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    Module 2: Digital attacks and Online Gender-Based Violence

    Across the continent, attacks against journalists continue to rise(1) as both state and non-state (corporations and individual) actors seek, either directly or indirectly, to muzzle their reporting and infringe on their rights to freedom of expression, and other intersecting rights. In the internet age, it is perhaps unsurprising that many of these attacks are perpetrated through digital tools and platforms and target journalists on social media and other platforms on which they work and interact. Digital attacks can take many different forms, but as discussed in Module 1 in this series, all have the potential to seriously impact freedom of expression online, including freedom of the press, particularly when targeted at journalists.

    Online gender-based violence (OGBV), an increasingly common manifestation of digital attacks forms part of the continuum of GBV in society.(2) Many of the gender-based harms that occur offline frequently occur online. Similarly, the harms that occur online often enable those that occur offline. OGBV is like any other form of GBV – it violates the rights and freedoms of victims and survivors’ rights,(3) and can have severe and enduring consequences.”(4)

    • Definition: The United Nations Special Rapporteur on Violence against Women (UNSR on VAW), explains OGBV as “any act of gender-based violence against women that is committed, assisted or aggravated in part or fully by the use of ICT, such as mobile phones and smartphones, the Internet, social media platforms or email, against a woman because she is a woman, or affects women disproportionately”.(5) Women journalists are at a heightened risk of OBGV by virtue of their gender and profession, and those with further intersecting identities facing additional risks.
    • Targets: Women journalists bear the brunt of digital attacks and OGBV, often including visceral and deeply gendered threats of violence relating to both their professional and private lives and often extending to other members of their families, including children.(6) As a result, the United Nations Special Rapporteur on Freedom of Expression (UNSR on FreeEx) has stressed the need to take a gender-sensitive approach when considering measures to address the issue of violence against journalists and media workers, including in the online sphere.(7)
    • Rights implicated: Traditionally, human rights mechanisms have examined the impact of these threats by relying on international standards on the rights to freedom of expression, press freedom, and privacy. In recent times, this has been extended to other mutually reinforcing international standards on the rights of assembly and association, freedom from discrimination, and civil and political rights relating to participation online and offline, amongst others.

    This module examines several forms of digital attacks against journalists, including:

    • Cyber-harassment;
    • Non-consensual dissemination of intimate images (NCII);
    • Dis- and misinformation;
    • Privacy and data protection violations, including doxxing and cyber-stalking;
    • Denial of service (DoS) and distributed denial of service (DDoS) attacks;
    • Silencing the online expression of victims and survivors;
    • Government surveillance;
    • Commercial surveillance;
    • Phishing; and
    • The confiscation of hardware.


    1. See, for example, Amnesty International, ‘East and Southern Africa: Attacks on journalists on the rise as authorities seek to suppress press freedom,’ (2023) (accessible at and VOA, ‘Attacks, Harassment Threaten Media Across Africa,’ (2023) (accessible at Back
    2. Nwaodike & Naidoo, ‘Fighting Violence Against Women Online: A Comparative Analysis of Legal Frameworks In Ethiopia, Kenya, Senegal, South Africa, and Uganda’ (2020) (accessible at Back
    3. The terms “victim” and “survivor” may be used interchangeably and refer to those who have experienced GBV and/or OGBV. These terms have different connotations and implications and do not intend to, by any means, impose a definition or response on any persons who have experienced some of the severe violations to their dignity and safety. Back
    4. Power Law ‘Deconstruct: Online Gender-Based Violence Toolkit’ (2021) (accessible at Back
    5. 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’ (2018) (accessible at (UNSR on VAW Report on online violence). Back
    6. CIPESA ‘Annual Report’, (2020) (accessible at and UNESCO ‘The Chilling: Global trends in online violence against women journalists’ (2021) (accessible at Back
    7. UNHRC, ‘Report of the Special Rapporteur on the promotion and protection of the right to freedom of opinion and expression’ (2012) (accessible at Back