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    Digital Security

    Module 3: Combatting Online Violence Against Women Journalists

      Personal protective techniques(1)

      While no journalist should be responsible for preventing online violence or harassment against them, taking steps to manage one’s digital profiles and making it more difficult for perpetrators to act against them can be an effective way to protect against such harms before they occur

      • Be conscious and cautious regarding the information you share with others
        • Be careful not to give out your phone number, personal email address, identity numbers or location in both online and offline fora which could spread beyond your control and reach unintended audiences.
        • Be careful about not tagging your location in social media posts, at least until you have left it, and closely monitoring followers on personal accounts on which you may share more personal information.
        • Speaking to friends and family about not sharing images, videos, or other content online that provides sensitive information such as your location or your children’s school.
      • Consider the legal terms and conditions of the content you share: Some social media and online platforms have conditions that enable the free use of any content posted online, enabling would-be attackers to reproduce or modify photos or other content you have shared online. Check the terms and conditions of the platforms you use and whether the settings on your account can be changed to prevent this kind of usage.
      • Secure all your accounts: Online violence can sometimes take place through hacking or unauthorised access to your own accounts:
        • Protecting against these risks requires you to always use secure passwords which are regularly changed and saved in a secure password manager, use two-factor authentication (2FA) whenever possible, and be careful about sharing passwords with others.
        • Journalists should also educate themselves on phishing and malware to be able to identify such attempts and be careful to keep all software up to date, including browsers. Consider exploring encrypted email and document-sharing services as well as using encrypted messaging platforms.
        • One can also consider using Virtual Private Networks (VPNs) to mask your physical location and encrypt your connection to the internet, particularly when using public WiFi networks or networks shared with other people.

      Know what is out there and how to remove it

      A quick online search of your name can be a useful tool to determine what information is currently available online about you and enable you to follow up with the hosts of any information you wish to have removed.

      Keep in mind that once online, content can be rapidly shared, edited and stored on internet archive sites, so the most effective strategy is to prevent the information from getting online in the first place.

      For more guidance see:

      • The International Women’s Media Foundation course, Keep it Private, which provides further guidance on how to protect one’s data online.
      • The Committee to Protect Journalists’ (CPJ) detailed guide on how to remove data from the internet.

      Account security tips

      The Rory Peck Trust Digital Security Guide provides detailed guidance on account security along with Media Defence’s Stay Safe Online Guide for Sub-Saharan African journalists.  

      Dealing with online violence

      • It is important to emphasise the need to document the messages and communications you are receiving, both to share with others as well as in case of potential future legal action.
      • Consider reporting the abuse to your employer, family, friends, and others who can provide support. Although this might be hard, it can be helpful to have others to lean on as well as to get advice from colleagues or others who may have experienced something similar.
      • Consider blocking the perpetrator, logging off temporarily, or even closing your account in order to protect yourself from further violence.
      • Do not hesitate to seek psycho-social support however it may be available. It is important to emphasise that although perpetrated online, such violence has very real and damaging real-world effects for its victims/survivors, and it is normal to experience these effects. Check whether your employer provides access to psycho-social support and consider reaching out to a professional who can assist.

      Reporting to online platforms

      Another critical step in managing online violence which deserves further attention is reporting to the online platforms on which the content is shared. All platforms have standard terms of use, and if you can show that someone has violated those terms, you can have the content removed and/or the person’s account suspended or deleted, which prevents additional harm in future.

      Support tips

      The difficulties of reporting to platforms

          Unfortunately, many women journalists affected by this online violence report experiencing wholly ineffective responses from the digital platforms. Ferial Haffajee, an editor in South Africa, reported to UNESCO that she was “stonewalled” by Twitter (now X) when attempting to use the automated reporting system to report her abuse.(2)

          Criticism has also gone further than individual cases to note that responses by the platforms are uneven, with proactive content moderation being notably poorer in countries outside of their major markets and in less prioritised languages due to a lack of contextual understanding and investment in content moderation capacity in their languages.(3)  

          For further guidance, as well as a list of other digital security resources, see the Practical Guide for Women Journalists on How to Respond to Online Harassment published by UNESCO, TrustLaw, the Thomson Reuters Foundation and the International Women’s Media Foundation.

          Conclusion

          Digital attacks on journalists can occur in a wide range of formats, all with extensive impacts on a wide range of human rights that are protected and promoted by international human rights law. This module provides lawyers with a practical but introductory guide to considering strategies to counter and seek accountability for online violence against journalists, including through litigation, advocacy, and pre-emptive digital security tactics. Litigation can be a highly impactful way of security progressive jurisprudence and real remedies but is also most likely to be effective and successful when coupled with non-legal strategies such as public advocacy campaigns and efforts to improve the responsiveness of online platforms to such violence.

          Footnotes

          1. Much of the guidance provided here is courtesy of the Practical Guide for Women Journalists on How to Respond to Online Harassment, published by UNESCO, TrustLaw, the Thomson Reuters Foundation and the International Women’s Media Foundation (accessible at https://trustdnsmanaging.com/wp-content/uploads/2023/10/TRFPracticalGuideJUL2021V15.pdf”). Back
          2. UNESCO, accessible at https://en.unesco.org/sites/default/files/the-chilling.pdf. Back
          3. Id. Back