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    Online Threats & Harassment

    Module 6: Online Harassment and Anonymity

    It has been widely recognised that the Internet serves as an enabler for the exercise of a wide range of human rights, in particular for freedom of expression and the right to receive information.(1)

    At the same time, while new technical developments have enhanced options for journalists to communicate and engage in their journalistic work, they have also led to of online harassment and abuse, in particular affecting women journalists and other marginalised groups. For more information, read our factsheet on Gender & Online Harassment

    While online harassment occurs in many different fora, social media platforms constitute an especially fertile ground for such behaviours.(2) For those experiencing online harassment directly, these encounters have profound real-world consequences, ranging from mental or emotional stress to reputational damage or even fear for one’s personal safety.

    The ongoing harassment and attacks on members of the media online have become a worrying trend. To exercise their rights to freedom of expression, journalists require access to spaces for public debate, share their ideas and opinions without being censored or in fear of retaliation.(3) The fear for their security or when online abuse becomes unbearable may lead to self-censorship and drive them offline or to stop reporting.(4)

    Online harassment describes a wide range of digital attacks, including doxxing, surveillance, threats, the non-consensual distribution of intimate or sexual images, stalking, hacking, identity theft and discriminatory speech.(5)

    In this context, harassment can also include unwanted and intimidatory activities, for instance though messages or apps.(6) Some of the most relevant definitions can be found below:

    Types of online harassment

    Some of the key types of online harassment include the following concepts (Source: PEN America, Defining “Online Abuse”: A Glossary of Terms, (accessible at https://onlineharassmentfieldmanual.pen.org/defining-online-harassment-a-glossary-of-terms/).

    • Cyberbullying: An umbrella term (like “online harassment”) meant to encompass a number of harassing online behaviours. Like physical bullying, “cyberbullying” is generally aimed at young people and refers to the “wilful and repeated harm inflicted through the use of computers, cell phones, and other electronic device”.
    • Cyber mob attacks: Cyber-mob attacks occur when a large group gathers online to try and collectively shame, harass, threaten or discredit a target, who often belongs to a traditionally marginalised group. Often, cyber mob attacks occur in retaliation for taking a stance on a politically charged topic or expressing ideas the outrage mob disagrees with.
    • Cyberstalking: In a legal context, “cyberstalking” refers to the prolonged use (a “course of conduct” of online harassment intended to kill, injure, harass, intimidate, or place under surveillance a target. Cyberstalking can comprise a number of harassing behaviours committed repeatedly or with regularity that usually cause a target to suffer fear, anxiety, humiliation, and extreme emotional distress.
    • Denial of service (DoS) or Distributed Denial-of-Service (DDoS) attacks: A DDoS attack is a cyberattack that temporarily or indefinitely disrupts internet service by overwhelming a system with data, resulting in the web server crashing or becoming inoperable. In a DDoS attack, the attacker(s) take control of multiple users’ computers in order to attack a different user’s computer. This can force the hijacked computers to send large amounts of data to a particular website or send spam to targeted email addresses.
    • Doxing (or doxing – short for “dropping docs”): Doxing refers to the publishing of sensitive personal information, such as the home address, email, phone number, photos etc., online to harass, intimidate, extort, stalk, or steal the identity of a target.
    • Hateful speech: Hateful speech refers to attacks on a specific aspect of a person’s identity, such as their race, ethnicity, gender identity, etc.
    • Non-consensual sharing of intimate images and videos: Includes sextortion, a form of blackmail in which the abuser threatens to expose intimate or sexually explicit images in order to get a person to do something, as well as the unsolicited sending of sexually explicit or violent images and videos.
    • Online sexual harassment: Online sexual harassment encompasses a wide range of sexual misconduct on digital platforms and includes some of the more specific forms of online harassment, such as “revenge porn”. It often manifests as hateful speech or online threats. There are four distinct types of online sexual harassment: non-consensual sharing of intimate images and videos; exploitation, coercion and threats; sexualised bullying; and unwanted sexualisation.
    • Trolling: “Trolling” is one of those terms that’s evolved so much over time as to have no single agreed-upon meaning. The term “trolling” is defined here as the repetitive posting of inflammatory or hateful comments online by an individual whose intent is to seek attention, intentionally harm a target, cause trouble and/or controversy, and/or join up with a group of trolls who have already commenced a trolling campaign. There are three subcategories of trolling to be aware of: concern trolling, where harassers pose as fans or supporters of your work with the intention of making harmful or demeaning comments masked as constructive feedback; dogpiling, where a group of trolls works together to overwhelm a target through a barrage of disingenuous questions, threats, slurs, insults, and other tactics meant to shame, silence, discredit, or drive a target offline; and botnet or sock-puppet trolling, which are used for a variety of reasons, from promoting propaganda to amplifying hate or defamation against targeted individuals.

    Combatting online harassment involves many challenges, including getting lawmakers and law enforcement officials to recognise the severity of such harassment and threats, and to treat it with the appropriate levels of concern, recognising that the real and persistent harm suffered applies whether the harassment and threats take place online or offline. Other challenges that arise that are exacerbated in the online sphere relate to the volume of threats that can be received, given the relative ease with which this can be done via social media platforms, for instance; and the concurrent difficulties in identifying perpetrators who are sometimes able to mask their online identities. While this issue ties in with the issue of anonymity online and encryption, it should not be regarded as a sufficient basis for a blanket ban on those technical tools.

    International Context

    Freedom of expression is guaranteed both online and offline and crimes against journalists are also committed in both spaces. The UN Human Rights Council (HRC) has emphasised “the particular risks with regard to the safety of journalists in the digital age” which lead to violations of their rights to privacy and freedom of expression.(7) In addition, it found that impunity for crimes committed against journalists remains “one of the greatest challenges” to their safety and condemns all attacks against journalists online and offline.(8)

    In its General Comment No. 34, the UN Human Rights Committee further provides that under no circumstance “can an attack on a person, because of the exercise of his or her freedom of opinion or expression” be justified.(9) In addition, it recognises that journalists and others are often subjected to threats, intimidation and attacks because of their work.(10)

    Regional Context: European Union

    Both the Treaty of the EU (Articles 2, 6, 21 and 49) as well as the EU Charter (Articles 7, 8, 10, 11 and 22) contain provisions applicable to online harassment of journalists.(11) In this context, the EU has declared as one of its priority for action the “combatting violence, persecution, harassment and intimidation of individuals, including journalists and other media actors, because of their exercise of the right to freedom of expression online and offline, and combating impunity for such crimes”, calling upon states to create safe environments for media actors and prevent violence against them.(12)

    In addition, the EU has committed to “promoting and respecting human rights in cyberspace and other information and communication technologies”.(13)

    In 2021, the European Parliament also adopted a legislative-initiative resolution which recommended the Commission to criminalise gender-based cyberviolence.(14)

    At the same time, experts have criticised that in the EU level, there is no coherent definition of online harassment, which reduces the ability of law enforcement authorities to take action.(15)

    Regional Context: Council of Europe

    Within the CoE, the Committee of Ministers has dealt with the topic of online harassment in several recommendations. For instance, it has invited states to raise awareness about the sexist misuse of social media and online threats(16) and expressed concern over online harassment and threats(17). The CoE’s Parliamentary Assembly has also stressed the need for:

    “The effective protection of the right to freedom of expression and freedom of information, online and offline, and […] more must be done to counteract the dangers brought about by abuses of the right to freedom of expression and information on the internet, such as incitement to discrimination, hatred and violence, aimed at women or ethnic, sexual or other minorities in particular; child sexual abuse content, online bullying; the manipulation of information and propaganda; and incitement to terrorism.”(18)

    The ECtHR has adopted a similar approach. While acknowledging that the Internet has many benefits, it also recognises its dangers, including the dissemination of hate speech and speech inciting violence.(19) Due to the distinct features of the Internet compared to printed media, and the different risks its use poses for the enjoyment of human rights, the rules applied to it must be modified.(20)

    The ECtHR has recognised – although not in the context of journalism – cyberviolence as a specific form of violence against women(21) and acknowledged its close link to “real life” violence.(22) In a case concerning the non-consensual sharing of images and online threats by a former partner, the ECtHR clarified that under Article 8 ECHR, states are obliged to prosecute perpetrators and protect victims from recurrent cyberviolence.(23) It addition, it found that the lack of an investigation into discriminatory and hateful comments can amount to a violation of Articles 14 and 8 ECHR.(24)

    Footnotes

    1. See for instance UN Human Rights Council, Report of the Special Rapporteur on the promotion and protection of the right to freedom of opinion and expression UN Doc A/HRC/17/27 (2011), para 67; EEAS, EU Guidelines on Freedom of Expression Online and Offline (undated), p. 3, (accessible at https://www.eeas.europa.eu/sites/default/files/09_hr_guidelines_expression_en.pdf). Back
    2. UNESCO, Protecting journalism sources in the digital age (2017), pp. 132-133, (accessible at https://unesdoc.unesco.org/ark:/48223/pf0000248054). Back
    3. Article19, Online abuse and harassment against women journalists (undated), (accessible at https://www.article19.org/onlineharassment/). Back
    4. Ibid. Back
    5. Ibid; see also for a glossary of terms: PEN America, Defining “Online Abuse”: A Glossary of Terms (undated), (accessible at https://onlineharassmentfieldmanual.pen.org/defining-online-harassment-a-glossary-of-terms/). Back
    6. Ibid. Back
    7. Human Rights Council, Resolution 45/18: The safety of journalists (6 October 2002), A/HRC/RES/45/18, p. 3, (accessible at https://documents.un.org/doc/undoc/gen/g20/260/18/pdf/g2026018.pdf?token=QFtOdvvy35OZMGohaz&fe=true) Back
    8. Ibid. p. 4. Back
    9. UN Human Rights Committee, General Comment No. 34: Article 19: Freedoms of opinion and expression (12 September 2011), CCPR/C/GC/34, para 23, (accessible at https://www2.ohchr.org/english/bodies/hrc/docs/gc34.pdf). Back
    10. Ibid. Back
    11. EEAS, EU Guidelines on Freedom of Expression Online and Offline (undated), pp. 3-4, (accessible at https://www.eeas.europa.eu/sites/default/files/09_hr_guidelines_expression_en.pdf). Back
    12. Ibid, p. 7. Back
    13. Ibid, p. 10. Back
    14. European Parliament, Combating gender-based violence: cyber violence (14 December 2021), (accessible at https://www.europarl.europa.eu/legislative-train/theme-promoting-our-european-way-of-life/file-combating-gender-based-cyber-violence#:~:text=On 14 December 2021, the,harmonisation of existing and future). Back
    15. Maria Walsh, Online Harassment: Breaking cyber violence (16 June 2021), (accessible at https://www.theparliamentmagazine.eu/news/article/breaking-cyber-violence). Back
    16. CoE Committee of Ministers, Recommendation/Rec(2019)1 on preventing and combating sexism (27 March 2019), II.B.3, (accessible at https://rm.coe.int/168093b26a). Back
    17. CoE Committee of Ministers, Recommendation/Rec(2016)4 on the protection of journalism and safety of journalists anmd other media actors (13 April 2016), 18, (accessible at https://search.coe.int/cm/Pages/result_details.aspx?ObjectId=09000016806415d9#_ftn1). Back
    18. PACE, Internet governance and human rights, Resolution 2256(2019)(23 January 2019), 5., (accessible at https://pace.coe.int/pdf/a6f928dd1252a4240251dcc596b0c55771655ee748ea828ed5d33c237954125b/res. 2256.pdf). Back
    19. ECtHR [GC], Delfi AS v, Estonia, App No. 64569/09, §110, 16 June 2015. Back
    20. ECtHR, Shtekel v. Ukraine, 33014/05, §63, 5 May 2011. Back
    21. ECtHR, Buturugă v. Romania, App No. 56867/15, §74, 11 February 2020. Back
    22. Ibid. para 74; ECtHR, Volodina v. Russia (No. 2), App No. 40419/19, §49, 14 September 2021. Back
    23. ECtHR, Volodina v. Russia (No. 2), App No. 40419/19, §§58-59, 69, 14 September 2021 Back
    24. ECtHR, Beizaras and Levickas v. Lithuania, App No. 41288/15, §129, 14 January 2020. Back