Module 10: Violence Against Journalists
The Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women defines gender-based violence to include that “which is directed against a woman because she is a woman or that affects women disproportionately”.(1) States have an obligation to avoid perpetrating such violence themselves, but must also take “all appropriate measures to prevent, as well as to investigate, prosecute, punish and provide reparations for, acts or omissions by non-State actors that result in gender-based violence against women”.(2) Violence against female journalists on account of their work is, like all such forms of violence, an attack on freedom of expression.
Accordingly, States are obliged to address violence against female journalists not only under their obligations to protect freedom of expression but also as part of their obligations to address discrimination against women. United Nations bodies, including the Human Rights Council, Security Council and the General Assembly, have issued resolutions strongly condemning attacks on female journalists.(3) For example, the Human Rights Council:
“[C]ondemns unequivocally the specific attacks on women journalists and media workers in relation to their work, such as gender-based discrimination, including sexual and gender-based violence, threats, intimidation and harassment, online and offline”(4)
In practice, however, female journalists continue to experience gender-based violence in the course of their work. Women represent a small portion of the journalists who are killed while pursuing journalistic work. However, female journalists are disproportionally likely to experience gender-based violence.(5) Sexual violence, sexual harassment, online harassment, rape and the threat of rape are all tools used to intimidate female journalists and discourage their work. Such acts are underreported, due to cultural stigmas or fear of retaliation in the workplace.(6) Other types of sexist harassment or threats can also have serious consequences. One global survey of female journalists found that 37% avoided reporting on certain topics because of attacks or harassment they had experienced.(7)
Female journalists are also much more likely to experience certain forms of online violence.(8) A major 2020 UNESCO report on the topic found that 73% of female journalists who responded had experienced online violence. 42% were targeted with reputational threats, 25% received threats of physical violence, 18% were threatened with sexual violence, and 13% received threats directed at persons close to them.(9) For 12% of respondents, the effects of online violence were so serious that they sought medical or psychological help.(10) Some forms of online attacks are particularly gendered, such as the non-consensual sharing of intimate images, harassment via misogynistic or sexualised content, or the use of “deepfake” videos (videos which appear to portray someone but in fact are fake and yet this is very to detect) to harm the reputation of female journalists.(11)
Given the distinctive harms experienced by female journalists, as well as cultural and social factors which may impact their experience of violence, measures taken to address journalist safety must take a gender sensitive approach.(12) For example:
- Preventative measures should specifically address gender-based violence. This could include initiatives to combat harmful gender-based stereotypes, incorporate gender-sensitive content into awareness-raising and training programmes about violence against journalists, collect sex-disaggregated data about attacks on journalists or develop gender-sensitive investigation procedures.(13) Public officials and authorities are also encouraged to avoid misogynist or discriminatory language towards female journalists.(14)
- Protection mechanisms should also be gender-sensitive. Plans and protocols designed for the protection of journalists, for example, should address gender-specific risks and needs.(15)
- Investigation, prosecution and redress should also incorporate gender considerations. Violence against women is often under-reported due to fear of further retaliatory attacks and cultural stigmas, especially around sexual violence. Gender-sensitive training of investigatory and prosecutorial authorities is therefore particularly important. States may also specifically need to strengthen their ability to investigate and respond to online gender-based violence.
In the online context, many of the major platforms have introduced initiatives to address women’s safety but smaller or newer platforms may still lack such initiatives.(16) that there is limited transparency around how complaints are handled.(17) Greater efforts are needed to protect women from gender-based violence online, but platforms need to develop such policies transparently, in consultation with civil society and leading experts, and in a manner which reflects concern for principles of freedom of expression.
While this discussion has focused on gender-based violence against women, gender non-conforming journalists may experience particularly harmful forms of gender-based violence which also require correspondingly gender-sensitive responses.