Perspectives November 2, 2023
We Must Do More to Address the Online Harassment of Women Journalists
Though women journalists worldwide report experiencing gender-based harassment online, their abusers largely go unpunished, resulting in a culture of impunity that may serve as a chilling effect on freedom of expression.
Every day, journalists around the world encounter online harassment and abuse, often intended to suppress critical voices by attacking their credibility. However, while all journalists are at risk of such attacks, it is women journalists who have found themselves on the front line of the battle against online harassment and intimidation.
Misogyny and the suppression of free expression frequently intersect online, where women journalists face attacks that are often graphic, intimate, and highly sexualized in nature. Among other things, such attacks include threats of death and sexual assault, doxing, security hacks, misinformation campaigns, and digitally enabled harassment.
Advancements in artificial intelligence (AI) have also enabled the creation and spread of deepfakes—digitally manipulated photo, video, and audio content—which disproportionately impact women. Through these and other insidious tactics, perpetrators attempt to silence and discredit the voices that play an invaluable role in safeguarding democracy.
These digital attacks not only hinder progress on gender equality and press freedoms—they also go largely unpunished, resulting in a pervasive climate of impunity. November 2, the United Nations’ (UN) International Day to End Impunity for Crimes against Journalists, offers an opportunity to raise awareness about the catastrophic consequences of the abuse and oppression faced by many members of the press.
Gender-based online harassment and its effects
According to a 2022 report by the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) and the International Center for Journalists (ICFJ), 73 percent of women journalists surveyed reported experiencing online attacks connected to their work. Threats of violence also sometimes extend to journalists’ family members and colleagues.
Women journalists who belong to one or more minority groups—including Black, Arab, Indigenous, Jewish, and LGBT+ women journalists, among others—are disproportionately targeted by online abuse. Indian journalist Rana Ayyub, a prominent critic of Indian prime minister Narendra Modi and his Hindu nationalist government, is routinely attacked online in response to her work. Ayyub, who is Muslim, is often the target of extreme misogynistic and Islamophobic harassment; she has been referred to by epithets such as “ISIS sex slave” and “presstitute,” and some of her online abusers have called for her to be gang-raped in retaliation for her work. She has also been the target of at least one pornographic deepfake video, intended to discredit her journalistic work. According to a 2023 report by the ICFJ, many of Ayyub’s online attackers appear to be aligned with the Modi government.
The constant and orchestrated flow of abuse experienced by some women journalists can lead to devastating repercussions for their health and careers. Over a quarter of UNESCO/ICFJ survey respondents reported that experiencing online abuse had negatively affected their mental health. Online attacks on women journalists—often intended to silence them—can also harm their careers. Online harassment often creates a chilling effect, causing women journalists to self-censor in online spaces. In extreme cases, some women journalists are forced to leave their profession and flee their homes.
When online abuse spills offline
Attacks that begin online do not always stay in the virtual world, presenting a serious risk to the safety and well-being of those targeted. Freedom House estimates that more than two-thirds of the world’s internet users live in countries where people were attacked or killed in retaliation for their online activities over the past year. Among those who have been subjected to physical attacks are journalists; according to the 2022 UNESCO/ICFJ report, 25 percent of the women journalists surveyed reported experiencing attacks in the real world as a result of harassment that had started online.
For Maltese investigative journalist Daphne Caruana Galizia, a harassment campaign that began on social media eventually ended in her assassination in 2017. A public inquiry, released in 2021, determined that Malta’s government had created a “favorable climate” in which attacks against Daphne would go unpunished.
Impunity for perpetrators of online harassment against women journalists is common, which can embolden perpetrators and increase the risks faced by those they target. The result of such impunity is evident not just in Caruana Galizia’s case, but also in the ongoing harassment faced by Lebanese journalist Ghada Oueiss. Since 2011, Oueiss has faced extreme misogynistic harassment online, as well as repeated threats of physical violence. According to a 2023 report by the ICFJ, some of those who issued threats against Oueiss did not even attempt to “conceal their identities, demonstrating the impunity with which they operate.”
Online abuse of women journalists is largely enabled by a persistent culture of impunity. Those that have the power to intervene in, curb, and punish such abuse—including newsrooms, social media platforms, and governments—often fail to effectively do so. Failing to protect journalists at risk of reprisals for their work threatens key democratic values, especially freedom of expression and media freedom.
In some cases, attacks against women journalists are perpetrated, both directly and indirectly, by government and government-affiliated actors. This is especially true in countries that lack robust democratic protections. In the Philippines, for example, which is rated Partly Free in both Freedom in the World 2023 and Freedom on the Net 2023, government officials routinely attack the press, and journalists face politically motivated attacks—including online smear campaigns, legal harassment, and arrest—in retaliation for their work.
Because digital harassment occurs on platforms like Facebook and X, these social media companies have a responsibility to act in accordance with international human rights standards. However, despite user-protection mechanisms put into place by the companies that run these platforms, many of those who have experienced online abuse report feeling unsupported; nearly 80 percent of respondents to a 2021 Pew Research Center survey on online harassment said that social media companies are doing a “fair or poor job” at addressing abuse on their platforms. Many women journalists have also reported that how quickly and effectively platforms react to abuse appears to be dependent on how much notice the attack gets and the journalist’s follower count, among other things.
Support for women journalists facing online abuse is also lacking in many of the newsrooms and media outlets where they work. Many women journalists are reluctant to disclose incidents of online harassment to their employers; according to the ICFJ some women journalists who have reported such incidents to their employers say they were told to “toughen up.” But, as one anonymous Kenyan journalist reported to UNESCO researchers, “having a thick skin does not protect you from a personal attack that leads to your data being shared and someone promising that they will rape you.”
Addressing the problem and creating accountability
Addressing this culture of impunity and increasing protections for journalists who experience online abuse is critical. Legal protections adopted and enforced by governments are key to addressing and curtailing online abuse. In Freedom on the Net 2022, Freedom House called on democracies to “expand protections for journalists who face physical attacks, legal reprisals, and harassment for their work online.”
In turn, social media companies should ensure that human rights are fully integrated into their policies and practices, including with regard to content moderation, gender equality, and press freedom, and provide recourse for human review when journalists report harassment. Companies should also work closely with women journalists who report abuse, such as doxing and technical attacks, to help strengthen their digital security.
International organizations have also recommended that media companies develop and enforce clear policies for addressing digital attacks on employees, including establishing accessible procedures for reporting online abuse. In 2020, the International Women’s Media Foundation (IWMF) began offering training for newsrooms on how to better support their employees facing online harassment.
Establishing legal repercussions for online abuse against women journalists is the first step in ensuring that women journalists feel safe enough to freely report and express their views, a key element of a strong democracy. Governments, social media platforms, and news organizations must all develop more effective tools, techniques, and policies to ensure that media workers are not targeted, and to implement meaningful consequences for their abusers if they are. Until then, journalists will continue to risk their careers, health, and lives in pursuit of their profession—and, ultimately, people who rely on the free flow of information will have less access to the credible information they need to make decisions.