages (UNESCO, 2017):

  • Member States to put in place gender-sensitive measures that do not prevent them from carrying out their journalistic tasks but which enhance their safety and enable them to fully carry out their profession;
  • Media actors to enhance a policy of gender equality inside media institutions, and counter social, cultural and other obstacles to equality between male and female journalists;
  • Academia to carry out further research on the gender dimensions of safety.

Moreover, the UN Secretary-General’s 2017 report on the Safety of Journalists to the UN General Assembly was focused on the safety of women journalists, illustrating the increasing attention being given to the gender dimensions of safety (UN, 2017).

 

Safety of Women Journalists (UNESCO)

As the organization leading the implementation of the UN Plan of Action on the Safety of journalists and the Issue of Impunity, as well as an organization that has adopted gender equality as a global priority, UNESCO implements a number of projects targeted at improving safety of women journalists.

Capacity building and safety guidelines for women journalists

UNESCO supported the publication by the International Association of Women in Radio and Television (IAWRT) of ‘What if…? Safety Handbook for Women Journalists” (2017), written by Egyptian journalist Abeer Saady. It provides practical tips for women journalists on how to minimize risks, while covering sensitive and dangerous assignments. The handbook’s main strength is its compilation of experiences, of numerous women journalists, who have worked in conflict and post conflict areas. The handbook underscores the importance of physical, psychosocial and digital safety and security.

Training material on the safety of women journalists has been enriched through the updating in 2017 of the Safety Guide for Journalists: A handbook for reporters in high-risk environments, developed by Reporters without Borders in concert with UNESCO, which includes a specific focus on gender-specific threats, both offline and online.

UNESCO will also implement a number of training activities aimed at enhancing capacities of women journalists to protect themselves against and to deal with harassment. To galvanize change at the institutional level, UNESCO will also conduct capacity-building trainings for media managers, which will sensitize participants to the issue and encourage them to adopt safety protocols for cases of gender-based harassment of women journalists.

#Journaliststoo – Women journalists speak out

In order to raise awareness for gender-based harassment of women journalists online and offline, and to show how journalists around the world resist and fight back against threats and abuse, UNESCO is publishing a book which consists of personal narratives by women journalists who have experienced gender-based harassment or violence. This book shines a light on the manifold forms of online and offline threats, s and underlines their resilience and resourcefulness in developing counter initiatives. This publication will be launched on Word Press Freedom Day (3 May 2019).

UNESCO study on mechanisms to tackle online harassment of women journalists

UNESCO is launching a research project on effective initiatives in tackling online harassment of women journalists, designed to yield concrete recommendations for different stakeholder groups, including media organizations, social media platforms, professional associations, and national authorities including the judiciary. This project will be rolled out over the course of 2019 and will be accompanied by multistakeholder consultations to ensure input and feedback from diverse actors.  The first consultation and kick-off session was organized in February 2019 at an OSCE Conference on Safety of Female Journalists Online (#SOFJO).

 

Resources:

The UN Plan of Action on the Safety of Journalists and the Issue of Impunity: https://en.unesco.org/sites/default/files/options_geneva_consultation.pdf

Strengthening the Implementation of the UN Plan of Action on the Safety of Journalists and the Issue of Impunity Consultation: https://en.unesco.org/sites/default/files/options_geneva_consultation.pdf  

Portal on the UN Plan of Action and related resources: http://www.unesco.org/new/en/communication-and-information/freedom-of-expression/safety-of-journalists/un-plan-of-action/

Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe: Safety of Female Journalists Online - https://www.osce.org/representative-on-freedom-of-media/safety-female-journalists-online 

Acting on UN Human Rights Council Resolution 33/2 on the Safety of Journalists (Article 19): https://www.article19.org/wp-content/uploads/2017/11/safety_of_journalists_WEB_23.10.pdf  

What If Safety Handbook for Women Journalists- http://www.iawrt.org/sites/default/files/field/pdf/2017/11/IAWRT%20Safety%20Manual.Download.10112017.pdf   

PEN America: Online Harassment Field Manual - https://onlineharassmentfieldmanual.pen.org/

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