UNESCO Study Reveals Alarming Rise in Online Abuse Targeting Women Journalists

Women journalists face escalating online abuse, threatening press freedom and their safety, according to a UNESCO-ICFJ study. Urgent action needed from tech firms, governments, and media to address this growing threat.

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Mahnoor Jehangir
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UNESCO Study Reveals Alarming Rise in Online Abuse Targeting Women Journalists

UNESCO Study Reveals Alarming Rise in Online Abuse Targeting Women Journalists

Female media professionals are facing an escalating wave of online violence and abuse, according to a comprehensive 2022 study conducted by UNESCO and the International Center for Journalists (ICFJ).

The global survey, which included 900 journalists from 125 countries, found that nearly three-quarters of women journalists had experienced online violence or abuse in connection with their work.

The types of online attacks reported by journalists ranged from insults, sexist comments, and physical threats to more sophisticated forms of harassment such as account blocking, hacking, publishing private photos, and creating "deep fakes" without consent. "The attacks include blocking accounts, hacking, publishing private photos, and creating 'deep fakes,'" the study noted. Experts warn that this toxic online environment is being facilitated by the failure of big tech companies to take responsibility for the abuse occurring on their platforms.

Why this matters: The alarming rise in online abuse targeting women journalists poses a serious threat to press freedom and the ability of journalists to report on sensitive topics without fear of harassment or retaliation. The consequences of this abuse can be far-reaching, potentially dissuading some journalists from covering certain stories or even driving them out of the industry altogether.

The study found that the violent threats tend to increase when the online abuse is combined with discrimination linked to factors such as the journalist's skin color, religion, or sexual orientation. "Violent threats tend to increase when combined with discrimination linked to skin color, religion, or sexual orientation," the researchers observed. In some cases, the online threats have translated into real-world violence, with one-fifth of the female media professionals surveyed saying they had suffered attacks or insults in real life that were linked to the online abuse they had experienced.

While there is growing awareness of the problem within the industry, and some media organizations have put protocols in place to try to tackle cyberbullying, experts emphasize that much more needs to be done to address the issue. They point out that the perpetrators of online abuse can easily recreate accounts, leading to a sense of impunity. "Media organizations are trying to tackle cyberbullying by putting protocols in place, such as meeting with security specialists before publishing sensitive articles," the study noted, but it stressed that a concerted effort by tech companies, governments, and media outlets is needed to ensure the safety of female journalists and preserve press freedom in the face of this growing threat.

Key Takeaways

  • Women journalists are facing escalating online abuse, with 3/4 experiencing it.
  • Attacks include account blocking, hacking, fake photos, and threats.
  • Online abuse threatens press freedom and can deter journalists.
  • Abuse increases when combined with discrimination based on identity.
  • Tackling this requires action from tech, governments, and media.