Editors' Choice World

Mon 07 November 2022: 

The level of violence being directed towards women journalists has reached a “crisis point”, according to researchers behind a new global report.

Academics who conducted the three-year-long international study, covering 15 countries, urged policymakers to take action after it found the vast majority of journalists who took part had suffered from online abuse and threats.

Online violence against women journalists is “one of the most serious contemporary threats to press freedom internationally,” according to the authors of the study, who found a “vicious and self-perpetuating cycle” in which digital harassment and threats spawn real-world, offline attacks and abuse.

The authors of The Chilling are calling for governments, as well as the news industry and the giant tech corporations, to do more to tackle what they say is “a crisis of online violence towards women journalists”.

Kalina Bontcheva, senior researcher in the UK arm of the study, said: “Our report has found that we are now at a crisis point in the level of violence being directed towards women journalists.

“The vast majority who took part in the study had suffered from online violence, so UK policymakers need to take urgent action now in order to protect the lives of those who are doing such an important job in society.”

The report, which is based on research by International Centre for Journalists (ICFJ) and University of Sheffield, said: “Online violence against women journalists is one of the most serious contemporary threats to press freedom internationally.”

The authors said the study drew on the experiences of nearly 1,100 journalists in 15 countries.

It also examined 2.5 million social media posts directed at Nobel Laureate Maria Ressa, from the Philippines, and award-winning British journalist Carole Cadwalladr.

The team’s analysis found that Cadwalladr, who writes for The Observer and The Guardian, was the target of 10,400 separate instances of obvious abuse between December 2019 and January 2021.

It found that the abuse was highly gendered and designed to “humiliate, belittle and discredit” the journalist on both a personal and professional level.

Cadwalladr, who is best known for exposing the Cambridge Analytica / Facebook story, told researchers how “a few hundred years ago I would have been burned at the stake” and how she has become a “national punching bag”.

University of Sheffield analysis of approximately 75,000 tweets directed at BBC disinformation reporter Marianna Spring, between March to August 2021, found that more than half – 55% – of the abuse was designed to discredit her as a journalist, and 27% was sexist and misogynistic.

The remainder was classified as generally abusive..

The UK arm of the research found that online violence against women journalists is frequently associated with polarising political debates – such as that surrounding Brexit – and that the Covid pandemic has worsened the situation for women journalists.

Globally, the research found that nearly three-quarters of the women journalists surveyed had experienced online violence in the course of their work.

Threats of physical violence, including death threats, were identified by 25% and sexual violence by 18%. And 13% described threats of violence against those close to them, including children and infants.

Almost half – 48% – of the women journalists surveyed reported being harassed with unwanted private social media messages.

Maynard said: “One of the most revealing aspects of this study was when we showed the results of the data analysis to Maria and Carole, and they were shocked at what we found.

“Even though they were the ones receiving the abuse, they hadn’t been able to fully appreciate the sheer volume and severity of the toxicity, because no one can process hundreds of thousands of messages in their head. And they finally felt vindicated.”

Posetti said “political actors” who instigate and amplify online violence need to be penalised and platforms held accountable.

She said: “This is even more urgent in the context of Twitter’s recent takeover by a billionaire who has not signalled that he understands that protecting users from hate speech enables freedom of expression.”






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