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Women’s History Month: Journalists who inspire us

Women’s History Month: Journalists who inspire us

Threats and violence against women journalists endanger important democratic values, including freedom of expression and the right to information. Despite significant risks, women continue to investigate abuses of power—and we applaud those who are laying the groundwork for a better future.

Whether covering instability wrought by war or how corruption impacts local farmers, every journalist seeks the truth, often at great risk—but the difficulties women journalists face come from many fronts. Seventy-three percent of women journalists have experienced online violence as a result of their work, according to a survey by UNESCO — and some of these women have been killed in the line of duty, demonstrating how online threats can manifest into physical ones. Women journalists also contend with sexual violence and harassment, threats to family members and inequality in the workplace. Despite these challenges, women journalists around the world continue to do impactful, ground-breaking work covering vital issues.

Women reporting on conflict

Oleksandra Sasha Kuvshynova was killed in Ukraine by an artillery attack by the Russian armed forces soon after the start of the war. Only age 24, Kuvshynova was on journalistic assignment with a Fox News team reporting outside Kyiv shortly after the start of the war. Fox News cameraman Pierre Zakrzewski was also killed in the attack. Kuvshynova was a documentary film producer and journalist who played a prominent role in Kyiv’s creative community. She also worked to support free media and artistic expression in Kyiv and beyond.

Kuvshynova was one of five women journalists killed in 2022. According to the Committee to Protect Journalists, all of these women were working in conflict areas. Among their number is veteran correspondent Shireen Abu Akleh, who was fatally shot while covering an Israeli army operation in the West Bank for Al Jazeera. Four of the women journalists killed, including Kuvshynova, worked in Ukraine. In total, 67 members of the press were killed in 2022, as reported by CPJ.

Despite the rights and protections journalists are entitled to while reporting on armed conflicts, attacks against journalists in the context of war are often met with impunity. To challenge this trend, in 2022, Media Defence filed an application before the European Court of Human Rights on behalf of Kuvshynova’s family. In our application, we argue that the fatal attack was a violation of Article 2 (the right to life), Article 5 (the right to liberty and security of person), Article 8 (the right to respect for private and family life), Article 10 (the right to freedom of expression), Article 13 (the right to an effective remedy) and Article 17 (the prohibition of the abuse of rights) of the European Convention on Human Rights.

Women journalists covering conflict are also at risk of targeted, gender-based attacks. Award-winning journalist Jineth Bedoya is known for her reporting on the activities of Colombia’s paramilitary groups. In 2000, following a visit to the infamous Modelo prison in Bogotá to interview a paramilitary member, Bedoya was abducted, tortured and sexually assaulted. Her quest for justice took more than two decades. When the Inter-American Court of Human Rights finally heard her case in 2021, Media Defence filed an amicus curiae brief. The Court’s subsequent landmark judgment sets key standards for the protection of women journalists.

Women reporting on misinformation and censorship

Another award-winning journalist, Bettie Kemah Johnson-Mbayo, founded The Stage Media, Liberia’s first fact-checking institution, to tackle misinformation in the wake of COVID-19. A group of men allegedly working for a representative of the Liberian government assaulted Johnson-Mbayo and her husband in 2022. Johnson-Mbayo explains that—in an attempt to dissuade her from journalism—policymakers routinely target her husband, Dr. Moses Mbayo, for abuse. “There have been times where he has been publicly bullied for not controlling what I write,” she reveals. “One time, I wrote an article about a health facility where his instructor was the co-head. The professor argued that my husband should have stopped me from reporting on his facility.”

Johnson-Mbayo has had to separate herself from her husband on several occasions in order to shield him from the backlash against her reporting. “When politicians cannot frighten women, they go for their families,” she explains, adding that her assault was organised to “shut me down” and “impede how I report”. After the attack, Johnson-Mbayo and her husband were arrested for ‘disorderly conduct’ and ‘felonious restraint’. Both received prison sentences, despite a representative of the Liberian government—who was present during the incident—publicly threatening to “get back” at the correspondent for covering sensitive political stories. Media Defence supported Johnson-Mbayo in this case. Ultimately, the plaintiff dropped the charges against the journalist and her husband at the end of 2022.

Johnson-Mbayo is dedicated to documenting gender inequality in Liberia but is keenly aware that the country’s traditional values and religious ideology leaves women underrepresented and undermined. “How is a woman supposed to fight censorship in a patriarchal society like Liberia?” she asks, adding that the Court’s decision to criminally charge her was aimed at ruining her credibility as a journalist.

Women reporting on corruption

Thai reporter Chutima Sidasathian has dedicated herself to reporting on corruption, abuse of power and the plights of rural communities and refugees despite repeated attempts to silence her through intimidation and legal attacks.

In 2015, Sidasathian, who was writing for the English-language news site Phuketwan, was charged with defamation under Thailand’s Computer Crime Act, along with her editor Alan Morison, an Australian citizen. The charges were brought by naval officers in connection to news reports Phuketwan quoted alleging their involvement in the trafficking of stateless Rohingya migrants.

While Thailand’s government routinely enforces censorship, Sidasathian argues that women journalists are particularly vulnerable to abuse of laws restricting freedom of expression. “Civil and criminal defamation laws are used too often in Thailand,” says Sidasathian. “There’s a lack of women in powerful positions and an abundance of women in journalism roles, which leads to a greater number of women facing these types of charges.”

Thailand’s restrictive political environment continues to impose legal sanctions for criticising the military-backed government. In addition to the Computer Crime Act, which curtails online speech and enforces surveillance, the country’s infamous lèse-majesté law imposes a sentence of up to fifteen years in prison for affronting the Thai royal family. “The burden of bad law often falls upon journalists who ask the most inquisitive and appropriate questions. That’s mostly women,” according to Sidasathian.

Human rights groups widely condemned Sidasathian’s 2015 case. Although she and Morrison were eventually acquitted, Sidasathian continues to face criminal charges aimed at silencing her reporting on corruption and power abuses. In early 2021, Sidasathian posted on her Facebook page about farmers in the province of Nakhorn Ratchasima, commonly referred to as Korat. The farmers were indebted to the local government after receiving money through a lending scheme. She had found evidence that the scheme was used to divert funds illegally. Sidasathian’s Facebook posts document and criticise the local government’s involvement in the banking crisis. The mayor of the district filed an application against Sidasathian for criminal defamation in relation to three Facebook posts in which Sidasathian criticised the mayor’s administration, his involvement in the banking scandal and the effect that the scandal had on local villagers from sixteen villages. The trial date has been set for February 2024.

Media Defence supported Sidasathian’s legal defence in both the 2015 case and this one. We see it as emblematic of the potential abuse of criminal defamation laws by those in positions of power, in this case a local mayor, to intimidate and silence independent journalists exposing corruption and investigating public interest stories in the country. The threat of a potential criminal conviction and sentence against Sidasathian, who could face six years in prison, will inevitably create a chilling effect. It could also promote self-censorship by other media outlets and journalists when it comes to reporting on matters of public importance.

The importance of women journalists in giving a voice to the unheard

Women journalists play an essential role in bringing to light unknown stories and unheard voices. They are uniquely equipped to do this, according to Sidasathian. “Women are compassionate. They find progress and opportunities in life more difficult and are consequently more determined, more understanding, and more questioning… Readers benefit because women are more prepared to challenge male authorities. They are outsiders dealing with the ‘Boys’ Club’,” she says.

Gender power gaps, however, threaten to limit the role of women journalists, says Johnson-Mbayo.  “There’s a whole lot to be done,” she says. “In Liberia, editorial and managerial positions are squarely run by men. They don’t see that there is a need to create a safe space for women to compete and participate.” This imbalance is exacerbated, Johnson-Mbayo observes, by a lack of funding being funnelled into women-founded media outlets. Furthermore, financing for action to tackle violence against women and girls is frequently doled out to male representatives.

Free press is foundational to a healthy democracy. It empowers the public by providing the information we need to elect leaders. It also increases political accountability, and acts as a mechanism for the investigation of violations or malpractice. More often than not, we take free press for granted. But the hard work of journalism has long carried risks. This is even more so the case for women journalists who face the dangers that all journalists face, as well as gender-specific challenges such as online harassment, sexual harassment, inequality in the workplace and sexual violence among others. The struggle to improve safety and professional opportunities for women journalists, however, is not gender-specific. It is for all who stand to gain from being part of a free and fully informed society.

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