Defend Truth


The Chilling: The biggest issue in world press freedom is attacks on women journalists


Glenda Daniels is associate professor of media studies, Wits University and is Sanef’s Gauteng convenor. These views are her own.

The online attacks on women journalists are bound to populist politics, disinformation and intersectional discrimination, says a United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (Unesco)/International Centre for Journalists report released on World Press Freedom Day on 3 May.

First published in the Daily Maverick 168 weekly newspaper.

The report, The Chilling: Global Trends in Online Violence against Women Journalists,  launched as part of UNESCO’s World Press Freedom Day event, is ground-breaking because of its size and scope. It records 73% of the women surveyed as having experienced online violence (including death and rape threats). Twenty percent of women journalists said they withdrew from social media interaction because of the threats and vilification from being called “witch”, “hag”, “whore”, “bitch”, and “presstitute” (“press” plus “prostitute”).

A team of 23 international researchers from 16 countries, led by Julie Posetti (global research director), Nabeelah Shabbir, Diana Maynard, Kalina Bontcheva and Nermine Aboulez wrote the 94-page report. (Disclosure: I led the Africa region research and the full book on the international study will be published in June 2021.)

The study has been the largest of its kind,  deploying a global survey with 901 participants from 125 countries; 173 long-form interviews, two big-data cases assessing 2.5 million Facebook and Twitter posts. One case study is of Maria Ressa, Rappler Philippines editor, who won the Unesco/Guillermo Cano World Press Freedom Prize. The other was of Carole Cadwalladr (The Guardian, UK), whose investigative work exposed the Facebook-Cambridge Analytica scandal that led to the biggest fines in history being imposed on the social-media tech giant.

The attacks on Ressa followed her investigations into state-linked disinformation networks. She once recorded more than 90 hate messages in an hour on Facebook. She’s been called “fucking ugly bitch”, “whore”, “dog”, among other, even worse names. Some of the key findings include:

“The role of political extremism (in particular far-right extremism), nationalism and populism: misogyny is weaponized in the global tilt towards populism, and women journalists are clear targets, particularly those reporting on far-right extremist networks;

“The platforms as vectors of online violence: social media platforms are seen as the major enablers for online violence against women journalists but cast as (largely) failed responders to the problem;

“Political actors as attackers: politicians and party political party officials/donors are implicated as major instigators and amplifiers of online violence against women journalists.”

Access to data and social media results in less freedom for women journalists because of the online abuse, especially of those whose stories have impact.

The most frequently used platforms for the vilifications were found to be Facebook (77% of the time), Twitter (74%), followed by WhatsApp, YouTube and Instagram. Social media platforms are criticised because they don’t respond adequately to the cyberbullying. They don’t pull down the hatred quickly enough. The report found the violence does not remain online. It spills over into real life. It has intersections with race – black, indigenous and Jewish women were the most targeted.

More than a third (37%) of survey respondents identified political actors as top culprits.

Extremely worrying is that only 25% of respondents reported online violence incidents to their employer. Whereas 10% of the reporters received no response, 9% were told to “grow a thicker skin” or “toughen up”. What an indictment on media companies, and employers! In SA, investigative journalist Pauli van Wyk, who covered the VBS corruption, says in the report that if it wasn’t for the support of Branko Brkic, founder and editor-in-chief of Daily Maverick, she would not be a journalist today. DM Associate Editor Ferial Haffajee’s story of racist vilification is also in the report: “Go back to India; this is not your country,” she was told.

Misogyny intersects with other forms of discrimination: women journalists who are also disadvantaged by racism, homophobia (e.g. Ressa’s sexuality was questioned), religious bigotry (anti-Jewish comments) and other forms of bigotry (anti-Chinese comments).

Among white women journalists, 64% said that they had experienced online violence. The figure for black women journalists was 81%.

The report says: “Online violence against women journalists is designed to: belittle, humiliate, and shame; induce fear, silence, and retreat; discredit them professionally, undermining accountability journalism and trust in facts; and chill their active participation [along with that of their sources, colleagues and audiences] in public debate. This amounts to an attack on democratic deliberation and media freedom, encompassing the public’s right to access information, and it cannot afford to be normalised or tolerated as an inevitable aspect of online discourse, nor contemporary audience-engaged journalism.”

World Press Freedom Day was proclaimed by the United Nations General Assembly in 1993, following a recommendation adopted at the 26th session of Unesco’s general conference in 1991 (known as the Windhoek Declaration). Consistent with Article 19 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, it called for an independent, pluralistic, and free press as an essential part of the development and maintenance of democracy.

The theme of this year’s World Press Freedom Day underlines the importance of verified and reliable information, especially in the era of social media misinformation during the time of Covid-19. It illuminates the “essential role of free and professional journalists in producing and disseminating this information, by tackling misinformation and other harmful content”, says Audrey Azoulay, Director-General of Unesco.

The report found media employers are doing little about the problem and recommends that individual states could ensure laws are in place to protect women journalists.

  • Social media companies need to be made more accountable;
  • Political parties should desist from the attacks;
  • Civil society could raise awareness of the scourge;
  • Investment in research on trolling is needed; and
  • Ensure online safety is holistic (integrating psychological, digital security, editorial, and legal responses).

If media freedom is threatened, our democracy suffers. What good is “information for the public good” if women, who constitute the majority in the world, are not a central part of journalism? DM168

This story first appeared in our weekly Daily Maverick 168 newspaper which is available for free to Pick n Pay Smart Shoppers at these Pick n Pay stores.


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  • Helen Swingler says:

    The report has been a long time coming. It’s a damning commentary on social media (and its owners) as enablers of this misogynistic, sexist and racist behaviour. These companies have gotten away with too much for too long as platforms for this invective. Imagine if Pauli van Wyk and Ferial Haffajee’s work had been lost to us? We need the media to get behind the report’s recommendations and do some serious soul searching. As for ‘toughen up’ as an appropriate response in the face of a rape threat… really?

  • Kanu Sukha says:

    Amazing(not really) how many countries under the control of misfit males driven by testosterone & warmonger psyches (e.g. Trump-has been!, Boris, Modhi, Xi, Erdogan, Bolsonaro, Duterte, Putin etc.) are afflicted by the same malaise.Thank goodness for the small mercies of a few women led states.

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