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Online Abuse A Challenge To Free Expression

OSCE essay collection highlights the problem of online harassment of women journalists

Continuing its work to draw attention to the gendered threats and harassment faced by women journalists, the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) has published a collection of essays penned by media researchers, activists, and journalists that illustrate the problem and recommend solutions.

New Challenges to Freedom of Expression: Countering Online Abuse of Female Journalists is a collection of 9 essays making the case for increased action to counteract gendered harassment of women journalists online.

While there is still precious little quantitative research focusing on abuse of women who work in the media, the researchers who authored the essays in the collection cite mounting anecdotal evidence that is supported by general data on Internet harassment.

A 2014 Pew Research Center survey shows that about 40 percent of all Internet users say they have experienced harassment. The survey suggested that women are generally much more likely to be harassed online than men, and the type of harassment is likely to be sexual. The survey also found women are more likely than men to characterize their experiences with online harassment as “extremely” or “very” upsetting.

“These are gendered threats--they attack women’s bodies, clothes, physical appearance, personal lives, and threaten sexual violence,” said Elisa Munoz, executive director of the International Women’s Media Foundation and contributor to the collection. “When women journalists are inundated with these kinds of threats, they’re understandably discouraged from continuing to work.”

When women journalists are frightened into silence by threats, the authors argue, it becomes not just an issue of harassment, but of free speech.

In the absence of a clear international legal framework to tackle the abuse, the authors suggest other approaches that can be taken by media companies and women journalists themselves. Recommendations include better online community moderation, better data collection on threats and support for the targets from colleagues, and use of new apps to support journalists and bloggers who are in the throes of a cyber abuse onslaught.

“News should reflect the audience and the information they need,” said Munoz, “And if women journalists are being driven offline as a result of threats, then we have to think about how that will impact the kind of information we’re all getting.”

--Emily Thompson