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The Plight of Female Journalists – When Two Sources of Threat Converge

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A journalist’s work description oftentimes includes covering controversial topics, uncovering scandals and taking a stand on societal issues. Oftentimes, this exposes them to safety issues which for female journalists take on a sexist form, silencing female voices in the industry.

The Reality of Journalism in a Democracy

As anchored in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, every human is entitled to the freedom of expression. Most of us probably take this freedom for granted more often than not since we are lucky enough to see this right seldomly threatened. However, there is one group of people in particular that is frequently reminded that although it became a human right more than 70 years ago, reality still occasionally shows a different picture. Journalists are heavily dependent on Article 19 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights which states that “Everyone has the right to freedom of opinion and expression [..]”. It gives in particular journalists, but in general every citizen, the ability to distribute and to seek information. But as the world is far from being in an ideal state, let’s look at the facts.

In the last 12 years, more than 1000 journalists were reported to have been killed. Although most of these incidents have occurred in countries with either no democracy at all or less developed democratic systems, there are still cases of murdered reporters in countries like France, Spain or the Netherlands. Even though these numbers are quite low, it goes to show that being a journalist is connected with certain risks. Whereas murder is the most extreme manifestation of these risks, other threats such as harassment, blackmail or intimidation are more common experiences among journalists. 

The Consequences of Having a Female Voice

For female journalists, an additional layer is added to these threats, one that goes beyond the content of their work. Harassment directed at women in the journalism industry takes a sexist form in a substantial number of cases. This is, sadly, no shocking information. 

Especially after the #MeToo movement, awareness for sexual harassment and abuse has increased. Numerous sexual assault survivors publicly shared their stories and, in many instances, journalists played a vital role in putting these stories on the public’s agenda whilst also being exposed to sexual harassment themselves.

It can be said that the work of a journalist is already susceptible to threats in the first place, due to the precarity of expressing opinion, sharing controversial information, or, for what it is worth, just any facts in the ongoing period of increasing societal polarization. In a “fake news” society, journalists who carry the responsibility of unmasking these mis- and disinformation are seen as a threat that needs to be silenced.

Coupled with the increasing cases of sexual harassment of women, gender-specific harassment affects women more than men in the field of journalism. In a study regarding threatening or inappropriate comments on articles of The Guardian, 8 out of the 10 journalists whose article received the most hate comments were female. These sexualized threats consequently may silence women in journalism which is not only fatal from the viewpoint of protecting human rights. It also leads to an even more unbalanced gender representation in the journalism industry as the high risk might scare women from pursuing a career in journalism in the first place. The more “discrimination-prone” facets of identity are added to the equation, the worse the outcome. Take an African-American ethnicity or a homosexual orientation on top of being female and a journalist – imaginably, the threats get more frequent, more insulting, more violent.

The Burden of Being Online 

A catalyst for the frequency of (sexualized) threats is the online environment journalists nowadays routinely engage in. A study based on interviews with female journalists showed that many feel obliged to be active on social media for the purpose of their work. By doing so, the vast majority has had to face online harassment that was gender specific. Their online presence makes them more reachable for threats, either in comments or direct messages on social media platforms. All it takes for the public to directly target a journalist behind a certain news story is a quick search for her account on Instagram, Twitter, or Facebook. Additionally, the Internet has the appeal of anonymity behind which people can hide, making them particularly scrupulous and more inclined to voice threats than in an offline scenario.

The study furthermore discovered that inappropriate comments occurred most often for stories that are stereotypically seen to be more masculine, for instance car or gaming related topics. Socially controversial topics, like immigration or politics in general, are equally risky for female journalists to cover. This goes to show that a sexist thinking of women’s opinion being less valuable and a general assumption that women just cannot have a valid opinion on certain topics is underlying these threats. The journalist’s gender suddenly becomes a vital focus whenever people see their opinion on a subject challenged or do not like the facts presented by the journalist.

These online attacks are for approximately one-third of female journalists a reason to quit journalism. A safer environment for female journalists needs to be ensured in order to prevent silencing women in the news media industry.

#JournalistsToo 

The safety of journalists in general and that of female journalists in particular is a point of focus of UNESCO. The involvement of the United Nation in solving this issue underlines its wide-ranging scope.

Improving the situation for female journalists is in the interest of everyone valuing a democratic, pluralist and critical journalism. 

Supported by UNESCO, the publication “#JournalistToo – Women Journalists Speak out” sheds a light on the state of affairs. Featuring eleven gripping testimonies of threats and sexual attacks experienced by women journalists, awareness is spread for what many of them endure on a regular basis. The stories from different parts of the world are brutally honest, eye-opening and emotionally touching.  A columnist in the United States shares her story of receiving hate mail, online and offline and getting no police assistance despite her concerns for her and her family’s safety. A Colombian journalist revealed the tragedy of being raped for uncovering gun trades and kidnappings organized by paramilitary leaders. The other nine stories are no less shocking and all of them deserve attention.

A Future With Safety for Journalists

Initiatives like this are most certainly important efforts but to help female journalists out of their plight, there needs to be more. The report stresses the responsibility of government, (social) media companies and politicians in improving the situation. Monitoring techniques for online platforms to prevent threats and hate speech, a zero-tolerance policy for sexism at the media companies and rightful legal consequences for attacks are among the suggested and required actions. 

To tackle this worldwide problem, the United Nations included the safety of journalists in their Agenda for Sustainable Development with the number of acts of violence against journalists as an indicator. Moreover, UNESCO monitors the investigations of crimes against journalists and puts effort into good education of justice system professionals on matters such as the freedom of expression and journalists’ safety.

The safety issue faced by female journalists is ultimately one of several manifestations of a broader issue of sexism in society which requires ongoing efforts to (ideally) be eventually resolved. The UN’s efforts are important milestones in the combat of gendered discrimination in journalism. Female journalists should not fear their safety for doing their job, for informing the society, for voicing their opinion. Despite this plague of harassment, many journalists continue to devote their “ lives to journalism and to exposing corruption and crime ” demonstrating their persistence and courage in the face of hatred and danger.

Cover: Pexels

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