A journalist’s job description often includes covering controversial topics, uncovering scandals, and speaking out on societal issues. Often this exposes them to security issues which, for female journalists, take on a gendered 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 being has the right to freedom of speech. Most of us probably take this freedom for granted more often than not, as we are fortunate enough to see this right rarely threatened. However, there is one group of people in particular who are frequently reminded that even though it became a human right over 70 years ago, reality still sometimes shows a different picture. Journalists rely heavily 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 to journalists, but in general to any citizen, the possibility of disseminating and seeking information. But since the world is far from being in an ideal state, let’s look at the facts.
Over the past 12 years, more than 1000 journalists would have been killed. Although most of these incidents have occurred in countries with no democracy at all or with less developed democratic systems, there are still cases of murdered reporters in countries like France, Spain or the Netherlands. Even if these figures are quite low, it shows that being a journalist involves certain risks. While 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 women journalists, an additional layer is added to these threats, which goes beyond the content of their work. Harassment directed against women in the journalism industry takes a gendered form in a significant number of cases. Unfortunately, this is not shocking information.
Especially after the #MeToo movement, awareness of sexual harassment and abuse has increased. Many survivors of sexual assault have shared their stories publicly, and in many cases journalists have played a vital role in bringing these stories to the public agenda while being exposed to sexual harassment themselves.
We can say that the work of a journalist is already susceptible to threats at the first place, due to the precariousness of expressing an opinion, sharing controversial information or, for what it’s worth, any fact in the current period of increasing societal polarization. In a “fake news” society, journalists who bear the responsibility of exposing such misinformation and disinformation are seen as a threat that must be silenced.
Coupled with the increase in cases of sexual harassment of women, gender-based harassment affects women more than men in the field of journalism. In a study of threatening or inappropriate comments on The Guardian articles, 8 out of 10 the journalists whose story drew the most hateful comments were women. These sexualized threats can therefore silence women in journalism, which is not only fatal from a human rights perspective. It also leads to even more skewed gender representation in the journalism industry, as the high risk could deter 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 result. Take an African-American ethnicity or a homosexual orientation in addition to being a woman and a journalist – one can imagine that the threats become more frequent, more insulting, more violent.
the Burden of Being Oin line
A catalyst for the frequency of (sexualised) threats is the online environment in which journalists regularly engage these days. study based on interviews with female journalists showed that many feel compelled to be active on social media as part of their job. In doing so, the vast majority have faced gendered online harassment. Their online presence makes them more accessible to threats, whether in comments or direct messages on social media platforms. For the public to directly target a journalist behind a certain news, all it takes is a quick search for her account on Instagram, Twitter or Facebook. Additionally, the internet has the lure of anonymity behind which people can hide, making them particularly scrupulous and more prone to voice threats than in an offline scenario.
The study further found that inappropriate comments most often occur for stories that are stereotyped as being more masculine, for example topics related to cars or games. Socially controversial topics, such as immigration or politics in general, are equally risky for female journalists to cover. This shows that sexist thinking that women’s opinions are less valuable and a general assumption that women simply cannot have a valid opinion on certain topics underlies these threats. The reporter’s gender suddenly becomes a key concern whenever people see their opinion on a topic disputed or dislike the facts presented by the reporter.
These online attacks are a reason for about a third of female journalists to quit journalism. A safer environment for female journalists must be ensured to avoid silencing women in the news media industry.
The safety of journalists in general and that of women journalists in particular is at the heart of UNESCO’s concerns. The involvement of the United Nations in the resolution of this problem underlines its wide scope.
Improving the situation of women journalists is in the interest of all those who value democratic, pluralistic and critical journalism.
Supported by UNESCO, the publication “#JournalistToo – Women journalists speak out” illuminates the state of things. With eleven poignant testimonies of threats and sexual assaults suffered by women journalists, an awareness is made for what many of them regularly endure. The stories from different parts of the world are brutally honest, revealing and emotionally touching. A columnist in the United States says she received hate mail, online and offline, and received no police help despite her concerns for her safety and that of her family. A Colombian journalist has revealed the tragedy of being raped for uncovering arms swaps and kidnappings organized by paramilitary leaders. The other nine stories are no less shocking and all deserve attention.
A secure future for journalists
Initiatives like this are certainly important efforts, but to help women journalists out of their predicament, more is needed. The report highlights the responsibility of government, (social) media companies and politicians in improving the situation. Techniques for monitoring online platforms to prevent threats and hate speech, a zero-tolerance policy for sexism in media companies, and legitimate legal consequences of attacks are among the suggested and required actions.
To tackle this global problem, the United Nations has included the safety of journalists in its Sustainable Development Agenda with the number of acts of violence against journalists as an indicator. In addition, UNESCO monitors investigations into crimes against journalists and strives to properly train justice system professionals on issues such as freedom of expression and the safety of journalists.
The safety issue facing female journalists is ultimately one of many manifestations of a larger problem of sexism in society that requires ongoing efforts to (ideally) eventually be addressed. The efforts of the UN are important milestones in the fight against gender discrimination in journalism. Women journalists should not fear for their safety to do their job, to inform society, to express their opinion. Despite this scourge of harassment, many journalists continue to devote their ‘lives off journalism and exposing corruption and crime’ demonstrating their perseverance and courage in the face of hatred and danger.