Verbal, Written Abuse As A Troubling Routine For Women Journalists

Ana Ribeiro, Jonas Rusche and Jane Whyatt writing for the European Centre for Press and Media Freedom flag up online abuse against women journalists.

Female journalists suffer a disproportionate amount of online abuse, hate speech and other harassment compared to their male colleagues. But this has only recently begun to be quantified.

Last year, The Guardian British daily published what it dubbed the first survey quantifying cyberhate against female journalists in online comments sections. Based on 70 million comments from Guardian readers, it showed that eight out of the 10 writers most abused were women – no matter the topic of their article.

The 2014 poll “A Global Picture” indicated hate speech against female journalists may be widespread. Carried out by the International News Safety Institute and the International Women’s Media Foundation, it collected data from 977 female journalists around the world.

Nearly two-thirds of the women responded that they experienced intimidation, threats or abuse in relation to their work. Most commonly, female journalists suffered verbal, written or physical intimidation (204 respondents) and the abuse of power or authority (217).

This sort of treatment can have dire psychological effects on media workers, as female journalists have revealed to the ECPMF via interviews and guest articles. The situation seems to be aggravated in Europe when women reporters come from migrant backgrounds and/or speak out for minorities.
Discrimination on the field

Besides abuse from the public, European female journalists have told the ECPMF that they have suffered sexist (and sexual) harassment from interviewees abusing their position of power. Media freedom organisations view this sort of action as a strategy to intimidate the journalists into silence.

#BeBoldForChange: Women journalists speak out

Interview with Alexandra Pascalidou

Interview with Imane Rachidi

Imane Rachidi is a freelance journalist and researcher specialising in Europe and the Middle East. She lives and works in Spain and the Netherlands, and says she has had to deal with gender-based prejudice as well as “positive discrimination”, especially when working with sources in Arab countries:

“For example, they refused to give me an interview because I am a woman. (…) On other occasions, I could get interviews, testimonies or the information I needed just because I am a woman.”

Also, she has been a victim of hate speech due to her work as well as background, which has elicited abuse from people on different ends of the spectrum:

I... received death threats because I wrote a few articles about homosexuality and Islam, women’s rights and freedom, and equality of religions. Radicals, from both sides, have threatened me. (...) I also received threats from homophobic people.”

She added: “As I am originally from Morocco, many automatically think that I am Muslim: for Muslim radicals, and Muslim haters alike. (...) Because of my Arab name, I was even insulted by European extremists, for whom I am just an oppressed woman.”

On the frontlines against abuse

Alexandra Pascalidou is a Swedish TV reporter with Greek heritage. ECPMF talked to her about her personal experiences with hate speech as an outspoken journalist from a migrant background:

“Since I started my public career in TV, radio, press back in 1995, I’ve been receiving threats, hatred, racist and sexist attacks. It has been everything from handwritten anonymous letters… to terrible lies on racist websites, e-mails and messages on social media.”

Pascalidou says her bosses and police had advised her to ignore the abuse, a strategy she adopted for a while. But then she decided to start talking openly about the hate speech she had to endure on a daily basis – which brought her an outpouring of support, but also further attacks.

The victim was punished: She even lost her job as her employers feared for her colleagues’ safety. Pascalidou fought her way back by writing a successful book and getting the opportunity to work as a freelancer:

"My only alternative was to go on fighting and keep working. Happily that is also an answer to all of them. We can’t give in. We have to resist and keep on fighting. Or they win.”

Tackling sexist hate speech at the international level

Intergovernmental organisations in Europe in recent years have been giving some prominence to the topic of gender-based hate speech. Members consider it an underreported issue that needs to be actively discussed in the public sphere.

Women’s Reporting Point

ECPMF has launched an alarm centre for female media workers, where they can inform the Centre about attacks against them and seek help or advice. Threats can be reported via encrypted messaging. The emails will only be opened by female staff at ECPMF headquarters, who will take care of the cases reported. They will remain confidential.

Report here

The Council of Europe’s Gender Equality Strategy (2014-17) includes the hate speech dimension of sexism against both women and men. Within the framework of this strategy as well as its No Hate Speech campaign, the Council held a seminar in February 2016 entitled “Combating Sexist Hate Speech”.

The seminar’s 60 or so participants included journalists, policymakers, activists and youth leaders from over 30 countries. Its report noted that “women visible in the media, such as journalists and politicians or other public figures, are often targeted.” It also remarked that “sexist hate speech” they encounter does not only come from the public, “but also from colleagues and counterparts in their work environment.”

The background note for “Combating Sexist Hate Speech” specifically mentions Pascalidou’s home country of Sweden within the framework of harassment against journalists: “In Sweden, after the release of a documentary on Internet hate against female journalists, police started to investigate complaints more seriously but penalties remain very low.” In the meantime, hate speech has become a growing priority for politicians and opinion-makers in the Nordic countries.

The transnational Nordic Council, in which Sweden and its neighbours are members, has made gender equality an intensive area of collaboration. Cyberhate has been a major concern, and they have tasked panels of experts with addressing the problem.

The issue is known to be grave but not discussed enough also across these Scandinavian societies, which would perhaps not be immediately associated in the public mind with systematic sexism.

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