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“This is not something that only ‘ladies’ can fix,” emphasised Dunja Mijatovic, the OSCE’s Representative on Freedom of the Media at an expert meeting on the safety of female journalists in Vienna on 17 September 2015, which Index on Censorship attended.
The importance of collectively tackling the growing problem became an overarching theme of the conference. “There is a new and alarming trend for women journalists and bloggers to be singled out for online harassment,” said Mijatovic, while highlighting the importance of media, state and NGO voices coming together to address the abuse.
Arzu Geybulla and Caroline Criado Perez, journalists from Azerbaijan and the UK respectively, started the meeting with moving testaments of their own experiences. Despite covering very different topics, they have received shockingly similar threats – sexual, violent and personal. “Shut your mouth or I’ll shut it for you and choke you with my dick” was one of the messages received by Perez after she campaigned for a woman to feature on British banknotes.
Although male journalists also receive abuse, women experience a two-fold attack, including the gendered threats. Think tank Demos has estimated that female journalists experience roughly three times as many abusive comments as their male counterparts on Twitter.
The problem, said Perez, was not just the threats but how the women who receive them are then treated. “Women are accused of being mad or attention seeking, which are all ways of delegitimising women’s speech,” she said. “People told me to stop, close my Twitter account, go offline. But why is the solution to shut up?” She added: “This is a societal problem, not an internet problem.”
“Labelling a person, and making that person an object, is particularly common in Azerbaijan,” said Geybulla, an Azeri journalist and Index on Censorship magazine contributor who was labelled a traitor and viciously targeted online after writing for a Turkish-Armenian newspaper. “Our society is not ready to speak out. You can’t go to the police. The police think it must be your fault.”
The intention of the meeting was to highlight the problem, while also proposing courses of actions. Suggestions included calls for more education in digital literacy; more training for police; more support from editors and media organisations, and from male colleagues. There was some disagreement on whether the laws were robust enough as they stand, or needed an update for the internet age.
Becky Gardiner, formerly editor of Guardian’s Comment is Free section, spoke about how her own views on dealing with online abuse had changed, having initially told writers they should develop a thicker skin. “It is not enough to tell people to get tough. Disarming the comments is not a solution either. That genie is out of the bottle.” Gardiner, who is now a lecturer at Goldsmiths, University of London, is working on research into the issue, as commissioned by the Guardian’s new editor, Kath Viner.
It was suggested that small but crucial steps could be taken by media organisations to avoid inflammatory and misleading headlines (which are not written by the journalist, but put them in the firing line) and to be careful of exposing inexperienced writers without preparation or support. Sarah Jeong from Vice’s Motherboard plaform said, in her experience, freelancers often came the most under attack because they don’t have institutional backing.
The OSCE said this will be the first in a series of meetings, with the aim of getting more organisations to take it serious and to produce more concrete courses of action.
Read more about the online abuse of women in the latest issue of Index on Censorship magazine, with a personal account by Gamergate target Brianna Wu and a legal overview by Greg Lukianoff, president of the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (Fire).
Tweets from OSCE’s #FemJournoSafe conference:
— The Dart Center for Journalism & Trauma (@DartCenter) September 17, 2015
— INSI (@INSInews) September 17, 2015
— GenderIT.org (@GenderITorg) September 18, 2015
— Deniz Wagner (@wagner_deniz) September 17, 2015
— Judy Taing (@judytaing) September 17, 2015
— Alison Bethel (@bethelmckenzie) September 17, 2015
— Alison Bethel (@bethelmckenzie) September 17, 2015
— AIDA (@Aidazzles) September 18, 2015
Journalist Arzu Geybulla has received a growing number of threats on social media following an interview with Azerbaijani news site modern.az.
Geybulla has been subject to ongoing intimidation because of her work at Istanbul-based Armenian paper, Agos. The interview has led to Geybulla being accused of treason by the Azerbaijani media.
Despite calls from the European Parliament in September, Azerbaijan has still failed to release prominent political prisoners Leyla and Arif Yunus, Rasul Jafarov, Intigam Aliyev and Hasan Huseynli.
Jodie Ginsberg, CEO of Index on Censorship, said: “Azerbaijan portrays itself internationally as a country that values human rights and respects the freedom of its citizens to express themselves. In reality, anyone who seeks to speak or act freely in Azerbaijan is targeted, imprisoned and harassed. The international community needs to take a far tougher stance on Azerbaijan to help defend individuals like Arzu and the defenceless individuals to which her work gives voice.”
Leyla and her husband have now been imprisoned for 73 days. Javarov has been in prison for 70 days since August 2, and Aliyev has been detained for 64 days, since August 8. Huseynli, who has been detained for 195 days since March 30, is serving a six year sentence.
Post on Twitter, Facebook, Reddit or share with your friends. Let @PresidentAZ know you ware watching.
Please send appeals immediately:
— Condemning the campaign of intimidation directed at Arzu Geybullayeva for her legitimate work as a journalist at Agos;
— Calling on the Turkish and Azerbaijani authorities to investigate any threats of violence against her and to ensure her safety;
— Reminding them that they have the obligation to safeguard Geybullayeva’s right to freedom of expression under the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR) and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), to which they are both state parties.
It does not take a lot of time and effort to see that when it comes to Azerbaijan, views on the country’s freedom of expression record split in two. One–belonging to the president and his cronies–and their limited vision of reality combined with their persistent disregard of truth. And the other–the disregarded citizens–whose life is like an ongoing challenge full of obstacles–arrests, intimidation, murder, detention, beatings and blackmail to name a few. The levels of this marathon get harder to win and even then, there is a price to pay, sooner or later.
Stellar record vs stark reality
President Ilham Aliyev of Azerbaijan says, “All fundamental freedoms are guaranteed in Azerbaijan. There are free media and free internet”. International advocates of free speech and their Azerbaijani supporters claim otherwise. Azerbaijan ranks 160th on the World Press Freedom Index; 183rd on the Freedom House Press Freedom Index; and “partly free” on Freedom on the Net report. The list only goes on.
Currently there are at least ten journalists in detention or prison serving long and heavy sentences. There are five bloggers, 8 youth activists and civil society representatives similarly in jail on trumped up charges. According to Amnesty International in 2013, there were at least 19 prisoners of conscience behind bars in Azerbaijan. Just today, human rights defender Leyla Yunus was detained in Baku.
And if the end result of a certain type of work/affiliation/statement/ or action isn’t necessarily time spent in jail, people are often threatened, intimidated, and even blackmailed- the list of “punishments” is creative and has no limits.
One of the country’s prominent investigative journalists, Khadija Ismayil had her share of a punishment for digging out the truth. In March of 2012, Ismayil received a package where not only was she sent a letter full of belittlement and blasphemy but also a video tape of intimate nature of her personal life.
More recently the head of a local NGO from Ganja, Hasan Huseynli was sentenced to six years in jail for allegedly stabbing a man on the street.
Only days following sentencing of Huseynli, two more young men and brothers Faraj and Siraj Kerimli were detained (Faraj was in fact kidnapped) and currently are held in pretrial detention for yet another trumped up charge–drugs possession and promotion of psychedelics via social networks.
There is free media and free speech only if its pro-government media and speech. Most of the working printed papers are either government sponsored, supported, or have cut a deal of some kind.
The internet is the remaining platform for free speech and even online there is surveillance and control. Some independent online outlets have been subject to attacks while users of social media tools are shown their correspondence on Facebook when detained for questioning.
And so the government continues to play the game of cat and mouse while disguising its dismal record of free speech and human rights under the pretext of being a young democracy, in conflict with a neighboring country, and thus occupied by far more pressing issues than addressing biased reports of international organizations on poor record of human rights and free speech.
Index Reports: Locking up free expression: Azerbaijan silences critical voices (Oct 2013) | Running Scared: Azerbaijan’s silenced voices (Mar 2012)