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    Cyber Harassment

    Module 2: Digital attacks and Online Gender-Based Violence

    What is cyber-harassment?

    Cyber-harassment, also referred to as online harassment or online abuse, refers to a situation in which an individual or group is severely or pervasively targeted through harmful online behaviour that may be for either a short or extended duration, may be perpetrated by either an individual or coordinated by a group of people, and which is aimed at causing severe emotional distress or emotional harm.(1)

    What forms does it take?

    Cyber-harassment can occur in a variety of forms that specifically target women,(2) and might be considered an umbrella term for a range of other digital attacks, such as:(3)

    • Cyberbullying, which is common among children and young adults and typically involves sending digital messages that are aimed at causing embarrassment or humiliation.(4)
    • Non-consensual dissemination of intimate images (NCII),(5) which refers to the sharing or publication of images of a subject, whether obtained with or without consent, with the aim of causing them harm.(6) This will be discussed in further detail below.
    • Online sexual harassment, which refers to exposing a subject to unwanted direct or indirect, verbal, or non-verbal content of a sexual nature, such as the unsolicited sending and or receiving of sexually explicit material that violates the dignity of a person and creates a hostile or humiliating environment.(7)
    • Abusive comments, including, for example, abusing and/or shaming a woman for expressing views that are not normative, for disagreeing with people (often men), or for refusing sexual advances.
    • Incitement of others to physical violence, including advocating for femicide and incitement to commit suicide.
    • Hate speech, whether through social media posts or digital mail, which is targeted at one’s actual or presumed protected characteristics, such as gender, sexuality, or race, including the use of sexist or gendered name-calling.
    • Online sexual exploitation which refers to the use of digital technologies to exploit or abuse a position of power over a victim for sexual purposes. It occurs in many forms including online grooming, live streaming of sexual abuse, child sexual abuse material (CSAM), online sex trafficking, online sexual coercion, and image-based sexual abuse. While these types of violations are not new, digital technologies have provided a platform through which perpetrators can reach wider audiences and derive illicit financial gain. This form of violence disproportionately affects women and children.

    Cyber-harassment of journalists

    A UNESCO report on the Safety of Journalists Covering Protests noted that “while experiencing the same kinds of physical violence as their male counterparts, women media workers are also more highly exposed to the threats of sexual violence and rape.(8)

    During the protests in Egypt in 2011, for example, and in addition to physical attacks, there were notable instances of female journalists being “attacked by prominent male media figures on either social media or broadcast media, resulting in widespread online violence campaigns.”(9)

    In addition to the above, a range of other terms have developed to describe the complex and varied ways in which harassment can take place and the tactics that are used on digital platforms. For example:

    • Astroturfing: creating the false impression that coordinated activity is a widespread, spontaneous grassroots movement when it is actually controlled by a concealed group or organisation.(10)
    • Concern trolling: offering undermining criticisms under the guise of concern with the aim of sabotaging the issue being discussed and causing dissent within a community.(11)
    • Cyber-mob attacks: a large group gathering online to try to collectively shame, harass, threaten, or discredit a target.(12)
    • Deep fakes: images convincingly altered or manipulated to misrepresent something having been done or said.(13)
    • Hashtag poisoning: creating abusive hashtags or hijacking existing hashtags that are used to rally cyber mob attacks.(14)
    • Cyberstalking: the utilisation of technology to surveil or track an individual’s online and offline activities, which may include monitoring locations, activities, and content (this can involve real-time tracking or historical monitoring of an individual’s behaviour).(15)
    • Controlling devices, which involves accessing, using, or manipulating an individual’s electronic devices without their consent, whether in their presence or remotely, for instance, advancements in technology enable individuals to remotely control or manipulate the activation and deactivation of devices, adjust temperatures, and lock or unlock spaces.(16)

    Multiple forms of harm

    The multifaceted scope of cyber-harassment is illustrated by the wave of online attacks against members of Ethiopia’s LGBTQI community in 2023 who were faced with increased online harassment and threats of physical violence with posts being shared on Tik Tok. Various posts called for, among other things, “homosexual and transgender people to be whipped, stabbed and killed.”(17)

    LGBTQI activists raised concern that TikTok users were also “outing Ethiopians by sharing their names, photographs and online profiles”, with some of the outing videos stating: “Let’s kill them, give us their address.”(18)

    Harassment, outing, doxxing, and threats and incitement to violence are often interwoven placing marginalised or at-risk communities of attacks both on and offline.  

    International law and standards

    As discussed in Module 1, online violence against women journalists – including cyber-harassment implicates multiple cross-cutting rights protected in international law, including the rights of freedom of expression, equality and non-discrimination, and freedom from violence, among others. These rights of women journalists are bolstered by a range of international human rights instruments, including:

    • The Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR);
    • The International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR);
    • The International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (ICESCR);
    • The International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination (CERD);
    • The Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW);
    • The Convention against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment (CAT); and
    • The Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (CRPD).

    The Council of Europe’s Istanbul Convention on Preventing and Combatting Violence against Women and Domestic Violence, although not directly relevant to Africa, provides a comprehensive definition of the types of violence against women, including online and ICT‑facilitated violence, and sets out useful guidance for states.(19)

    Notably, however, Council of Europe Convention No. 185, known as the Budapest Convention, arguably the most influential global standard on cybercrime and one to which nine African countries have signed up,(20) does not explicitly address ICT-induced violence against women (while it does address the sexual exploitation of children online).

    As with all human rights, women’s rights in this regard apply in full measure in online spaces,(21) arenas in which gender-based violence is not only perpetuated but also exacerbated in new and challenging forms. Several rights are implicated in the various forms of cyber‑harassment detailed above, such as the right not to be subject to discrimination, to privacy, to dignity, and freedom of expression.

    National laws

    Research into 48 African countries found:(22)

    • 75% (36) of the countries have no cyber-harassment law;
    • 19% (9) of the countries have a cyber-harassment law but it does not address sexual harassment; and
    • Only 6% (3) have a cyber-harassment law that does address sexual harassment.

    Regulation of these harms can be difficult due to several factors:

    • First, cyber-harassment is often difficult to control online and can replicate and morph rapidly. This is further complicated by the fact that it often involves multiple offenders in different jurisdictions over platforms that provide anonymity to users.(23)
    • Second, regulating cyber-harassment necessarily involves some form of limitation of the speech of perpetrator(s), and such limitations must meet the three-part test under international law.
    • Third, the wide variety of forms of cyber-harassment can be difficult to define and its manifestation in online spaces can change rapidly as new technologies and uses develop over time, which makes defining offences difficult.
    • Finally, enforcement of laws is challenging, often requiring extensive sensitisation of law enforcement officers and the judiciary as to the seriousness and impact of these crimes.

    Legislating cyber-harassment

    Despite these challenges, various provisions seeking to criminalise the many forms of cyber-harassment have been passed into law in Africa in recent years. For example:

    • South Africa’s Cybercrimes Act, 2019, criminalises cyber-bullying, defined as the sending of electronic messages or social media posts to a person that incite or threaten that person with violence or damage to their property (sections 14 and 15), and cyber-extortion, defined as committing various offences for the purpose of obtaining an advantage from another person or compelling the person to perform or abstain from an act (section 10). South Africa’s Electronic Communications and Transactions Act, 2002, also provides for several offences relating to using electronic communications to harass or defame another person. This is in addition to provisions in the Protection from Harassment Act, 2011, that refer explicitly to both offline and online harassment.
    • Nigeria’s Cybercrimes Act, 2015, provides a comprehensive definition of cyber-harassment and spells out specific offences such as ‘cyberstalking’ provision under Article 24 which provides that ‘any person who knowingly or intentionally sends a message or other matter by means of computer systems or network… to bully, threaten or harass another person, where such communication places another person in fear of death, violence or bodily harm or to another person’ will attract imprisonment for a term of 10 years and/or a minimum fine of N25,000,000.00 (USD59,406.5).(24)


    1. Media Defence, ‘Factsheet: Gender and Online Harassment’ (2021) (accessible at Back
    2. For conciseness, we refer hereafter to “women” to include all those who identify as women and those with marginalised or at-risk identities including members of the LGBTQI community, except where specific instruments or documents referenced refer explicitly to “women” or some other grouping. Back
    3. Internet Governance Forum, ‘Best Practice Forum (BPF) on Online Gender-Based Violence against Women’ (2015) (accessible at Back
    4. Stop Bullying, ‘What Is Cyberbullying,’ (accessible at Back
    5. Media Defence, ‘Module 7: Cybercrime’, (2020) (accessible at Back
    6. UNSR on VAW Report on online violence above n 5. Back
    7. Id. Back
    8. UNESCO, ‘Safety of journalists covering protests: preserving freedom of the press during times of turmoil (2020) (accessible at Back
    9. Megan Brown et al, ‘Gender-based online violence spikes after prominent media attacks’ (2022) (accessible at Back
    10. Merriam-Webster Dictionary, ‘astroturfing,’ (accessible at Back
    11., ‘concern troll’ (accessible at Back
    12. PEN America, ‘Defining online harassment: A glossary of terms’, accessible at Back
    13. Merriam-Webster Dictionary, ‘deep fake,’ (accessible at Back
    14. Pen America, ‘Defining “Online Abuse” A glossary of terms’ (accessible at Back
    15. Deconstruct: Online Gender-Based Violence Toolkit above n 4. Back
    16. Id. Back
    17. Anna, ‘LGBTQ people in Ethiopia blame attacks on their community on inciteful and lingering TikTok videos’ (2023) (accessible at Back
    18. Id. Back
    19. World Bank, ‘Protecting Women and Girls from Cyber Harassment: A Global Assessment of Existing Laws,’ (2023) (accessible at Back
    20. Council of Europe, ‘The Budapest Convention (ETS No. 185) and its Protocols,’ (accessible at Back
    21. CEDAW, ‘General recommendation No. 35 on gender-based violence against women,’ (2017) (accessible at Back
    22. World Bank, accessible at Back
    23. Equality Now, ‘Ending Online sexual exploitation and abuse of women and girls: A call for International standards, Executive Summary and Key findings’, November 2021 (accessible at Back
    24. Cybercrimes (Prohibition and Prevention) Act, 2015 (accessible at Back