Irish government urged to act on online abuse of journalists

  • 14 Jan 2022

The National Union of Journalists has joined Mediahuis Ireland and RTÉ in calling for action to end online attacks on journalists in Ireland.

The rise in abuse on social media is highlighted in a joint letter to Minister for Tourism, Culture, Arts, Gaeltacht, Sport and Media Catherine Martin, Justice Minister Helen McEntee and Garda Commissioner Drew Harris signed by Séamus Dooley, NUJ, Ed McCann Mediahuis and Jon Williams, RTÉ. Mediahuis Ireland, formerly Independent News & Media.  

The initiative follows a presentation last year by Michelle Stanistreet, general secretary to Mediahuis on the union’s work in the UK on the safety of journalists and on the work of the national committee on the safety of journalists.

In the week in which the Irish government published an online safety bill the three organisations draw particular attention to the online abuse of women journalists. The letter cites vile abuse suffered by NUJ member Rodney Edwards as a result of   his coverage of the activities of anti-vaccination campaigners in the Sunday Independent.

Outlining the initiative Seamus Dooley, the NUJ’s assistant general secretary, said:

“Social media platforms have become a toxic battleground. Tech giants must take action to end the relentless abuse which threaten to undermine many of the positive benefit of social media. There is widespread concern about the societal impact of online abuse and a growing momentum for action. Our purpose in writing to the government and gardai is to highlight the specific implications for media workers – and freedom of expression, of online abuse."

Text of the letter:

We are writing to you to highlight our concerns about the continuing increase in social media abuse of journalists and with a view to urgently meeting you to tackle this issue in a meaningful way.

No corner of society is immune from the rise in social media abuse. Its devastating impact can be seen in any cross-section of the public, on a daily basis. Action must be taken, and we acknowledge that any solution must carefully balance competing rights and freedoms in the wider public interest.

Journalists and publishers are fully committed to the principle that freedom of expression should be protected to allow for the free flow of information and ideas. This commitment includes an understanding that the principle works both ways – it should protect and promote the work of journalism, but it must also allow for the work and practices of journalists and publishers to be held up to scrutiny and criticism. 

However, there is an important distinction to be drawn between legitimate criticism and the type of unsubstantiated, gratuitous and at times malicious personal abuse, including threats of physical violence, that increasingly proliferates social media. This behaviour poses a threat to freedom of expression and is intended to silence reporting of facts or the publication of opinions.

The proliferation of personal abuse and threats against individual journalists threatens to deter them from reporting without fear or favour and threatens to turn the social media landscape into a wasteland for reliable and trustworthy news and information. Such a scenario would have implications beyond the impact on individual journalists.

It is worth noting that many female journalists have been the target of especially vile abuse.
While Irish society has so far been fortunate to avoid any sustained escalation from social media abuse into face-to-face encounters, recent events have shown that this should not be taken for granted.

There is the opportunity for Ireland to show leadership in this critical area and to take action in advance of any future European intervention.
A recent example

Reporting on the Covid-19 public health emergency and in particular the issues around vaccine misinformation and disinformation has been the source of sustained social media commentary and much of this commentary has increasingly turned to invective and personal attacks.

By way of example, the Sunday Independent journalist Rodney Edwards wrote a number of articles on vaccine scepticism and misinformation in the aftermath of the tragic death of Joe McCarron in Letterkenny General Hospital. He subsequently endured a torrent of social media abuse that included the following:
“We’re going to hide in dark alleys, when we see you walking all alone we will step behind you. You will hear us slowly getting closer and closer, footsteps getting louder and louder, your hear thumping in your chest and then…”

“Have you eyes on the back off (sic) your head because your gomma (sic) need them”
“Come and get the billions of us, you brown shirt mother f*cker. They hung people like you at Nuremburg.”

“Check out this scumbag. Instrument of the state – the odious little vermin doesn’t stop to consider that it is NPHET and the politicians that are spreading unscientific claptrap. There has to be a day of reckoning for all these enemies of the people!”

“He’s another scumbag. No rationalising any of their actions. Probably another paedo like half of RTE, Newstalk, and most other Irish male newspaper journos”
These are just examples of the social media references to Mr Edwards following his articles. While the vaccine issue is a contentious one and there are competing viewpoints, there is clearly no justification for such abuse.

In this instance, Mr Edwards was able to approach the PSNI to report the abuse and was swiftly contacted by the PSNI liaison officer. This is part of an initiative introduced by the PSNI to provide support to journalists in the face of social media abuse.

Nor are these threats confined to our staff. Contributors who appear in the media are also targeted. The vice president of the Irish Hospital Consultants Association Dr Gabrielle Colleran was interviewed on RTÉ’s Six One News on November 25th. A paediatrician by training, she was commenting on the range of measures, including the wearing of face coverings by children over 9, introduced by the Government earlier in the day. Soon after she returned home, she received a death threat which the Gardaí is now investigating.
European perspective

In March 2021 the United Kingdom launched a formal National Action Plan for the Safety of Journalists. The plan is the culmination of a process of engagement between government, the NUJ, publisher representatives and social media.

The aim of the plan is to ensure that journalists operating in the UK are as safe as possible, reducing the number of attacks on and threats issued to journalists and ensuring those that are responsible are brought to justice. The following steps will be taken in pursuit of that objective:

  • Increase understanding of the problem.
  • Enhance the criminal justice system response in tackling crimes against journalists.
  • Support journalists and their employers to build the resources they need to protect personal safety.
  • Help online platforms to tackle the wider issue of abuse online.
  • Improve public recognition of the value of journalists.

European Commission

In September 2021, the European Commission published a recommendation on ensuring the protection, safety and empowerment of journalists and other media professionals in the European Union.

The commission states that the recommendation aims to “strengthen media freedom and pluralism in the EU by promoting joint and coordinated efforts by the member states to improve the protection, safety and empowerment of journalists and other media professionals. This coordinated approach, involving all key stakeholders in member states and at EU level as well as relevant international organisations, is necessary to ensure journalists and other media professionals can exercise their profession in Europe safely and effectively.”

Among the recommendations of the commission to member states are:

  • Cooperation with public authorities and industry.
  • Cooperation between law enforcement authorities, journalists and associations representing journalists.
  • Cooperation with online platforms and civil society.

 Next steps
There are no magic bullets that will lead to a quick fix of issues relating to abuse of journalists, and other figures in public life. This should not be a reason to avoid trying to find ways of mitigating the problem. We would welcome the opportunity to meet with you to discuss this issue with a view to starting without delay a process of collaboration and engagement involving journalists, publishers, social media companies, government and An Garda Síochána. 

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