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    Threats of violence

    Module 1: Violence Against Women Journalists in SSA

    • Definition: A ‘threat of violence’ is defined as an expression or a declaration of an “intention to inflict emotional, physical or psychological harm, injury, pain or damage’ to another person, through virtual or physical means.”(1) Women journalists bear a disproportionate burden of these threats and attacks, especially those occurring online.(2)
    • Rights implications: As in the offline context, threats of online violence against journalists under international law are not tolerated given their ability to infringe on human rights, particularly the rights to freedom of expression and press freedom. In 2015, the OSCE Representative on Freedom of the Media issued recommendations on countering online abuse of female journalists and recognised that ‘threats and other forms of online abuse of female journalists and media actors is a direct attack on freedom of expression and freedom of the media.’(3)
    • Platforms and sites: Notably, threats of violence against journalists are typically issued or transmitted through major social media platforms, such as Twitter and Facebook, or through messaging applications or other platforms or technologies, including WhatsApp and Telegram. Additionally, threats directed towards journalists are also frequently posted in the comment sections provided by media houses or news outlets on their official websites or official social media pages.(4)
    • States obligations: As mentioned above, international human rights law places obligations on States to create conditions for effective investigation, prosecution, and protection in response to threats of violence against journalists. Further, international human rights law defines the responsibilities of private sector actors, including businesses and corporations, such as private social media companies and intermediaries, where threats of online violence against journalists are typically transmitted.

    States and Platforms

    The UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights (UNGPs), a widely accepted non-binding global standard defining the responsibilities of businesses to protect and advance human rights, calls on private sector actors to fulfil their positive responsibilities to mitigate human rights impacts of their operations, publish transparency reports and provide remedies for potential human rights violations.(5) More recently, and with a focus on women journalists, the UNSR on FreeEx noted the dual responsibility of states and the private sector:   “The ultimate responsibility rests with States, as the primary duty bearers of human rights, to ensure that women journalists are safe from online violence. As the main vectors of online attacks, social media companies are also responsible for exercising due diligence and taking measures to ensure the safety of journalists on their platforms in accordance with the Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights.”(6)  

    In the SSA region, observed threats of online violence include threats of sexual or physical violence, including rape or death threats, and threats of digital security attacks (e.g., hacking or trolling), amongst others. For example:

    • SANEF and partners observed that “online threats targeting journalists such as hate speech, harassment, and doxing” were received from the police, political parties, and the public in South Africa.(7) Concerningly, these threats of violence targeting journalists also extend towards their family members, leading to wider concerns about online and physical safety and security.
    • iWatch Africa reports that journalists who report on contested social and political issues in Ghana are subjected to online violence including threats of physical violence and rape.(8)

    Finally, it should be noted that there is a fine line, in reality, between a threat and actual violence in the online sphere, but that the legal requirements for proving such actions are likely to differ. For example, a threat of violence accompanied by the release of personal information, doxxing, can be seen as both an act of actual violence through the tangible and real-world harm that results from doxxing, as well as a threat for further violence to be perpetrated through the release of the information (e.g. a threat to show up at one’s house).

    Types of violence

    While the manifestations of online violence against women journalists vary widely, some commonly accepted types have developed over time that assist in understanding the breadth of experiences faced by women journalists as well as how regulation and enforcement can better address these harms. These types are discussed in more detail in Module 2 of this series on Digital security attacks and Online Gender-Based Violence (OGBV). In summary, these include, but are not limited to:

    • Cyber-harassment;
    • Doxxing;
    • Stalking;
    • Non-consensual dissemination of intimate images;
    • Online sexual exploitation and abuse;
    • Dis- and misinformation campaigns;
    • Privacy and data protection violations;
    • Denial of Service (DoS) and Distributed Denial of Service (DDoS) attacks
    • Government surveillance;
    • Commercial surveillance;
    • Phishing; and
    • Confiscation of hardware.

    It should be noted that, in contrast to offline gender-based violence, OGBV is characterised by continuity due to the ability of perpetrators to utilise different online and offline platforms to transmit harmful speech or behaviour for extended periods, leading to the “constant re-victimisation of victims.”(9) This issue of re-victimisation is further entrenched by the reality that any form of targeted online violence creates a “permanent digital record that can be distributed worldwide and cannot be easily deleted.”(10)

    Impact of online violence on journalists’ work

    Psychological harm

    According to the UNESCO report, at least 26% of the women journalists interviewed had suffered impairment to their mental health as a result of online violence.(11) Out of these, only 12% had sought medical help. In Africa, psychological harm is one of the most devastating effects of online violence against journalists. UNESCO also emphasised that these experiences are not limited to the short-term, often causing long-lasting physical and psychological stress. A study conducted by ARTICLE 19 and AMWIK in Kenya also documented the psychological harm experienced by journalists who were victims of online violence.(12)

    Spill-over of online violence to offline spaces

    There is a close relationship between online and offline violence, with online threats or abuse frequently being followed up with offline violence and vice versa. For example:

    • Doxxing is often committed with the express intent of enabling offline harassment of the targeted person.
    • Online stalking is frequently accompanied by other, offline methods of stalking.
    • NCII and other forms of harassment are designed to generate violations of dignity and undermine one’s credibility and professional standing in the real world.
    • In 2017, the Committee to Protect Journalists stated that at least 40% of the journalists who were murdered had received death threats, including online threats prior to their death.(13)
    • In Ghana, journalists from the Multimedia Group received direct threats of physical harm via social media for their work around the 2020 elections.(14)
    • In 2017, an online message calling for the killing of certain identified journalists was circulated across social media platforms in Togo accompanied by the dissemination of personal data, ostensibly to support the government regime.(15)

    Case note: Litigating violence against journalists in Africa

    In South African National Editors Forum v. Black First Land First (2017) the High Court of South Africa granted several orders relating to the protection of journalists from harassment. The case related to attacks that had been made both on- and offline against journalists who had reported negatively on an organisation, Black First Land First (BLF).   The Court held that the journalists had a right to the protection of their physical and human dignity and to carry out their profession, and that in making threats and sending abuse to the journalists online, gathering in front of their homes, and turning off the water supply to the house, the members of BLF had intended to harass, intimidate, and threaten the journalists and violated their right to the protection of their bodily and physical integrity, to dignity, and to follow the profession of their choice.   Importantly, the Court also ordered the Respondents not to use social media in an intimidating and threatening way.  

    Loss of credibility

    Online harassment and abuse of journalists and media houses can have severe effects on their credibility, casting doubt on their independence and impartiality to their audience and leading to a general climate of loss of trust in the media, with devastating effects on democracy and the free flow of information. For example:

    • In Nigeria, journalist Ruona Meyer was attacked by online trolls for publishing an exposé on the abuse of codeine and those profiting from the trade.(16) Due to her marriage to a German national and association with the BBC, she was tagged as a foreign agent and her work was a result of foreign interference.(17)
    • In Kenya, the Nation Media Group was in 2019 harassed by online trolls and dubbed #NationMediaGarbage, a tag designed to attack the credibility of the organisation.(18) Likewise in Kenya, the term ‘Githeri Media’ is used to rubbish the work of journalists and media houses and to imply state or political influence on news.(19) Further, research(20) has demonstrated that the Kenyan Government actively used misinformation and coordinated inauthentic campaigns on social media to discredit the ‘Pandora Papers.’(21)
    • UNESCO’s research on the widespread attacks faced by Filipino-American journalist, Maria Ressa, co-winner of the 2021 Nobel Peace Prize for her work to safeguard freedom of expression, revealed that 60% of the attacks were designed to undermine her professional credibility and public trust in her journalism.(22)

    The above examples illustrate how perpetrators frequently abuse the public’s recognition of widespread mis- and disinformation to invoke false claims of a journalist’s work being “fake news.” Orchestrated attacks by armies of trolls or supporters are also often used to create substantial dents in the perceived credibility of a journalist.

    Culture of violence

    Failure by different stakeholders to address online violence leads to a culture of impunity in which perpetrators of online violence escape without consequences, with limited response from platforms, the state, and media houses, leading to ongoing and repeated cycles of violence that, over time, can develop into an accepted culture of violence against women and/or journalists.

    Of the journalist killings documented between September 2013 and August 2023, in 78% (204 cases) no one had been held accountable, according to an analysis by the Committee to Protect Journalists.(23) Securing accountability for online attacks is also challenging due to a range of factors:

    • The difficulties in holding private digital platforms, which do not have a physical presence in most African countries and determine their own content moderation standards separate and distinct from domestic laws, accountable for removing content in languages and contexts in which they have little expertise;
    • The lack of awareness among law enforcement of the severity and impacts of online abuse against women journalists;
    • A dearth of appropriate legislation and regulations dealing specifically with online violence against journalists, particularly women;
    • Challenges in identifying and tracking down perpetrators who often operate anonymously online; and
    • Unsupportive state apparatuses that are often complicit in enabling attacks against journalists and actively seeking to undermine freedom of expression and of the press for various reasons.

    In addition, and because of the above, there is a need for media houses and employers of women journalists to play a more active role in supporting and protecting journalists from these attacks. Concerningly, in a global survey released by the International Federation of Journalists, two-thirds of the respondents stated that online harassment was not a priority for their media company while 44% stated that the issue was not even discussed.(24)

    One Kenyan journalist states:

    “We are harassed in the online space by perpetrators who get away without any consequences. There are no adequate measures to protect us against such harassment: Our media organisations do not know how to act when we are facing these attacks online, and our legal protections, which look very promising on paper, are not implemented. The big question then is, in whose hands are journalists safe?”(25)

    Perpetrators of online violence associated with the state contribute to this culture of violence as it creates the impression that such conduct is permissible. In Rwanda, people with access to the President’s Twitter account were linked to harassment and trolling against journalist Sonia Rolley.(26)

    Case note: Accountability for failure to investigate – Hydara v Gambia

    In the foundational case of Hydara v Gambia (2014) in the ECOWAS Court, the Court held that the state’s failure to effectively investigate the assassination of a prominent Gambian journalist allowed impunity and violated the right to freedom of expression, as well as failing to provide redress to his family. In its judgment, the Court emphasised the obligations of the state to protect media practitioners, including those critical of the state, and to enable a safe and conducive atmosphere for the practice of journalism to avoid the chilling effect that systematic impunity had on journalism and the right to freedom of expression.


    Online violence against journalists causes self-censorship as a protective mechanism, with journalists seeking to avoid reporting on topics that appear sensitive and that could lead to online violence, or ultimately to withdraw from journalism entirely. For example:

    • In Kenya, ARTICLE 19 found that online violence has caused female journalists to withdraw from the use of the internet and stop working for some time.(27)
    • In Namibia the occurrence of online gender-based violence against female journalists in Namibia has led some to resort to self-censorship out of fear of retaliation.(28)

    The impact of self-censorship and withdrawal is profound:

    • Withdrawing and self-censorship implicate freedom of expression and press freedom but also exacerbate the pre-existing inequalities regarding participation levels between men and women journalists as professional counterparts.
    • Further, the withdrawal of large numbers of women journalists from online spaces as well as from the industry as a whole creates serious concerns for representation and diversity of perspectives within the media, with potentially serious economic, social, and political consequences.
    • As stated by UN Women, limiting the participation of women online “is a significant concern given the majority of the estimated 2.9 billion people who remain unconnected to the Internet are women and girls.”(29)


    1. Collins Dictionary, ‘threat of violence,’ (accessible at>;) and Reverso Dictionary (accessible at of violence). Back
    2. United Nations ‘International Day to End Impunity for Crimes against Journalists’ (accessible at of violence and attacks,notably by those made online.). Back
    3. Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, ‘Recommendations following the Expert Meeting New Challenges to Freedom of Expression: Countering Online Abuse of Female Journalists’, (accessible at Back
    4. See UNESCO, The Chilling above n 4. Back
    5. UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights (accessible at Back
    6. UNSR on FreeEx above n 1 at para 39. Back
    7. Amnesty International South Africa, Campaign for Free Expression, Committee to Protect Journalists, Media Monitoring Africa, and the South African National Editors’ Forum, ‘Submission for the 41st Session of the Universal Periodic Review Working Group’ (2022) (accessible at Back
    8. iWatch Africa, ‘Q2 Report: Manasseh Azure, Nana Aba Anamoah & Justice Annan among most abused journalist online, Tracking digital rights in Ghana’ (2020) (accessible at Back
    9. World Wide Web Foundation, ‘Covid-19 and increasing domestic violence against women: The pandemic of online gender-based violence’, July 2020 (accessible at Back
    10. UNSR on VAW Online Violence Report above n 8. Back
    11. UNESCO, The Chilling, above n 4 at 13. Back
    12. ARTICLE 19 & AMWIK, ‘Women Journalists Digital Security’, February 2018 (accessible at Back
    13. Elisabeth Witchel, ‘Getting away with Murder: CPJs 2017 Global Impunity Index spotlights countries where journalists are slain and the killers go free’, 31 October 2017 (accessible at Back
    14. Media Foundation for West Africa, ‘Journalists receive threats via social media in the aftermath of early December general election’, 2020 (accessible at Back
    15. Reporters Without Borders, ‘Online Harassment of Journalists; Attack of the Trolls’ (accessible at Back
    16. BBC, ‘Africa Eye: How a codeine investigation changed Nigeria’, 6 June 2019 (accessible at Back
    17. UNESCO, The Chilling, above n 4. Back
    18. Reporters Without Borders, ‘2020 RSF Index: Future of African Journalism under threat from all sides’ (accessible at Back
    19. Twitter, Larry Madowo (accessible at Back
    20. Madung & Obilo, ‘How to manipulate Twitter and Influence People: Propaganda and the Pandora Papers in Kenya’, 3 November 2021, (accessed Back
    21. The largest investigation in journalism history exposes a shadow of financial system that benefits the world’s most powerful and rich. See: ICIJ, ‘Pandora Papers’ (accessible at Back
    22. UNESCO, The Chilling, above n 4 at 48. Back
    23. VOA, ‘Impunity in Journalist Killings Remains the Norm, Report Says,’ (2023) (accessible at Back
    24. International Federation of Journalists, ‘Time to end Media inaction over online abuse, says IFJ’ (2022) (accessible at Back
    25. Lourdes Walusala, ‘Online Violence against women: In whose hands are journalists safe?’ (2022) (accessible at Back
    26.   Reporters Without Borders, ‘Online Harassment of Journalists; Attack of the Trolls’ (accessible at Back
    27. ARTICLE19 & AMWIK, ‘Women Journalists Digital Security’, February 2016 (accessible at Back
    28. Zviyita & Mare above n 28. Back
    29. UN Women, ‘FAQs: Trolling, stalking, doxing and other forms of violence against women in the digital age,’ (accessible at Back