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OSCE Discusses Digital Threats Targeting Female Journalists


Female journalists are increasingly being singled out and threatened online, and the pressure is driving many of them ‘underground.’

Arzu Geybullayeva received her first death threat online last year. A contributor to RFE/RL’s Azerbaijani Service and freelance journalist based in Istanbul since 2013, she had become inured to the abusive Twitter refrains of “traitor,” “whore,” and “agent of the west,” but the death threat represented a whole new level of virulence, and one the data suggests women journalists are much more likely to experience than men.

Geybullayeva and a group of fellow journalists, activists, and government representatives gathered in Vienna September 17 for a conference on digital threats targeting female journalists organized by the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE). Panelists discussed the extent of the problem and steps governments and media institutions can take to combat it.

Caroline Criado-Perez, a British journalist who received a flood of threats on Twitter after suggesting that a woman appear on British bank notes, read some of the most alarming tweets aloud, one of the most emblematic being: “Women that talk too much need to get raped.”

Czech Republic--RFE/RL Azerbaijani Service Contributor Arzu Geybullayeva. Prague, December 9, 2014.
Czech Republic--RFE/RL Azerbaijani Service Contributor Arzu Geybullayeva. Prague, December 9, 2014.

Throughout the day, countless women shared similar stories, and bleak statistics underpinned their accounts. A report published last year based on a global survey by the International Women’s Media Foundation found that almost 25 percent of surveyed women journalists had been targets of insults or criticism published online that often took the form of sexual harassment. The same does not hold true for men. According to British think tank Demos, women journalists are targeted for abuse three times as much as their male colleagues on Twitter.

While men are harassed online too, the nature of harassment aimed at them differs vastly from the harassment aimed at women. “What seems apparent,” said Dunja Mijatovic, OSCE Representative on Freedom of the Media, “is that female journalists and bloggers experience a different kind of abuse--namely, gendered abuse.” Women journalists receive more violent, often sexually harassing threats than their male counterparts. As a result, Mijatovic added, “Many women stop engaging in journalism or go underground in order to continue doing their job.”

Participants called on concerned parties to stop drawing distinctions between online and offline worlds.

“The same patriarchal power structures online [exist] in everyday life,” said Swedish State Secretary Maja Fjaestad. “It is these power structures that are the basis of the problem. The same laws and rights must apply both online and offline. A threat is a threat, regardless of which media it’s expressed on.”

Becky Gardiner, a former comment editor at The Guardian, proposed moderating comments sections in online forums to protect journalists from the nastiest remarks. In order for the Internet to remain a free and open space for discussion, “not reading the comments or disabling the comments is not a solution,” she said.

Judy Taing of the nonprofit Article 19, an organization promoting free speech, urged civic organizations and media groups to start developing what she called “counter speech,” or speech that would more energetically defend journalists online and fire back against the threats lobbed at them, instead of placing the onus on Internet companies to filter out online abuse.

Georgia -- Dunja Mijatovic, OSCE Representative on Freedom of the Media.
Georgia -- Dunja Mijatovic, OSCE Representative on Freedom of the Media.

While several concrete strategies to address threats against women journalists were identified at the meeting, they may be difficult to apply universally. In an interview with Lady Liberty, Geybullayeva said the politics behind the gendered harassment of women online differ case by case and country by country.

“I fear that in Azerbaijan, even though there may be some kind of international framework, there can be no [effective] approach to threats of gender based violence online because of a lack of real understanding of what gender equality means,” she said.

As Mijatovic stated in her closing remarks, “Online abuse toward journalists and bloggers should not be looked at as an isolated phenomenon. It is a discussion about hate speech, online freedom, and gender equality.”

--Sasha Peters