A Threat to Free Speech: the Online Abuse of Female Journalists

Digital media today allows for the fast flow of information and active public participation in sharing ideas, news, and insights. In today’s online world, journalists are increasingly exposed and available to their readers. While open and free Internet is desirable for the creation of public debate and should be duly protected, the digitalization of media has made journalists more vulnerable to threats and intimidation.

Over the past year, there have been a concerning number of reports from across the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) region about the peril of female journalists and bloggers. They have been increasingly singled out and fiercely attacked on social media via tweets and Facebook posts and in the comment sections of online articles and blogs.

Much attention has been given to the fact that women seem to suffer a more systematic kind of abuse online than their male counterparts. Various research, reports, and findings indicate that attacks are often gendered and sexual in nature.[1] Female journalists, bloggers, and other media actors are now starting to speak out against this abuse.[2] The Representative of Freedom of the Media office approached female journalists throughout the OSCE region last year with a questionnaire related to online abuse.[3] The office received reports detailing how female journalists have been targeted with threats of murder, rape, and other explicit sexual violence, along with severe harassment sexualizing their appearance and behaviour. In 2014, a study analyzing over 2,000,000 tweets sent to a number of prominent public figures on Twitter indicated that female journalists and television news presenters received three times as many abusive comments on Twitter as their male colleagues.[4]

Amberin Zaman, a Turkish correspondent for The Economist and a columnist for the Turkish daily Taraf, noted in an interview: “I received hundreds of tweets, using the most obscene language, threatening to kill me, threatening to rape me,” with one commenter threatening to make her “sit on a broken wine bottle.”[5] British freelance journalist and feminist campaigner Caroline Criado-Perez spoke at a roundtable organized by the Office of the OSCE Representative of Freedom of the Media in September 2015 to address the online abuse of female journalists and discuss possible responses with various stakeholders.[6] Criado-Perez indicated that many of the abusive comments she received referenced the mouth and throat, underscoring the core of the problem: the perpetrators are demanding that women shut up and are backing their demands with threats of sexual violence. [7]

The online abuse of female journalists is an under-researched area. It would, however, be naïve to think that this abuse doesn’t affect the practice of journalism. Threats and the fear of abuse can significantly impact what and how stories are reported. Several journalists have been forced to go offline and shut down their digital accounts to escape the abusers.[8] Feminist writers are so “besieged by online abuse that some have begun to retire.”[9] The online abuse that female journalists, bloggers, and reporters face is one of the most challenging threats to journalists’ safety today. Society cannot afford to have female journalists, already underrepresented in media, self-censoring. [10]

Freedom of expression and free media is at stake, if governments do not act to protect female journalists’ digital safety. Various actors across the global community must address the issue as a top priority. It is a great paradox that the Internet, which has contributed so much to the free flow of information and which has become a prerequisite and essential tool to exercise the freedom of expression, is also misused to silence the voices of females. Though it is crucial to combat online abuse in order to create a safe and secure Internet, it is also of the utmost importance for governments to protect the Internet as an open and free platform for ideas.

Although governments bear the main responsibility to protect journalists’ safety, it is becoming increasingly clear that combating online abuse against female journalists requires a multi-stakeholder response. The response must start with journalists’ supervisors and the broader media community and should also involve state authorities, international organizations, and society as a whole. This idea of a multi-stakeholder response is reflected in the recommendations that arose from the conference.[11] Abuse must be dealt with from within, and governments must commit to protect journalists by addressing gender discrimination and violence through the existing international human rights framework.

Crimes occurring online should not be dealt with differently than those occurring offline. Governments need to be careful in introducing new criminal laws and putting other restrictions on online content. Internet users’ anonymity needs to be maintained. To address the fact that cyber assault is often trivialized and taken less seriously than physical threats, governments must also do more to ensure that law enforcement agencies understand the severity of the issue and are equipped with the necessary training and tools to more efficiently investigate and prosecute online threats and abuse.

That victims are able to seek redress is important, but redress does not address the root causes of the problem. Governments should also work with other stakeholders to look into preventive work. Establishing working groups with other governments, media outlets, civil society organizations, Internet intermediaries, and international and nongovernmental organizations to develop educational material, awareness-raising campaigns, and effective structures for dialogue is and will be integral in addressing the issue of online abuse.

Even among the broader media community, there seems to be a clear lack of involvement and movement around the issue. As Aidan White, a veteran journalist and director of the Ethical Journalism Network said during the roundtable organized in September, “it is a terrible situation trying to raise issues like these and get them taken seriously inside journalism and media.”[12]

Journalists experiencing abuse feel alone and unsupported. Media organizations must ensure that victims have access to a comprehensive system of support, including psychosocial and legal assistance. Media organizations also need to create a corporate culture of gender equality and intolerance toward threats and harassment. The media should work with journalist unions to create common support systems – including training and mentorship programs for female journalists – and adopt industry-wide guidelines to identify and monitor online abuse.

The media must also seriously re-evaluate the quality of content moderation without invoking censorship. Trained journalists taking a more active role in moderating comment sections can prevent the online conversation from going completely out of control. Sarah Jeong, a U.S. lawyer, journalist, and author of “The Internet of Garbage,” provides context to the issue of content moderation. In a recent interview, she stated: “Moderation paradoxically increases the number of voices heard, because some kinds of speech chills other speech. The need for moderation is sometimes oppositional to free speech, but sometimes moderation aids and delivers more free speech.”[13]

Intermediaries at particular social media platforms, such as Twitter and Facebook, can play an important role in furthering those organizations’ attempts at corporate social responsibility by protecting their users. They must ensure that terms of service, community guidelines, and information about enforcement are proportionate, understandable, and easily available to all users. They can facilitate counter speech by sharing best practices and guidelines on how the Internet community best can facilitate and engage in meaningful discussion with abusers. They can compile data and statistics on reported online abuse to help facilitate more comprehensive research on the online abuse of female journalists and media actors.

“Being insulted and threatened online is part of my job,” journalist Lindy West said on the radio program “This American Life.”[14] Society must refuse to accept this notion. West and other journalists might be paying a high price, but the ultimate price will be paid by the whole of society if we do not safeguard the voices and mitigate the abuse of female journalists.


The OSCE report on Countering the Online Abuse of Female Journalists can be found here.


[1] http://www.pewinternet.org/2014/10/22/online-harassment/


[3] http://www.osce.org/fom/178796

[4] http://www.demos.co.uk/press-release/demos-male-celebrities-receive-more-abuse-on-twitter-than-women-2/

[5] http://www.bbc.com/news/blogs-eu-31162437

[6] http://www.osce.org/fom/179486

[7] http://www.osce.org/fom/220411

[8] http://www.independent.co.uk/news/uk/home-news/bbc-sends-security-guard-to-protect-journalist-who-received-abuse-on-twitter-after-she-said-she-a6748156.html

[9] https://www.washingtonpost.com/opinions/online-feminists-increasingly-ask-are-the-psychic-costs-too-much-to-bear/2015/02/19/3dc4ca6c-b7dd-11e4-a200-c008a01a6692_story.html

[10] http://cdn.agilitycms.com/who-makes-the-news/Imported/reports_2015/highlights/highlights_en.pdf

[11] http://www.osce.org/fom/193556

[12] https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=YxTz0q3S7FM

[13] http://the-toast.net/2015/07/23/an-interview-with-sarah-jeong/

[14] http://www.thisamericanlife.org/radio-archives/episode/545/transcript