Online harassment & attacks is a global issue

—by Lubna Jerar Naqvi

Online harassment against women journalists is a serious global issue. At times online harassment can be translated in different ways in real life and become extremely dangerous causing physically harm.

Journalists are easier to target as most of their work is out in the open and most of it ruffles feathers. And the reaction comes in different forms of harassment.

Harassment of any kind takes a toll on the mind and body. Online harassment is usually a coordinated campaign against the target. There are many ways of online harassment especially distressing for women journalists,as unlike their male colleagues, as they have to endure personal attacks and sometimestheir personal information leaked online.

Women journalists like most working women have to face a lot of pressure and harassment in the workplace, online harassment only adds to this.

Last year, we saw two statements issued by Pakistani women journalists against cyberattacks,signed by more than 160 women journalists, media organizations and unions. This created a lot of discussion on social media forcing the government to take notice and make some promises.

However, action to support these promises is yet to come but this has not stopped the women journalists who are working on this issue with the support from most of the media fraternity.

Online attacks against women journalists is a serious global. According to UNESCO’s Global Survey on Online Violence against Women Journalists, 2020- completed by over 900 participants from 125 countries:“73% of women journalists who responded had experienced online violence in the course of their work; 25% had received threats of physical violence; 18% had been threatened with sexual violence; 20% reported being attacked offline in connection with online violence they had experienced.”

Another reportby OSCE, Representative on Freedom of the Media, OSCEtitled “New Challenges to Freedom of Expression: Countering Online Abuse of Female Journalists” states that in 2013 the IWMF conducted an online survey on attacks against women journalists.

The report highlighted the dangers faced by many women in the media across the world and that almost two-thirds of 149 women journalists who participated in this survey have “experienced intimidation, threats and abuse in relation to their work. More than 25 percent of ‘verbal, written and/or physical intimidation including threats to family or friends” took place online.”

The report further stated that “Digital harassment and threats directed at women differ than those experienced by men: they are misogynistic. Nearly half (45%) of the journalists who experienced tapping, hacking and digital security threats said they “don’t know” who the perpetrator was, while more than a quarter (27%) said it was a government official, 15% named police as the perpetrator and 12% selected “other,” …..On the 469 reported incidents, 36% were received via either personal or work email accounts. Other channels where hacking was reported included personal mobiles (14%), social media accounts (12%), and work mobiles (11.9%/56).”

Indian Occupied Kashmir (IOK) is a sensitive place to work as a journalist – constant pressure and surveillance online and offline, censorship and internet blackouts are some of the issues that the media faces.
Women journalists in IOK face many issues online like their counterparts in other parts of the country.

Kashaf (name changed) is a journalist in Indian Occupied Kashmir and she has suffered from harassment online. Despite this she continues to work.

“It was in the year 2014 when I published a research paper on the unmarked graves of Kashmir on a well established Indian website. It was about the Indian national daily’s bias approach on the coverage of the mass graves in Kashmir.” Kashaf said via an email. “As soon as the article was published it was flooded with negative comments, of people accusing me of taking sides. I was called anti-national for not writing about Pandit exodus and that the report was a paid piece. I ignored the comments but felt bad.”

The other time Kashaf was attacked online, one of the people she had interviewed was also harassed which was quite a harrowing experience.

“It was when I was on an assignment for a local daily to cover young and budding entrepreneurs especially females. I did a story on a beautician – who was foreign trained in the art of skin care, styling and all.” Kashaf said. “The story generated huge debate on the internet and people asked me to apologise to have disturbed their ideal Muslim society. According to them these stories were creating a false idol for girls in the Valley.”

The attacks were also vicious against the beautician which caused her to reach out to Kashaf to take down the story. This reveals how a simple story can also create issues and lead to online and offline harassment for women, especially journalists.

Speaking about the attack on the beautician Kashaf said, “Even the beautician was so harassed that she asked me to take down the story; those few hours were so difficult, until I asked my editor to block the comments section. My mail was full of hate comments and that all from people living in Kashmir.”

Vicheika Kann is a journalist based in Cambodia. She joined journalism seven years ago. Kann has experienced sexual harassment in the workplace and online harassment. Over the years some of her assignments have brought her in direct confrontation with officials and governments.

 “Working as a journalist in an independent institution is tremendously harder than in government aligned news agencies. In fact, gathering information is a huge challenge, especially from the government officials on human rights issues. Any questions deemed sensitive are mostly turned down or unanswered.” Said Vicheika Kaanvia WhatsApp.

Kann has encountered many instances in which she has felt pressure both online and offline.
“The government or their alliances buy media outlets, close them, try to isolate the independent journalists from local journalists – threat, harass, use groups of people to attack independent journalists etc.” Kann added. “Some local reporters who are also the police just stalk me and report to their boss. Some normal journalists have warned me, face to face and through online, not to “push the button too hard” because I could get in trouble. (I don’t know if they told me that in good will or threat).”

“In April 2020, Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen asked me swear on death whether I was told to ask the question that I asked him about “State of emergency” law.” Kaan said. “After the video of me challenging and swearing as asked by the Prime Minister was released, I got lots of attacks and insults from government or ruling’s supporters. Those are the words that make me feel uncomfortable. Some threated to use violence on me.”

As if these were not enough, Kann faced pro-government trolls who attacked her online and try to defame her.

She added, “Besides the Prime Minister, many government officials always accuse me of “selling my head to foreigners”, some accused me of working for foreigners to destroy peace in Cambodia. Some shared my articles on their newsfeed and criticized me as working to destroy peace. Some of their supports came to comment on that post and insulted me.”

Journalists working mainly for online outlets have more serious threats as they are easily accessible. “When I anchor a Facebook live stream, bots—or fake accounts—have posted insulting, bullying and hateful comments about me. Many of my Facebook posts are tracked and reported to the government’s team etc.”

Such attacks have become quite a norm and many journalists have stop paying heed to them and continue with their work. If journalists allowed to let these things get to them, then no one would be doing journalism.

“I try to avoid those attacks by ignoring and focus on my work. I sometimes tell those stories to people who I trust. Sometime I motivate myself by saying that those people who attack me are hired by some people who don’t like me.” Kaan said. “They don’t know what I am doing. And I tell myself that lots of people need the truth from my reports to make the right decision. So I have to be strong and keep doing my work for my society.”

Cyber violence against women and girls (VAWG) can include hacking; impersonation; surveillance and tracking like cyber stalking; harassment and spamming and malicious distributionmanipulate and distribute defamatory and illegalmaterials related to the victim. A simple example of this is leakingintimate photos or video.

Many women journalists receive direct messages or DMs from trolls who use this technique to increase the impact of the ongoing cyber-attack. The online attacks are usually coordinated by a group of people or troll armies (also called trolls) who are given guidelines and content to use.

The easiest ways to spot trolls is posting of same or similar content and the use ofone hashtags creating a trend usually with personal attacks on the target. Creating false identities of the women journalists as happened recently to a Pakistani journalist. Her picture and bio was being used in another country. She found out when a journalist from that country contacted her.

Such attacks are often successful to get a reaction from women journalists. Most of them use different ways to protect themselves. They may block the trolls – which usually lead to the same people attacking from other fake accounts.

Decrease their online presence or leave social media, sometimes permanently.Changing their online accounts. Blocking the trolls. Reporting trolls.

When a woman journalists stops being vocal online this often means the trolls have been successful in muting them. Such attacks help to censor the media. But often these only help to strengthen those being attacked, who push back aggressively.

Journalists like Kaan and Kashaf are exceptional journalists they have not stopped working and continue despite the pressure on them. Thisin itself a great feat.

There are ways to protect yourself online. Being vigilant online and constantly checking what is being said about you or if any personal information and pictures are being shared.As an article on CPJ website says “Manage your online footprint”.

Despite all these problems, journalists just have to stand in solidarity and keep doing their work. And at the same time to keep vigilant both offline and online to be safe.

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