Not Victims. Survivors and Activists

Women journalists around the world face specific obstacles due to their gender – from discrimination to harassment, from threats to physical and psychological attacks, both online and offline. This violence hinders women’s right to freedom of expression, notwithstanding existent legal protections.

Patricia’s story

On 11 February 2020, Brazilians watched a live broadcast of a Brazilian Congress investigation into the use of ‘fake news’ during electoral campaigns. Under scrutiny was a scheme that featured the illegal use of IDs and the dissemination of disinformation. It had been exposed by Brazilian journalist Patricia Campos Mello.

During the broadcast, a witness was being questioned about the mass forwarding of WhatsApp messages (still in use even today) by the campaign of then-candidate Jair Bolsonaro during the run-up to the 2018 presidential elections. The witness – a former employee at one of the companies accused of providing the illegal services – said that Campos Mello had offered sexual favours in exchange for information.

Patricia Campos Mello is a reporter at Folha de Sao Paulo, Brazil’s largest newspaper. She covers important issues in Brazil and abroad, including humanitarian and human rights news. In 2019 she received CPJ’s International Press Freedom Award, adding to the King of Spain Journalism Prize, the Petrobras Prize in 2018 and the International Committee of the Red Cross Prize for humanitarian journalism in 2017. The witness’s accusations were clearly an attempt to discredit her reporting.

In response to these accusations, Campos Mello and her newspaper circulated the original messages that had been exchanged between her and the witness. Congressmen Bolsonaro (the President’s son) and two others tweeted accusations supporting the witness. A day later, the president of Brazil himself reaffirmed the unfounded accusations in an interview. He even tried to joke about it, using words with double meanings that added a sexual connotation to his remarks.

This was not the first time Campos Mello had been targeted online by Bolsonaro’s supporters. Immediately after publishing her piece, she had been subjected to serious threats and online abuse. And despite the outcry and extensive public support she received nationally and internationally, many, especially via social media, continued to express doubts about her work. Spreading disinformation is easier than countering it.

It was an attack on two fronts; she was attacked as a woman, and as a journalist. Her case is yet another troubling example of how gender discrimination is used to damage the credibility of women reporters, and how their personal lives can be weaponized to undermine the legitimacy of their reporting.

Double Vulnerability, Specific Challenges

Women journalists around the world face specific obstacles due to their gender – from discrimination to harassment, from threats to physical and psychological attacks, both online and offline. This violence remains a powerful obstacle to women’s exercise of their right to freedom of expression, notwithstanding existent legal protections.

As stated by CEDAW, violence against women is broadly defined as “any distinction, exclusion or restriction made on the basis of sex which has the effect or purpose of impairing or nullifying the recognition, enjoyment or exercise by women, irrespective of their marital status, on a basis of equality of men and women, of human rights and fundamental freedoms in the political, economic, social, cultural, civil or any other field”.

As a matter of fact, according to the UN, gender-based violence against women journalists has been on the rise, including the number of women journalists killed – in the period from 2014 through 2018, UNESCO denounced the killings of 46 female journalists.

Even though the numbers are increasing, less than 10% of journalists killed annually are women. This is probably because fewer women report on conflicts, organized crime, and government corruption – the highest-risk beats. When they do cover such issues, violent sexual assaults such as those suffered by Lara Loga and Jineth Bedoya tell the tale. Sexual violence is an especially cruel and effective tool in the arsenal used to silence women journalists.

Dirty little secrets

Reporting on sexual assault has been increasing, but many women journalists refuse to disclose what happened to them. They fear they will be seen as weak by their male colleagues, and they fear retribution. In some cases, they do not report out of a misplaced sense of shame.

Sexual assault within the media industry have been recognized as a critical problem for decades – in the field and in newsrooms. According to Kim Barker, a New York Times reporter who has written on her experiences of sexual harassment in the field – and been the target of online harassment afterwards – “it was almost like this dirty little secret, you didn’t talk about it…because you had to seem like you were just like one of the guys.”

Online / Offline / All the Time

Women may have a lower profile among murdered journalists, but they are disproportionately represented among the victims of online harassment. The expansion in the use of information and communication technologies (ICTs), and of the internet in particular, has been both an opportunity and a curse for women journalists. Studies show that female journalists are targeted more frequently and more viciously by online abuse and harassment than their male colleagues.

According to the UN Special Rapporteur on Violence Against Women, “[the digital era] has also provided a platform for new forms of online violence including cyberstalking, defamation campaigns, “doxing”, “sextortion” and “trolling”, as well as the non-consensual distribution of intimate content (or “revenge porn”)”.

Amnesty International and Element IE’s Troll Patrol Project cast a light on the dimensions of the problem; they documented 1.1 million problematic or abusive attacks against 778 monitored women journalists and women in politics during the period of one year – on average, one attack, usually in the form of a message, every 30 seconds. “Women of colour were more likely to be impacted – with black women disproportionately targeted with problematic or abusive tweets”.

A recent survey of female journalists by the CPJ shows that online harassment is already the biggest safety concern facing women journalists (90% in the US and 71% in Canada). “The threats follow us home”, they affirm.

As per a study by Trollbusters and the International Women’s Media Foundation, approximately 30% of the women journalists interviewed said they had considered leaving the profession as a result of the online abuse they suffered.

It is important to remember that online and offline violence feed into each other. As highlighted by the Broadband Commission for Digital Development [.pdf], “[a]buse may be confined to networked technologies or may be supplemented by offline harassment including vandalism, phone calls, and physical assault. Similarly, the viral character of distribution is now explosive. What was once a private affair can now be instantly broadcast to billions of people across the digital world”.

The untold stories

Freedom of expression activists and experts like to say that when one journalist is silenced, she is not the only victim. Society’s right to information is violated. How much is society suffering from the hundreds of women journalists silenced every year, across the globe? What is not being said? What is not being covered?

As highlighted by IWMF, when reporting is dominated by men, so is content. Violence against women journalists can result in the invisibiliation of crucial issues [.pdf] of specific relevance to women, such as gender equality, sexual and reproductive rights, women in politics, and violence against women.

But the absence of women’s voices can negatively impact how all issues are reported on. Consider the recent murder of Ingrid Escamilla in Mexico. The brutality of the crime was covered by some newspapers with shocking frontpage pictures of her skinned body, which revictimized her, vulgarized the crime against her, and normalized the broader issue of violence against women – in a country where 14,558 women were raped in 2018.

A study looking at media coverage in 114 countries pointed out that only 9% of news in print, radio and television evoke gender (in)equality issues and only 4% of the stories clearly challenge gender stereotypes. Only 1 in 4 people heard or read about in the news are women. Would newsrooms with more women result in a different coverage? It would help. But we also need more women in decision-making roles. Men still occupy 73% of top media management positions.

Striking back

Colombian journalist Jineth Bedoya Lima was kidnapped at the gates of La Modelo prison in Bogotá in 2000, tortured and raped for her coverage of crime and trafficking. She says that she first saw herself “as a victim, then as a survivor, and now as an activist defending the rights of women.” Jineth waited 19 years to see her violators sentenced. Actually, she did not wait, she fought for 19 years, for her case and for the cases of hundreds of other women.

Her case was taken to the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights and to the Inter-American Court in 2019. And they were clear – Colombia should take measures to prevent cases such as Jineth’s from ever taking place again.

Bedoya’s case highlights the importance of international bodies in holding states accountable for the safety of women journalists. The Commission indicated [.pdf] the need for training programs for public servants, security forces, and justice authorities, to ensure they have the skills needed to identify gender-based acts and the manifestations of violence against women that affect female journalists. It also recommended measures to raise public awareness about gender-based acts of violence against women journalists, in order to address the full consequences of the violations, including both “material and immaterial losses”.

Other important developments at the international level – the UN Secretary General’s report on the safety of women journalists in 2017, the resulting UN General Assembly resolution, as well as similar resolutions by the Council of Europe – point to a growing recognition of the challenges faced by women journalists and the need for institutional commitments to change the situation.

All of this points to a path to turn this situation around. But it is important to remember that violence against women journalists is part of a broader pattern of discrimination in the region, one based on factors including race, ethnicity, religion or belief, age, class, sexual orientation, and gender identity. In 2018, the OAS Special Rapporteur on Freedom of Expression dedicated a full report to this issue.

Any solutions, therefore, call for a holistic approach, broad societal awareness, and institutional commitment. We need to recognize again and again that freedom of expression is secured in international documents, but will only become a global reality when legal action is complemented by actual change on the ground – modifying minds and structures long dominated by chauvinist and misogynist ideas and ideals. Public institutions need to assume their positive obligations in relation to human rights and promote a media context that is plural and diverse, where multiple ideas may flourish and circulate – especially those of groups that have historically been silenced. Private media outlets also have to assume their share of responsibility to foster change.

Women journalists have the right to practice journalism free from discrimination and gender-based violence. We all have the right to listen to what they have to say. Let’s stand together and demand: “Enough!”

About the writer

Paula Martins is a DCL candidate at McGill’s Faculty of Law. She holds an MPP from the University of Oxford and an LLM from New York University. She was a Regional Director with freedom of expression NGO ARTICLE 19 for more than 10 years and today is a Regional Editor with IFEX – Freedom of Expression Exchange. Paula has also worked as a researcher at Human Rights Watch and a human rights officer at the UN Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights. She has served as a consultant to UNESCO, UNDP and Konrad Adenauer Stiftung, among others.

Back to top