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    Relevance to freedom of expression

    Module 1: Violence Against Women Journalists in SSA

    In addition to the individual-level effects detailed in the previous chapter, which constitute serious infringements of the right to freedom of expression of individual journalists, online violence against journalists has broader implications for freedom of expression.

    • Media freedom: UNESCO’s research shows that journalists are attacked more frequently when their journalistic activities focus on the themes of gender, politics, elections, human rights, and social policy.(1)
    • Access to information: Online violence is likely to have the most detrimental chilling effect on serious reporting that informs citizens and the public about important social, economic, and political issues. The consequences are, therefore, not limited to individual journalists or even the profession as a whole but extend to the ability of the public to be informed about critical public issues.
    • Political actors: It is also notable that politicians and political party officials or associated persons are some of the key instigators and amplifiers of online violence against women journalists.(2) Attacks against journalists are frequently used as a political tool, with levels of violence increasing around election times and other periods of political contestation.
    • Impact on democracy: Online violence has significant implications for the free flow of information in democratic systems and during elections. In 2021, Pollicy noted that during Uganda’s 2021 general election, online violence was used to harass women in politics and to reinforce existing patterns of power and dominance against women, limiting their civic participation. The report also states that whereas both men and women in politics used online tools for engagement, “greater online activity was linked with higher levels of online violence for women as opposed to men.”(3)

    Case note: Litigating violence against journalists: state obligations to prevent violence

    In Dávila v. National Electoral Council (2023), the Constitutional Court of Columbia issued a ruling in a case brought by a group of women journalists seeking to vindicate their constitutional rights against the National Electoral Council of Colombia, arguing that they had suffered misogynistic and sexist online violence on Twitter that had sought to censor them and demean their profession and that the Council had failed to adopt measures to prevent or sanction sexist violence perpetuated or tolerated by members and affiliates of political parties in their social networks.   The Court held that “there is an evident pattern of online violence against women journalists as a result of their reporting on the activities of political figures in the public interest” and ordered a series of transformative measures to prevent, investigate, and punish such behaviour. These measures called for included, amongst others, the implementation of ethical guidelines by political parties to sanction online violence and the enacting of legislation targeting sexist digital violence.  

    Intersectional targeting of marginalised journalists

    • Intersectionality: The individuals most affected by gender-based violence and inequality are often those who are already marginalized and disadvantaged: black and brown women, indigenous women, women residing in rural areas, young girls, girls with disabilities, as well as transgender and gender non-conforming youth.(4) The UNSR on VAW reiterates that this intersectional discrimination arises due to the combination of, and interplay between, multiple characteristics and identities noting that those from marginalized groups are especially vulnerable targets of online violence.(5)
    • Journalists: Journalists experience also intersectional discrimination and gender-based targeting based on several defining characteristics. These include, but are not limited to, “race, ethnicity, caste, culture, religion, sexual orientation, gender identity and expression, abilities, age, geographic location (urban/rural setting), social, economic and legal status, class, income, minority affiliation, amongst others.”(6)
    • Africa: African culture has been criticised for promoting heteronormativity which entrenches homophobia and discrimination of sexual minorities. (7) It is common for same-sex relations to be considered ‘un-African,’ and many countries continue to criminalise homosexuality. This propagates a culture of violence against members of the LGBTQI community that extends into the online world. Even in countries where decriminalisation has been achieved, substantial barriers remain to ensuring equal treatment and participation for LGBTQI individuals and groups:
    • In South Africa, for example, despite a progressive constitution providing for equality and non-discrimination, heteronormative culture continues to perpetuate homophobic violence.(8)
    • In Angola, despite the decriminalisation of same-sex conduct, sexual minorities are still subjected to online violence.(9)
    • Gender identity and sexual orientation: Identity and sexuality are common vectors along which attacks against journalists are directed and can exacerbate violence against women with intersecting identities. UNESCO’s research has likewise found that “women journalists who are also disadvantaged by racism, homophobia, religious bigotry, and other forms of discrimination face additional exposure to online attacks, with worse impacts.”(10) In particular, many attacks are deeply racialised and leverage structural racism to amplify the effect on the target.

    Enhancing the safety of all women journalists using an intersectional gender approach

    In 2022, ARTICLE 19 released three guidelines for the enhancement of safety for all women journalists relying on an intersectional gender approach. These include:  

    • Guideline 1: Monitoring and documenting attacks against journalists and social communicators;
    • Guideline 2: Advocating on emblematic cases for change; and
    • Guideline 3: Organising protection training.  

    These guidelines offer novel insights for actors, using a gendered intersectional approach, to understand how other intersectional characteristics “influence, and thus exacerbate, violations of journalists’ and social communicators’ right to freedom of expression.”(11)   


    In addition to having severe effects on freedom of expression and of the press, online violence against women journalists impacts a wide range of human rights that are protected and promoted in international human rights law. Online violence, irrespective of the form or manifestation, is a targeted attack on journalists’ rights and freedoms, with the intention of intimidating, silencing, and stigmatising journalists. It systematically targets women and those with intersecting identities including race, gender identity, and sexual orientation and is resulting in the systematic suppression of women’s voices from online spaces and from the media, leading to serious concerns for representation, equality, and democratic participation. More action is needed by a range of actors, including the platforms, states, regional bodies, and media houses, to protect women journalists in online spaces and to counter the growing tide of online abuse that poses a serious risk to the advancement of the right to freedom of expression in the digital era.


    1. UNESCO, The Chilling, available at Back
    2. Id at 17. Back
    3. Pollicy, ‘Amplified Abuse; Report on Online Violence against women in the 2021 Uganda General election’, (2021) (accessible at Back
    4. UN Women, ‘From where I stand: “Just the act of wearing our traditional clothes is an expression of resistance’ (2019) (accessible at Back
    5. UNSR on VAW Online Violence Report above n 8. Back
    6. UNSR on VAW: Combating violence against women journalists Report above n 32. Back
    7. Mkhize & others, ‘Unpacking pervasive heteronormativity in sub-Saharan Africa: Opportunities to embrace multiplicity of sexualities,’ Progress in Human Geography 47(3) (2023) (accessible at Back
    8. Reygan & Lynette, ‘Heteronormativity, homophobia and ‘culture’ arguments in KwaZulu-Natal, South Africa’ (2014) (accessible at Back
    9. Meta & Centre for Human Rights above n 19. Back
    10. UNESCO above n 3 at 16. Back
    11. ARTICLE 19 ‘Guide 1: An intersectional gender guide to monitoring and documenting attacks against journalists and social communicators’, April 2022 (accessible at Back