To mark International Women’s Day, celebrated on 8 March, Reporters Without Borders (RSF) has published a report entitled ‘Sexism’s toll on journalism’ that reveals the extent of the dangers of sexist and sexual violence for women journalists, and its impact on journalism. It reminds a sad truth: that journalism can be a dangerous profession, but it is often doubly dangerous for women because of the risk of sexist and sexual violence to which they are exposed.
By sexism, RSF means all forms of gender-based violence, including discrimination, insults, sexual harassment, unwanted touching, verbal and physical sexual assaults, threats of rape and even rape itself.
The report shows that these activities have a damaging effect on the diversity of news and information. The survey is based mainly on the assessment of responses to a questionnaire sent to 150 people in 120 countries.
According to 85 per cent of the respondents, when impunity prevails, acts of sexist violence are liable to be repeated and another woman journalist could fall victim to the same perpetrator.
The dangers are not just to be found doing traditional reporting in the field. RSF has also identified danger in the new virtual reporting domains, on the Internet and social media, and even in places where they should be protected, including their own newsrooms.
Internet, the most dangerous place
Three years after RSF produced a report on the difficulties for journalists – male and female – covering women’s rights, its new investigation based on an analysis of responses to a questionnaire that was sent to all of its correspondents throughout the world, and to journalists specialising in gender issues have confirmed the trends already detected by RSF’s staff. The Internet has now become the most dangerous place for women journalists (reported by 73% of the respondents).
Attacks via the Web are as varied as they are numerous. The Dart Center for Journalism and Trauma, attached to Columbia University in the United States, has recorded two forms of virtual theft: the hacking of email accounts and mailboxes and the posting of personal information.
Another common form of attack is sending threats, or trolling, which involves automatically attaching harmful messages to all the journalist’s online activities. Harassment can also take the form of a “raid.” Anonymous hackers get together to attack the same target. These online bullies may act spontaneously, one after the other in a snowball effect, without prior arrangement. The mob may also act by mutual consent after calls for harassment have appeared on private discussion groups, according to RSF’s study.
Workplace not safe for women journalists…
Following the Internet, it is the workplace that the most respondents (58%) identified as the location where sexist violence has been perpetrated. According to RSF, this perception has been reinforced by the #MeToo movement’s spread throughout the world and the fact that women journalists are now daring to denounce sexual attacks or sexual harassment in such countries as the United States, Japan and India.
The report highlights tast August’s revelation by Sofie Linde, the host of a very popular TV show in Denmark, that she had been the victim of sexual harassment by a senior public broadcasting official sent a shockwave through a country usually regarded as a model of attention to gender issues and parity.
“You can’t say that men and women are equal in Denmark,” said the presenter of the Danish version of the popular television programme “X Factor,” speaking at a televised awards ceremony in August 2020. Apologising for spoiling the relaxed atmosphere, she disclosed that 12 years earlier, a senior staff member at the public broadcaster DR threatened to destroy her career unless she performed oral sex on him. She refused.
In response, an article signed by more than 1,600 women working in the media was published in the daily Politiken a month later. It described what women had experienced to a greater or lesser degree in the course of their careers: “Inappropriate comments on our appearance or clothes, suggestive messages, physical behaviour that crosses the line, warnings about which men to avoid at the Christmas party.”
“We have a pressing obligation to defend journalism with all our strength against the many dangers that threaten it, of which gender-based and sexual bullying and attacks are a part,” RSF secretary-general Christophe Deloire says in the report’s foreword. “It is unthinkable that women journalists should endure twice the danger and have to defend themselves on another front, a many-sided struggle since it exists outside the newsroom as well as inside.”
Among women journalists, those who specialise in covering women’s rights, sport or politics are particularly exposed to violence. They include Nouf Abdulaziz al-Jerawi, a Saudi journalist who was tortured, subjected to electric shocks and sexually molested during detention after being arrested for denouncing the system of male guardianship that women must endure in her country.
The findings of RSF’s survey show that, internally, media organisations are still struggling to provide a satisfactory overall response to sexist violence.
However, according to RSF, some are beginning to take steps in the right direction. Nine percent of respondents said a good conduct charter or code was adopted within the media outlet after sexist violence was reported. Nine percent also said journalists were offered training in combating violence.
Brazil, one of the 40 countries dangerous for women journalists
In Brazil, the harassment of Patricia Campos Mello, a leading investigative reporter for the Folha de São Paulo newspaper, was organised at the highest state level, as featured by RSF. After she reported that businessmen had illegally funded a WhatsApp disinformation campaign designed to get Brazilians to vote for Jair Bolsonaro in the 2018 presidential election, President Bolsonaro and his sons accused her of having “extracted” this information in exchange for sexual favours.
The accusation was followed by such a violent cyber-harassment campaign that Mello was forced to have a bodyguard. Mello responded by suing the president and other officials and obtained her first court victory in January 2021, when his son, federal deputy Eduardo Bolsonaro, was ordered to pay her 30,000 reals ($5,600) in damages.
“We are living through a new form of censorship and harassment in Brazil, outsourced to armies of patriotic trolls and amplified by bots on Twitter, Facebook, Instagram and WhatsApp,” Mello said when receiving the International Press Freedom Award from the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) in November 2019.
“Women journalists are the main victims,” she added. “Much more frequently than our male colleagues, we have our parents and our children intimidated, our appearance mocked, our addresses and phone numbers exposed, and we are subject to violent threats both online and in the real world.”
Also in Brazil, “We just want to be left in peace to work” was the demand of the 50 Brazilian women journalists specialising in covering sport who launched the #DeixaElaTrabalhar (“Let her work”) movement to denounce being forcibly kissed by team supporters and other inappropriate behaviour to which they are subjected.
The Brazilians are not alone. “We know that being a woman journalist in a mainly male news organisation could and still can expose you to inappropriate behaviour,” 37 women journalists working for the French sports daily L’Equipe said in a joint statement after a series of revelations about harassment within the news media. Female sports journalists are in the minority both in newsrooms and in the field, which leaves them even more exposed to sexist comments.
In a personal account of her experiences for the local version of Vogue, Australian sports journalist Jessica Halloran wrote, “At the beginning of my career there was such a lack of women in the media box at some footy games that several times I was mistaken for a waitress and asked on more than one occasion: ‘Are there any more pies coming?’”
RSF’s report also examines the impact of this violence on journalism and how trauma often ends up reducing its victims to silence and reducing pluralism within the media. As well as causing stress, anxiety and fear, this kind of violence may induce the targeted women journalists to close their social media accounts temporarily or for good (according to 43% of the respondents to RSF’s questionnaire), to censor themselves (48%), to switch to another speciality (21%) or even to resign (21%).
Fear of taking complaints forward
Shame, fear of losing the job or of being harmed in the career are some of the reasons that prevent women in general from pursuing complaints of harassment or harassment. It is no different with journalists, despite their greater access, in relation to other professionals, to information and bodies capable of taking action. The number of journalists who have been victims of sexual and gender-based violence who have not filed a complaint reaches an alarming 65%. And the worst: almost half of them say that they did it because there would be no point in complaining.
Impact on physical and mental health
RSF also examined the effects of violence on women journalists, which causes characteristic sequelae of post-traumatic stress, such as sleep disorders, difficulty concentrating and emotional stress. And also migraines, stomach pains and severe anxiety.
Risks also for those who write about women’s rights
Writing about women’s rights “can prove dangerous in some countries where it means undermining traditions and arousing awareness in minds that have been subjected to a machista society,” says Juana Gallego, the head of Spain’s Gender Equality Observatory and a lecturer in journalism in the 2018 RSF report “Women’s Rights: Forbidden subject.” Of 942 journalists killed in the past 10 years, 43 were women and at least four of them, including Malalai Maiwand, have paid with their lives for working on women’s issues.
In Mexico, Miroslava Breach, a 54-year-old reporter for the newspapers La Jornada and Norte de Juarez in Chihuahua state, was shot dead in her car in March 2017. She covered organised crime and corruption, and had written about the high number of murders of women in the Ciudad Juarez area.
Even worse for minotories, with different targets according to the country
Being a member of a minority constitutes an additional risk for women journalists, according to RSF’s findings. Lesbian, bisexual and trans journalists are among the most vulnerable to violence. What other forms of violence combine and compound sexist and sexual violence against journalists?
Minorities who are the targets of hate vary according to the geopolitical context. RSF’s respondent in Guatemala mentioned “members of indigenous communities.” The Togo respondent cited “comments based on ethnicity.” In Norway, it was “immigrant women, often Black or Muslim.” The respondent in the Netherlands referred to the May 2019 report entitled “An Unsafe Climate” by researchers Marjolein Odekerken and Laura Das, which said that about 50 percent of Dutch women journalists, especially those with an immigrant background, have experienced violence, intimidation or threats in connection with their work
RSF revealed that journalists who become mothers are another category who are vulnerable to sexism. The discrimination is palpable within news organisations.
“Contracts stop being signed or are not renewed when they become pregnant,” the respondent in Peru wrote.
In an interview for the French sports daily L’Equipe in April 2020, sports reporter Clémentine Sarlat said she was the victim of harassment while working for the sports department at France Télévisions, harassment that increased after she returned from maternity leave. She finally resigned after leave days were discounted although she had negotiated periods of remote-working with her superiors.
The Brazilian investigative reporter Patricia Campos Mello is not the only one to see how the cyber-harassment of a woman journalist can also be channelled against her children. In France, Nadiam Daam’s 11-year-old daughter was also threatened with rape. In the UK, Amy Fenton–a reporter with the local Cumbrian daily newspaper The Mail in Barrow–was forced to leave her home because of threats made to her and her five-year-old daughter.
According to the report, whatever their employment status – freelancer, staffer or intern – and regardless of the type of contract they may have (fixed term or indefinite), all women journalists are vulnerable. The findings of RSF’s survey show that all women journalists are equally concerned, regardless of their employment status or type of contract. Being a staff journalist with a contract of indefinite duration does not protect a woman journalist from potential sexual violence.
On the other hand, the more precarious her employment status, the less likely she will be able to make her voice heard and defend herself.
The full report can be seen here, including a list of recommendations for newsrooms, journalists, governments and social media platforms.