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Hate speech and the Safety of women journalists

World leaders, experts from technical agencies, media, civil society, and UN Member States on Tuesday discussed the impact of hate speech on the safety of journalists, especially on women, and explored ways that could be taken to tackle impunity at an event to commemorate the 2021 International Day to End Impunity for Crimes Against Journalists.


“Information is a public good to which everyone is entitled. As such, information empowers citizens and enables participation and trust in democratic governance and sustainable development, leaving no one behind,” Ambassador Maria Theofili, Permanent Representative of Greece to the United Nations, said at the high-level virtual event organized by UNESCO, together with the Permanent Missions of France, Greece, and Lithuania to the United Nations, and the Group of Friends for the Protection of Journalists (co-chaired by France, Greece, and Lithuania).


“This is exactly the reason more gender inclusive, gender sensitive and gender responsive approach to the protection of journalists and media workers is a necessary precondition for building democratic base and resilient societies,” she said in the opening remarks.


In recent years, the number of media workers killed while investigating corruption, trafficking, and other human rights violation has risen. The Secretary-General of the United Nations, Mr. António Guterres, addressed the event in a video message. “Almost nine out of 10 of these killings go unpunished," he pointed out.


Ms. Audrey Azoulay, Director-General of UNESCO, noted that in the past decade, almost 900 journalists were killed just for doing their jobs. “Journalists are not only dying in the crossfire of war. They're also being targeted for exposing wrongdoing and speaking the truth to power. Even more alarmingly, about 90 percent of the deaths remain unpunished,” she said in a video message. 


The global trends in violence against women journalists are even more concerning. Mr. Abdulla Shahid, President of the General Assembly, United Nations, pointed out in a video message to the event that “women journalists are disproportionately impacted targets of hate speech, threats of violence and harassment, both online and offline. Much of this is elevated by misogyny that makes journalism unsafe for women.”


“Unfortunately, women journalists and media workers are no exception to violent attacks and harassment,” said Mr. Nikos Dendias, Minister for Foreign Affairs of the Hellenic Republic of Greece, urging that the right of women journalists to be safe and free from gender-based violence must be adequately protected.


“Women journalists are especially vulnerable as they face a double danger: being attacked because of their work and because they are women. Acts of harassment that take place online have also often consequences for women; they experience physical danger and threats of rape and death,” Dr. Mantas Andomėnas, Vice-Minister of Foreign Affairs of the Republic of Lithuania, said in a video message.

“Women journalists and media workers, in particular, are disproportionately affected by various forms of violence, abuse, and threats that in many ways exacerbate existing gender inequalities,” Ms. Delphine Borione, Ambassador for Human Rights of France, said in a video message. 


Ambassador Elisabeth Millard, Acting U.S. Representative to the Economic and Social Council, said in a live intervention that “Free and independent media are essential to democracy and play a crucial role in the free exchange of information and ideas, combating corruption in making government more accountable and transparent.”


The key message from the international community was that “nine of the 10 murders are not punished,” said Mr. Guy Berger, UNESCO Director for Freedom of Expression and Media Development, who moderated the event. He called attention to a new UNESCO publication Threats that Silence: Trends in the Safety of Journalists, noting that “the impunity rate does not correlate with wider impunity rates in the societies concerned. In many cases, it is worse.”


Evidence was also emerging that these online threats often culminated in offline harms, Mr. Berger pointed out, citing a publication called The Chilling produced by UNESCO and the International Center for Journalists, which demonstrates the connection between online violence and offline violence, including ultimately offline killings.


“In this sense,” Mr. Berger said, “we have to look at impunity in a holistic sense, impunity for online violence, impunity for offline violence, and the spectrum of continuity between a lack of punishment for both fatal and non-fatal crimes against journalists, and especially women journalists.”

Against impunity


In the second segment of the event, Mr. Berger moderated an interactive discussion panel to look at the role of political actors, policies, and digital platforms in regard to a normative climate in which impunity online and offline can and does run relatively unimpeded. 


The event provided a platform for Mr. Pedro Vaca, the Organization of American States (OAS) Special Rapporteur for Freedom of Expression, to present a Joint Statement on the Political Leaders’ Narratives about the Press. “In the year 2021, the declaration notes with concern the growing tendency of political leaders to target and stigmatize vulnerable groups, individuals, also journalists, who participate in the public debate, generating an effect of self-censorship and reduction of the civic space.”


Judge Ricardo Pérez Manrique, the Inter-American Court of Human Rights, told the panel that “crimes against journalists are unacceptable because their purpose is always to silent voices, to prevent debate and to generate a climate of fear that prevents democracy and the rule of law from acting effectively and in a real way.”


Mr. Manrique recalled a recent judgment issued by the Court in the case of Colombian journalist Ms. Jineth Bedoya Lima, who was kidnapped, tortured, and sexually assaulted while conducting an investigation in a prison in 2000. The Inter-American Court of Human Rights ruled in October that by failing to properly investigate, Colombia had violated Bedoya's rights to justice and protection. Ms. Bedoya also attended the event and told the panel that women's voices are vital in journalism, acting as "a lifeline between marginalized communities and the world.” However, she said, online harassment is becoming one of the worst issues for female journalists. “Women not only have to face the violence they face as women, but women who communicate often have to marginalize themselves and stop their work.”


The extent of the problem was revealed in the UNESCO publication The Chilling released in April this year. Based on a survey of 901 journalists identifying as female in 125 countries, the study found 73 percent of respondents had experienced some form of online harassment. Threats of physical violence, sexual violence, and violence against family members were among the most common attacks.


Separately, Reporters Without Borders found an alarming rise in the number of detentions of women journalists around the world in 2020. Ms. Rebecca Vincent told the panel that “In 2020, the detentions of women Journalists increased by 35 percent. In total, women Journalists comprised 11 percent of journalists jailed globally by the end of the year, which was 42 out of 387.” 


“There're many different parts of the UN that have responsibility for issues related to free expression or to arbitrary killings. However, this pervasive impunity for so many attacks shows that what we have is currently not working at least in the way that it should be,” Ms. Vincent said. Thus, she added, Reporters Without Borders is advocating the establishment of a UN Special Representative on the Safety of Journalists. 


Ms. Khadija Patel, Head of programs for International Fund for Public Interest Media and the former editor-in-chief of the Mail & Guardian newspaper in South Africa, shared with the panel that she felt powerless dealing with hate speeches against women. “I felt especially powerless when it was the women in my newsroom who came to me carrying their cell phones showing me messages of hatred they received,” said Ms. Patel, who is also Chair of the International Press Institute (IPI). Colleagues from around the world saw little hope in addressing this issue, either through the justice system or through social media platforms, she added. But Ms. Patel believed that "online harassment directed at journalists as individuals represents an attack on the entire newsroom. [...] The acknowledgment of this is essential in building a strategy to combat online harassment,” she noted. The IPI has been researching online violence against women journalists and has recommended how newsrooms can help to counter this problem. “While existing judicial procedures dealing with online harassment are certainly not as effective as they should be, it remains important to report cases of threats, sexual harassment, and insults to the police,” Ms. Patel said.


Ms. Silvia Chocarro, Head of Protection at ARTICLE 19 — an advocacy group defending the freedom of expression — told the panel that the government has a lot of room to promote measures to protect the safety of journalists. “The most simple, expansive measure that a government can take to address this is to refrain from using any of the misogynistic languages against journalists, specifically against women journalists,” she said.


Tuesday’s high-level event was part of the commemorations in 2021, which will pave the way for the 10-year anniversary of the UN Plan of Action on Safety of Journalists and the Issue of Impunity, to be marked in 2022. For the United Nations Action Plan on the Safety of Journalists and the Issue of Impunity, UNESCO leads global efforts to protect journalists and ensure those that attack them are held to account. UNESCO supports national protection and prosecution mechanisms in member states and provide legal support for journalists through the Global Media Defence Fund. UNESCO has also trained nearly 23,000 judges, prosecutors, and lawyers, so they can effectively better protect journalists and prosecute crimes against them in line with international standards. 


“This year, we're also publishing a landmark study of online Violence Against Women Journalists, accompanied by recommendations for regulators, media, and online platforms,” Ms. Azoulay, Director-General of UNESCO, told the event earlier.


“We have to do a lot more about impunity, per se,” Mr. Berger said. “We owe it to bring good news of progress to women journalists who are experiencing atrocious hate speech by perpetrators who currently enjoy a license both online and offline. We owe it to those who have been killed as journalists, killed men and women, and where justice is still lacking in the cases.”