Violence against women journalists increases as they speak out for women’s rights, says Special Rapporteur on violence against women to governments

On July 8, 2020, the Special Rapporteur on violence against women, Dubravka Šimonović, presented a new report on combating violence against women journalists (VAWJ) at the 44th session of the UN Human Rights Council. This report, the first to examine VAWJ in depth, documents the different forms of violence against women journalists, including femicide, sexual violence, discrimination, and online violence, highlights the experiences of women who face multiple and intersecting forms of violence, outlines the international legal frameworks and government obligations, and more.

“Women journalists have become increasingly targeted as visible and outspoken representatives of women’s rights,” Šimonović said in a UN Special Procedures news release. “Much remains to be done, particularly in view of the emerging fundamentalist discourse and the global backlash against women’s rights.”

Among the key findings of the report were the particular forms of violence against women journalists, as well as issues regarding the reporting of GBV against women. According to the report:

  • The last decade has seen a rise in the killings of women journalists, “with 70 killed since 2010.”
  • Many have reported some form of sexual violence, often being threatened with rape to “discourage them from working in the media.”
  • Women journalists have also reported threats of rape in detention and/or during police interrogation.

While cases of sexual assault against women journalists are not well-documented, the report states that more women journalists are now speaking up and recounting their testimonies.

In addition to physical and sexual violence, as well as threats of sexual violence, women journalists are also facing a rising wave of online violence, according to the report. This violence takes shape in the form of doxxing, “sextortion,” “trolling,” and the nonconsensual distribution of intimate or sexual content– “revenge porn”– which are all used to defame, attack, and silence women journalists.

Online violence, which has risen in the context of COVID-19, allows for perpetrators to hide behind anonymity and attack women without the restrictions of physical and geographical barriers, free from societal etiquette. And, as noted in the report, online violence can easily “spill over into reality” and become particularly egregious when combined with doxxing attacks, which in one reported case involved a female journalist’s personal details and home address being publicly leaked and her home address being used to “register her name on pornography and paedophile websites.”

At its conclusion, the report points out that despite the existing international human rights standards and instruments that prohibit discrimination and GBV against women, “these instruments have yet to be fully applied by using the synergies between them.” It makes several recommendations to ensure the rights of women journalists to be safe and free from GBV which include, but are not limited to:

  • recognizing doxxing against women journalists as a form of GBV against women;
  • bringing laws, policies, and practices fully into compliance with obligations and commitments under international human rights law; and,
  • creating special investigative units or independent commissions to address issues related to women journalists.

“In view of the alarming increases in gender-based violence against women around the world, including women journalists, during the Covid-19 pandemic,” Šimonović said, “I renew my call to all countries to support the elaboration of a UN system wide coordinated approach or strategy to combat and prevent violence against women.”

Notably, the report calls upon governments to ratify the International Labour Organization Violence and Harassment Convention, 2019 (C190) and to use it jointly with the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW).

In preparation for the report, on March 13, 2020, the Center for Women’s Global Leadership (CWGL) hosted an Expert Group Meeting (EGM) on Violence Against Women Journalists in partnership with the Office of the UN Special Rapporteur, the United Nations Population Fund, and the International Association of Women in Radio and Television. The EGM served as a knowledge-sharing session between women journalists, experts on gender-based violence (GBV) reporting, heads of UN mechanisms, and executives of media organizations and entities around the world. The EGM was attended by participants from Mexico, the United States, the United Kingdom, Zimbabwe, Cook Islands, Samoa, Cameroon, and India. Discussions, experiences, and insights from the one-day meeting contributed to the new report by Šimonović. The full EGM report is available to read here.

CWGL works with women journalists globally in developing tools to strengthen GBV reporting and continues to advocate for the safety of women journalists in the world of work, through the Journalism Initiative on Gender-Based Violence (JiG). “We applaud the foresight of the Special Rapporteur in pursuing this topic and advocating for the rights of women journalists who face threats due to their choice in profession and gender,” Executive Director of CWGL Krishanti Dharmaraj said in a press release on July 8.

UPDATE! On July 29, JiG hosted a webinar to launch the Special Rapporteur’s new report, featuring panelists Jafar Irshaidat, Lagipoiva Cherelle Jackson, Melissa Upreti, Aimee Vega Montiel, Liz Ford, Tasneem Ahmar, and the Special Rapporteur herself. In addition to reflecting on the content and significance of the report, the panelists also shared some action points and practical ways to use the report:

  1. Universities should have GBV-reporting curriculum for journalism courses to ensure that journalism students are being prepared and educated on reporting on GBV and experiences of GBV in journalism.
  2. Governments and independent organizations should collect data on violence against women journalists, including where violence is happening, and what type of violence, including online violence against women journalists.
  3. Newsrooms and governments should recognize online violence and doxxing in particular as a form of gender-based violence against women journalists, and that women journalists must be protected from such online violence by employers and by law enforcement. Train and educate law enforcement officers, prosecutors, and judiciary on the safety of women journalists.
  4. Calls for protecting journalists, as discussed in the new report, should draw on ILO Convention 190 which recognizes the right of all workers to be free from violence in the world of work, provides broad definitions of “worker” and “world of work” and recognizes online violence as an unacceptable form of violence and harassment.
  5. Strengthen national associations of journalists and the role of media councils. States should respect and establish mechanisms to consult media councils and to strengthen the support of NGOs who work with freedom of expression issues.
  6. Train and educate newsrooms, which tend to be male-dominated, and news media unions on preventing and dealing with gender-based violence, with a special focus on sensitizing male journalists to gender-based violence.
  7. Distribute the Special Rapporteur’s report to human resources departments within news media companies.
  8. The recommendations in the report should be used in conjunction with those presented in the UN Working Group on discrimination against women and girls’ 2020 thematic report on Women’s Human Rights in the Changing World of Work, which elaborately discusses systemic discrimination, stereotyping and violence in the world of work and reimagines the world of work.

To view the recording of the webinar, please click here. To learn more about VAWJ, you can read through our sector highlight on women journalists, with reports, videos, best practices, and more here.

This article was written by Michelle Fan, 16 Days Campaign Program Intern, and published on July 10, 2020. It was updated to reflect new recommendations from the JiG webinar on July 29, 2020.