A new report by the UN’s cultural agency, Unesco, makes horrifying reading. A global survey of 901 journalists from 125 countries found that female journalists across the world are under unprecedented levels of attack. The intent, says the UN, is to belittle, humiliate, shame, induce fear and ultimately discredit female reporters; and to undercut public trust in critical journalism and facts.
The statistics are shocking. Nearly three-quarters of those surveyed had experienced online hostility of some sort, while a quarter had been threatened with sexual violence and death; the likelihood of attack increased greatly if the women belonged to a minority. Incidents included personal details spilled on to the internet; finances hacked, families harassed and intimidated and employers sent doctored photos. A fifth reported being subsequently attacked or abused offline.
About 2.5m threatening posts were directed at just two women: Maria Ressa of the Philippines and Carole Cadwalladr of the UK. Ms Ressa was at one point receiving 90 hate messages an hour on Facebook alone. Ghada Oueiss, an Al Jazeera Arabic presenter, gets at least one death threat every day she is on air. In Northern Ireland, reporter Patricia Devlin has received multiple death threats. Last year she lodged an official complaint against the police for a “complete failure” to properly investigate a threat to rape her baby. The UN says only 11% of female journalists went to the police.
The UN did not canvass men for their experiences, but it is instructive that a 2016 study of 70m comments left on the Guardian’s website found that of the 10 most abused writers, eight were women; the two men were black, and one was also gay. Ms Devlin points out that female journalists suffer more abuse for reporting on paramilitary groups than their male counterparts.
It is depressing how organised the abuse often is. But what it most striking is how frequently it is not only tolerated at the highest levels, but incited from there – from Rodrigo Duterte, president of the Philippines, musing that journalists are not exempt from assassination, to Donald Trump’s attacks on specific reporters. Nearly 40% of survey subjects identified “political actors” as the sources of attacks. The amplifying effect of the rightwing media cannot be discounted.
Given the continuing reluctance of social media platforms to take responsibility, victims are forced to block or mute messages themselves, “potentially compounding the effects of the abuse”; those abused in local languages that go mostly unmoderated don’t bother complaining. A tiny handful take legal action. But how should societies protect reporters?
The report’s authors make 28 sensible recommendations, from increased global cooperation to rapid response units run by social media platforms. It calls for governments to act against officials who engage in gendered online violence and make social media firms more accountable.
Anti-press trolling, especially that directed at women, is a form of hate speech, intended to silence and intimidate. At least a third of female journalists, say the UN, reported self-censorship. The chilling effect of mob censorship cannot be underestimated and must be urgently addressed, with a view to stopping and rolling back its baleful spread.