European Union External Action

Silencing the Media – Cyber-attacks on women journalists are an attack on press freedom and democracy itself

09/03/2019 - 20:00
News stories

On Saturday, 9 March, the EU Delegation cosponsored the screening of A Dark Place, a documentary shedding light on online hate speech targeted at women journalist, and the threat it poses to press freedom and open democracy.

Using social networks to pressure journalists has become increasingly common. Journalists and reporters face frequent online attacks, both from isolated social media users and from highly organized networks. Women are particularly targeted by these attacks that are rooted both in gender based violence and in growing hostility towards the media.  Through sexist and racist insults or calls for rape and murder, perpetrators aim to humiliate, terrorize and silence those who do their jobs.

In order to draw attention to threats faced by women journalists, the EU Delegation cosponsored the screening of Javier Luque Martinez's documentary A Dark Place on Saturday, 9 March.  The documentary addresses the issues of gender, freedom of information and expression though the personal experiences of women journalists who have become targets of online abuse in reaction to their work.

EU Ambassador Walter Stevens, speaking at the screening, said: "1 in 2 women journalists around the world suffers or has suffered sexual harassment, psychological abuse, online trolling or other forms of human rights abuse." He emphasized that women journalists are targeted not only because of their profession that requires them to report on abuses of power, but also because of their gender.

The EU Ambassador affirmed the EU's strong commitment to advancing and upholding press freedom and freedom of expression as well as tackling hate speech.  In 2014, the EU adopted a set of special Guidelines on Freedom of Expression Online and Offline, and in 2018, the EU signed a Code of Conduct with several IT companies, including Facebook and Twitter, in order to tackle illegal online hate speech.

Screened on Saturday in a packed movie theatre, A Dark Place recounts the strikingly similar stories of women journalists from around the world from Turkey to Finland, from Azerbaijan to the United Kingdom.  Women journalists shared stories of receiving menacing phone calls, reading derogatory comments and being subject to rape and death threats merely by virtue of doing their job.

On a positive note, the movie highlighted cases where perpetrators of hate speech had been successfully prosecuted and sentenced for the crimes they committed. It is important to note that while freedom of expression is a fundamental human right, it also comes with its limits: hate speech, including slander, the advocacy racial hatred and incitement to violence, is a crime and does not fall under the scope of freedom of expression.

Convictions of online hate speech serve as important precedents for the future in the constantly developing field of cyber legislation.

The screening was followed by a discussion with Nadia Daam, journalist at ARTE, Arzu Geybulla, freelance journalist, and Kiran Nazish, founder and director of The Coalition for Women in Journalism. The discussion was moderated by Célia Héron, the editor of the Society section at Le Temps.

All of the panellists, as well as the journalists interviewed in the documentary, stressed that they do not wish to be portrayed as victims or heroes. Many journalists emphasized that despite the harassment they would not submit to being silenced.

During the panel discussion, Kiran Nazish drew attention to the specific challenges faced by women journalists in countries where religion and family ties play a strong role in social life. Online hate speech and slander, such as spreading malicious rumours and circulating doctored images, can have devastating effects on targets' lives leading them to being isolated from or condemned by social and family circles.

Moreover, online hate can also spill over to the family members of victims – this is particularly the case for women victims, who see threats against their children and families used as means of extortion.

Touching upon the division between what is real life and what is virtual life, the panellists unanimously noted that in today's world such a division has become obsolete. Journalists today depend on social networks both to share their work and to interact with the public – social media is part of their working lives, and as such part of their real lives. 

Moreover, online hate speech has very real, physical consequences. Victims of hate speech and coordinated cyberbullying experience symptoms not unlike those associated with post-traumatic stress disorder.

Even more worryingly, online attacks can escalate into physical violence. This happened to Nadia Daam whose home was broken into and vandalized following a storm of coordinated online attacks against her. As a part of coordinated cyber-attacks, victims often become subjects to doxing: their private information such as phone number or home address are published and circulated in online hate groups. In such cases, the danger posed by online hate becomes imminent.

Virtual assaults are designed to isolate and intimidate victims into silence. As such, online hate speech and cyberbullying targeted at women journalists is a topic that touches upon gender based abuse and press freedom and democratic values. Any attack on press freedom is an attack on democracy itself.

The EU is firmly committed to media freedom and pluralism as essential components of open and free debate in a modern democracy. The European Commission co-funds several projects run by the European Centre for Press and Media Freedom and its partners geared at addressing violations of media freedom and pluralism in the EU Member States as well as Candidate Countries.

Related links

Code of Conduct: Countering Illegal Hate Speech Online

EU Human Rights Guidelines on Freedom of Expression Online and Offline

Media Freedom and Pluralism in the EU

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