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    Introduction

    Module 1: Violence Against Women Journalists in SSA

    Online assaults targeting women journalists pose one of the gravest contemporary threats to their safety, gender equality, and media freedom. These attacks are often vicious, coordinated, highly sexualized, and malicious, particularly targeting women belonging to religious and ethnic minorities or gender non-conforming individuals.(1) Regrettably, the various manifestations of online violence faced by women journalists with various intersecting identities are the “new frontline in journalism safety.”(2) There are several distinct characteristics of online violence targeting journalists:

    • Impact: Online violence targeting women journalists(3) aims to belittle and intimidate them, fostering a climate of fear and withdrawal.(4) It further seeks to tarnish their professional credibility, undermining trust in the media. This “amounts to an attack on democratic deliberation and media freedom, encompassing the public’s right to access information, and it cannot afford to be normalised or tolerated as an inevitable aspect of online discourse, nor contemporary audience-engaged journalism.”(5)
    • Rights implications: The right to be free from discrimination, threats, and violence applies both off- and online. Countering online violence that targets women journalists is critical to the promotion of, among others, the rights to freedom of expression, media freedom, and privacy. It is not only limited to the digital sphere but frequently spills into physical spaces.(6)
    • Targets: While any person can be a victim of online violence, women and those with marginalised or ‘at risk’ identities are disproportionately targeted and affected by online violence due to their gender, sexual orientation, identity, and other intersecting factors.(7) Often targeted as a result of their gender and their work, women journalists are exposed to threatening and intimidating content which has detrimental impacts on not only their personal lives and safety but also their ability to carry out their important work.(8)
    • Digital tools and spaces: The evolution of new digital technologies and information and communications technology (ICT) tools and services has given rise to different and more pervasive forms of online violence against journalists.(9) These technologies have enabled coordinated attacks at a previously unprecedented scale and with anonymity that creates challenges for securing accountability for perpetrators. It is anticipated that these will continue to enable more attacks against journalists in the coming years.(10)
    • Various forms of harm: Gendered online violence against women journalists is frequently perpetrated through and linked with other online harms. For example, orchestrated disinformation campaigns,(11) and being targeted with deepfakes to create false narratives and artificially generated or edited images to shame and undermine their credibility. Doxxing and cyber-stalking dealt with in greater detail in Module 2 in this series, are also common tools to attack journalists and inhibit reporting.
    • Prevalence: Although violence against journalists, particularly women, is a widespread and serious issue, even existing estimates of prevalence are likely significantly undercounted. UNESCO reports that journalists, specifically women journalists, often do not lodge complaints or reports with law enforcement agencies, and even fewer pursue legal remedies, signifying the “need for improvement in legal and judicial responses to online violence against women journalists.”(12) In sub-Saharan Africa (SSA), various states have enacted legislative prohibitions against online violence impacting journalists. However, their adequacy to effectively deal with online violence has been called into question, with gendered violence posing a specific challenge.

    This module provides a high-level overview of this emerging trend and examines the international law framework as it relates to online violence against journalists, with a focus on the gendered impact on women journalists.

    Footnotes

    1. UNHRC, ‘Report of the Special Rapporteur on the promotion and protection of the right to freedom of opinion and expression on reinforcing media freedom and the safety of journalists in the digital age’ (2022) (accessible at https://www.ohchr.org/en/documents/thematic-reports/ahrc5029-reinforcing-media-freedom-and-safety-journalists-digital-age) at para 36 (UNSR on FreeEx Report). Back
    2. International Centre for Journalists, ‘Online Attacks on Women Journalists Leading to ‘Real World’ Violence, New Research Shows’ (2020) (accessible at https://www.icfj.org/news/online-attacks-women-journalists-leading-real-world-violence-new-research-shows#:~:text=For example, as we’ve discussed, we know that,attacks designed to expose them to greater risk). Back
    3. For conciseness, we refer hereafter to “women”, however, this does not discount online violence perpetrated against members of the queer community, gender non-conforming persons, sexual and gender minorities, vulnerable members of society, or persons with disabilities. Where specific reference is to women, this should be read as a comment on a descriptive reality, and not be read as a prescriptive or exclusionary statement of which members of society may be victims and survivors of online violence. Back
    4. UNESCO ‘The Chilling: Global trends in online violence against women journalists’ (2021) (accessible at https://en.unesco.org/sites/default/files/the-chilling.pdf) at 6 (The Chilling). Back
    5. Id. Back
    6. Id. Back
    7. UN Women, ‘Online and ICT-facilitated violence against women and girls during COVID-19’ (2020) (accessible at https://www.unwomen.org/sites/default/files/Headquarters/Attachments/Sections/Library/Publications/2020/Brief-Online-and-ICT-facilitated-violence-against-women-and-girls-during-COVID-19-en.pdf). Back
    8. UNHRC, ‘Report of the Special Rapporteur on violence against women, its causes and consequences on online violence against women and girls from a human rights perspective’, 18 June 2018 (accessible at https://digitallibrary.un.org/record/1641160?ln=en#record-files-collapse-header) (UNSR on VAW Online Violence Report). Back
    9. Id. Back
    10. Centre for International Governance, ‘What Is Online Gender-Based Violence?’ (2021) (accessible at https://www.cigionline.org/multimedia/what-is-online-gender-based-violence/). Back
    11. Id. See further, Centre for International Governance, ‘Deepfakes and Digital Harms: Emerging Technologies and Gender-Based Violence’, 27 November 2020 (accessible at https://www.cigionline.org/multimedia/deepfakes-and-digital-harms-emerging-technologies-and-gender-based-violence/). Back
    12. UNESCO, The Chilling, above n 4. Back