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    International laws and standards

    Module 1: Violence Against Women Journalists in SSA

    Rights to freedom of expression and media freedom

    The right to freedom of expression and media freedom are firmly grounded in international human rights law:

    • The right to freedom of opinion and expression is ‘gender neutral’ and is enshrined under Article 19 of the UDHR and Article 19 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR).(1)
    • The right to freedom of expression applies to all journalists – of all genders –and encompasses the right to work free from the threat of violence.(2)
    • Reporting freely and safely is necessary for media freedom – a free, uncensored, and unhindered press is cornerstones of a democratic society.”(3)
    • In 2014, UNHRC affirmed that “the same rights that people have offline must also be protected online, in particular freedom of expression.”(4)

    Threats against journalists undermine freedom of expression and media freedom:

    • Restrictive in nature: Both threats of violence and actual violence, whether perpetrated online or offline against journalists, arbitrarily restrict their ability to exercise their right to freedom of expression, and “pose a very significant threat to independent and investigative journalism… and to the free flow of information to the public.”(5)
    • Self-censorship: Threats of violence against journalists and their families, as a result of their journalistic activities, ‘often deters journalists from continuing their work or encourages self-censorship, consequently depriving society of important information.’(6) Notably, some journalists opt to either deactivate their social media accounts completely or resort to using pseudonyms to continue exercising their freedom of speech and expression online.
    • Physical threats: In worst-case scenarios, online threats of violence spill over into physical spaces, leading to physical violence or the murder of journalists. This escalation was demonstrated by the 2017 murder of Daphne Caruana Galizia, a Maltese journalist.(7)
    • Democratic deficit: In addition to threats to safety, gender equality and media freedom,(8) the various forms of online violence amount to a “direct attack on women’s visibility and their full participation in public life”, and “not only violates a woman’s right to live free from violence and to participate online but also undermines the exercise of democracy and good governance, and as such creates a democratic deficit”.(9)

    As an indicator of the gravity of threats of violence against journalists, the UNGA has, on more than one occasion, unequivocally condemned all violence against journalists and media workers, highlighted the need to prevent violence against journalists, ensure accountability through investigations into alleged threats of violence, and provide legal remedies to victims of threats, including by ensuring that perpetrators of violence are brought to justice.(10)

    Combating the spread of threats of violence – on- and offline – is critical given its disproportionate impact on journalists’ right to freedom of expression and the consequent impact on media freedom and democratic values.(11) Given that these rights are founded in international human rights law, there is a strong basis from which to formulate responses to the manifestations of online violence faced by journalists of all genders and with various intersecting identities.

    Multilayered rights implications

    In addition to the impact on expressive rights and democratic values, online violence against women journalists has multilayered rights implications, impacting among others:

    • Free from violence: The CEDAW Committee has reaffirmed the interlinkage of women’s right to a life free from gender-based violence as “indivisible from and interdependent on other human rights, including the rights to… freedom of expression.”(12) This applies to technology-mediated environments, such as the Internet and digital spaces.(13) The CEDAW Committee, which oversees States’ compliance with the Convention, defines GBV against women as “violence that is directed against a woman because she is a woman or that affects women disproportionately. It includes acts that inflict physical, mental, or sexual harm or suffering, threats of such acts, coercion and other deprivations of liberty.”(14) Online threats of violence against women journalists are captured in this definition, as they amount to harmful practices and crimes against journalists’ which constitute forms of gender-based violence against women.(15)
    • Equality: The gendered nature of online attacks against women journalists – because they are women – impacts their rights to equality and non-discrimination. The gendered consequences and harm inflicted by various forms of online violence are rooted in structural inequality, discrimination, and patriarchal norms.(16) Multiple international human rights law instruments provide for the right to equality and non-discrimination, including the UDHR, (Article 2), the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women, the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (article 20, International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (Article 2).
    • Privacy: Article 12 of the UDHR, and Article 17 of the ICCPR provide for the right to privacy. Numerous forms of online violence infringe the privacy rights of women journalists. For instance, the dissemination of intimate photographs or doctored images online without consent amounts to a privacy violation. Doxxing, the malicious publication of private information like contact details, breaches privacy rights and exposes women journalists to harassment. Online stalking unwanted messages and surveillance tactics further, encroach upon their privacy rights.(17)

    Regional Standards

    At the regional level, various and intersecting rights are protected:

    • The rights to freedom of expression of the press are protected and promoted for all African peoples’, irrespective of sex, under article 9 of the African Charter on Human and Peoples’ Rights (African Charter).
    • The Africa Charter further provides for the rights to non-discrimination (article 2), equality (article 3), dignity (article 5), and the obligation to ensure the elimination of discrimination against women (article 18(3)).
    • The Maputo Protocol, signed by 44 African states, provides strong protections against gender-based discrimination, harassment, and violence.

    Case note: Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights v Egypt

    The case of Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights v Egypt (2011) brought before the African Commission on Human and People’s Rights (ACHPR) illustrates the interplay of the rights to freedom of expression and discrimination and inequality.(18)

    The case centred around electoral reform protests in 2005 during which journalists who were protesting and those reporting on the demonstration were assaulted by riot police. In their complaint to the ACHPR, the complaints argued that the main reasons they were assaulted were because they “hold particular political views, are women and journalists”.(19) In finding violations of the rights to non-discrimination, equality, and freedom of expression, among others, the ACHPR found the “violations were designed to silence women who were participating in the demonstration and deter their activism in the political affairs”.(20)

    The case has been welcomed as an important decision that recognises gender discrimination and gender-based violence in the content of expression and media freedom.(21)

    There is also a body of non-binding commentary on threats of violence and the impact on journalists’ right to freedom of expression and press freedom. For example:

    • The ACHPR issued Resolution 185 on the Safety of Journalists and Media Practitioners in Africa in 2020. It clearly identifies the correlation between the “enjoyment of freedom of expression, press freedom, and access to information” and “freedom from intimidation, pressure and coercion” for media practitioners and journalists.
    • The ACHPR Declaration of Principles on Freedom of Expression and Access to Information in Africa (African Declaration) has also affirmed that the “exercise of the rights to freedom of expression and access to information shall be protected from interference both online and offline…” Principle 20 deals at length with the safety of journalists and other media practitioners, including by stating that states must take measures to ensure the safety of female journalists and media practitioners by addressing gender-specific safety concerns, including sexual and gender-based violence, intimidation and harassment.
    • In 2022, the ACHPR passed an important Resolution on the Protection of Women Against Digital Violence in Africa. The Resolution calls on states to review or adopt legislation companies of digital violence and expands the definition of gender-based violence to include digital violence against women. In relation to journalists, the Resolution calls on states to: (1) Undertake measures to safeguard women journalists from digital violence, including gender-sensitive media literacy and digital security training; and (2) Repeal vague and overly wide laws on surveillance as they contribute to the existing vulnerability of female journalists.(22)

    The African Declaration on Internet Rights and Freedoms (ADIRF), a Pan-African civil society initiative, has emphasised the need to safeguard journalists from attacks, asserting that assaults on individuals involved in journalistic activities infringe upon the right to freedom of expression, and advocates for the establishment of protective guidelines for those who gather and share information, including journalists, women’s rights activists, and human rights defenders, to ensure their safety.

    Other regions have also developed significant guidelines, resolutions, and standards for the protection of journalism that can serve as guidance for future progress in SSA:

    • In Europe, the Council of Europe’s Committee of Ministers has noted that threats of violence against journalists serve as indicators of broader threats to freedom of expression, signalling a deterioration in human rights, democracy, and the rule of law.(23) Emphasising the need for effective interim protection measures for those facing such threats, the Committee underscores that ensuring the right to freedom of expression without fear necessitates guaranteeing safety, security, and practical protection, particularly for journalists and media professionals. It also noted that threats of violence frequently target female journalists, highlighting the need for “gender-specific responses” to these gendered threats of violence.
    • The General Assembly of the Organisation of American States adopted resolution 2908 (XLVII-O/17) on the right to freedom of thought and expression and the safety of journalists and media workers in 2017 which stressed that “journalism must be practised free from threats, physical or psychological aggression, or other acts of intimidation.”(24)
    • Concerns of threats of violence against journalists have also been raised before courts across the globe.(25)

    Footnotes

    1. ICCPR, (1966) (accessible at https://www.ohchr.org/en/instruments-mechanisms/instruments/international-covenant-civil-and-political-rights). Universal Declaration of Human Rights (accessible at https://www.un.org/en/about-us/universal-declaration-of-human-rights). Back
    2. UNESCO ‘UN Action Plan on the Safety of Journalists’ (accessible at https://unesco.org.uk/spotlight-programme/un-action-plan-on-the-safety-of-journalists/).); and UNESCO, ‘Freedom of expression: A fundamental human right underpinning all civil liberties’, (accessible at https://en.unesco.org/70years/freedom_of_expression). Back
    3. UNHRC, ‘General comment No. 34 on Article 19: Freedoms of opinion and expression’ (2011) (accessible at https://www2.ohchr.org/english/bodies/hrc/docs/gc34.pdf). Back
    4. UNHRC, ‘The promotion, protection and enjoyment of human rights on the Internet’ (2014) (accessible at http://hrlibrary.umn.edu/hrcouncil_res26-13.pdf). Back
    5. IFEX, ‘Report on key issues and challenges facing freedom of expression’ (2020) (accessible at https://ifex.org/report-on-key-issues-and-challenges-facing-freedom-of-expression/).). Back
    6. UNGA, ‘The safety of journalists and the issue of impunity’ (2019) (accessible at https://documents-dds-ny.un.org/doc/UNDOC/LTD/N19/366/38/PDF/N1936638.pdf?OpenElement). Back
    7. UNESCO, ‘Threats to freedom of press: Violence, disinformation & censorship’ (2022) (accessible at https://www.unesco.org/en/threats-freedom-press-violence-disinformation-censorship). Back
    8. UNSR on FreeEx Report above n 1 at para 36. Back
    9. UNSR on VAW: Combating violence against women journalists Report above n 32 at para 33. Back
    10. UNGA, ‘The safety of journalists and the issue of impunity’ (2019) (accessible at https://documents-dds-ny.un.org/doc/UNDOC/LTD/N19/366/38/PDF/N1936638.pdf?OpenElement); and UNGA, ‘The safety of journalists and the issue of impunity’ (2014) (accessible at https://documents-dds-ny.un.org/doc/UNDOC/GEN/N13/449/23/PDF/N1344923.pdf?OpenElement). Back
    11. UNHRC, ‘The promotion, protection and enjoyment of human rights on the Internet’ above n 48. Back
    12. Id at 95. Back
    13. CEDAW, ‘General recommendation No. 35 on gender-based violence against women, updating general recommendation No. 19 (1992)’ (2019) (accessible at https://www.ohchr.org/en/documents/general-comments-and-recommendations/general-recommendation-no-35-2017-gender-based). Back
    14. Id. Back
    15. Id. Back
    16. UNSR on VAW Online Violence Report above n 8. Back
    17. Id. Back
    18. Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights and Interights v Egypt 323/06 (2011) (accessible at
      https://caselaw.ihrda.org/api/files/1511795682626px8myvg9g1pxmxoxmzaxajor.pdf).
      Back
    19. Id at para 77. Back
    20. Id at para 166. Back
    21. See LSE Centre for Women, Peace and Security, ‘EIPR and Interights v. Egypt’ (accessible at https://blogs.lse.ac.uk/vaw/landmark-cases/a-z-of-cases/eipr-and-interights-v-egypt/) and Global Freedom of Expression, ‘Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights v. Egypt’ (accessible at https://globalfreedomofexpression.columbia.edu/cases/egyptian-initiative-for-personal-rights-v-egypt/) for the case summary and analysis. Back
    22. Id at paras 8 and 9. Back
    23. Council of Europe ‘Recommendation CM/Rec(2016) 4 of the Committee of Ministers to member States on the protection of journalism and safety of journalists and other media actors’, 13 April 2016 (accessible at https://search.coe.int/cm/Pages/result_details.aspx?ObjectId=09000016806415d9#_ftn1). Back
    24. OAS, ‘Promotion and Protection of Human Rights’ (accessible at https://www.oas.org/en/iachr/lgtbi/docs/AG-RES-2908-2017English.pdf). Back
    25. For more case law regarding threats of violence affecting journalists in jurisdictions including Australia, Finland, France, Singapore, amongst others, see: The Law Library of Congress, ‘Laws protecting journalists from online harassment,’ September 2019 (accessible at https://www.loc.gov/item/2019713411/). For other online harassment cases, see: Pen America, ‘Online Harassment Case Studies’ (accessible at https://onlineharassmentfieldmanual.pen.org/online-harassment-case-studies/). Back