NUJ calls for coordinated effort to tackle online violence against women journalists
In response to new research, carried out by the International Center for Journalists and commissioned by UNESCO, the NUJ has called for greater coordination in tackling and preventing systemic online violence against women journalists. The report echoes many of the union's safety survey findings and includes input from NUJ members.
The report focuses on the global prevalence of online violence ranging from "large-scale attacks or extreme threats at a moment in time, through to the slow burn of networked gaslighting, which involves constant lower-level abuse".
It found that racism, religious bigotry, sectarianism, ableism, homophobia and transphobia intersect with misogyny and sexism to produce significantly heightened exposure and deeper impacts for women experiencing multiple forms of discrimination concurrently. Furthermore, the research found that Black, Indigenous, Jewish, Arab and lesbian women journalists experienced both the highest rates and most severe impacts of online violence.
Gender was identified as the key reporting theme that is most frequently associated with online harassment. The report states: "Lightning rod issues in the category of gender identified by survey and interview participants include: feminism, domestic violence, sexual assaults, femicide, reproductive rights (especially abortion), and transgender issues.
"The second most likely theme to be met by online harassment and abuse was 'politics and elections', underscoring the role of political attacks on the press in exacerbating journalism safety threats."
Political actors were identified as the second most frequently noted sources (37 per cent) of online attacks and abuse after ‘anonymous or unknown attackers’ (57% per cent).
When asked "How does the level of online violence you experience affect your journalism practice and your interaction with sources/audiences?" - 30 per cent of the women journalists answered that they self-censored on social media and 20 per cent described how they withdrew from all online interaction.
A significant proportion of respondents (41 per cent) said they had been targeted in online attacks that appeared to be linked to orchestrated disinformation campaigns, often designed to smear personal and professional reputations, ridicule and humiliate the journalist, and undermine trust in their reporting.
When some women journalists have come under attack online, they have been actively discouraged from speaking out or engaging with the perpetrators, women journalists are also sometimes told to prevent online attacks by avoiding "controversial" subjects on social media. Some employers have resorted to victim-blaming and policing free speech via increasingly restrictive and punitive social media policies, and some journalists have been suspended or sacked.
The survey concluded:
"There is a climate of impunity surrounding online attacks on women journalists which must be more urgently and effectively addressed because impunity emboldens the perpetrators, demoralises the victim, erodes the foundations of journalism, and undermines freedom of expression. For too long, the emphasis has been on making women journalists responsible for their own defence and protection, rather than making the perpetrators and instigators, the platform enablers, and law enforcement and media employers accountable."
The report also emphasises the need for substantial legal and judicial reform as well as more effective action by employers, political leaders and social media companies: "Social media companies are the main enablers of online violence against women journalists."
Michelle Stanistreet, NUJ general secretary, said:
"We welcome this report's insight, analysis and recommendations, and the fact that many NUJ members experiences are acknowledged and reflected throughout.
"There is a clear and pressing need for harsher penalties to deter and punish the perpetrators and we also need more engagement and coordination between law makers, social media platforms, employers, unions and independent safety experts. The NUJ endorses many of the recommendations in this report and we want to see effective solutions implemented via cross-sectoral efforts."