Dunja Mijatović: Online threats of killing, rape and violence everyday reality for too many female journalists

Female journalists and bloggers are increasingly being singled out and fiercely attacked online. (Photo: OSCE)

Female journalists and bloggers are increasingly being singled out and fiercely attacked online. (Photo: OSCE)

In a new online column for Index on Censorship, Dunja Mijatović, OSCE Representative on Freedom of the Media, discusses relentless attacks on women journalists, and the impact on their lives.

No job comes without sacrifices, but how many downgrading comments, criticism or even threats can one person take before it becomes too much?

Just consider the experiences of a female journalist that I know:

She had her phone number shared on dating websites, her email and other accounts were hacked, she received death threats on Skype, the website publishing her articles was hacked and a sex video was posted with the implication that she had participated in an orgy. Anonymous articles with lies about her and her family were also posted online.

Imagine being forced to shut down your accounts on social media platforms because of such massive attacks with detailed images of rape and other forms of sexual violence.

At one point, you would probably be inclined to ask yourself if it is really worth it. Is this a career I want to continue to pursue?

In the past few years, more and more female journalists and bloggers have been forced to question their profession. Male journalists are also subject to hate speech and online abuse, but research findings suggest that female journalists face a disproportionate amount of gender-based threats and harassment on the internet. They are experiencing what Irina Bokova, director-general of UNESCO, has described as a “double attack”: they are being targeted for being both a journalist and a woman.

How do these attacks affect female journalists’ lives, their work and society in general? Journalists are used to being in the frontline of conflict and they often deal with difficult and even dangerous situations. But what if you cannot shield yourself from these threats? What if the frontline became your own doorstep, your office or your computer screen?

Not only do these kinds of attacks cause severe physiological trauma for journalists and their families, but by constantly being singled out and targeted with abusive comments, many female journalists may re-evaluate the issues they choose to cover. In this way, such attacks pose a clear and present threat to free media and the society as a whole.

Online abuse must be dealt with within the existing human rights framework, with governments committed to protecting journalists’ safety and addressing gender discrimination. Governments must ensure that law enforcement agencies understand the severity of this issue and are equipped with the necessary training and tools to more efficiently investigate and prosecute online threats and abuse.

We have to acknowledge that online threats are as real and unacceptable as threats posed in the offline world. The landmark resolution 20/8 on internet freedom adopted by United Nations Human Rights Council in 2012, affirmed that “the same rights that people have offline must also be protected online, in particular freedom of expression”, and set out a clear path in this respect.

The responsibility to counter online abuse of female journalists does not solely rest with law enforcement agencies, however. The broader media community itself also plays an important role. One of the challenges facing media outlets is how to improve quality of content moderation without invoking censorship.

Sarah Jeong, lawyer, journalist and author of The Internet of Garbage, provides proper context, “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”.

Media outlets need to address the current structures and strategies in place that provide support and relief to journalists who face online abuse. A recent survey of female journalists in the OSCE region carried out by my office suggests that employers’ awareness and active involvement in dealing with these issues is of crucial importance. Unfortunately, the survey also indicated that media outlets are not as involved as they should be.

International organisations should also dedicate resources to tackle this issue, given their widespread reach and vast partnership networks. UNESCO’s work on gender-related aspects of journalists’ safety serves as a good example. In their recent report Building Digital Safety for Journalists, online abuse of female journalists was rightly pointed out as one of the main challenges in building digital safety.

This year I have tried to use my mandate and tools given to me as the OSCE Representative on Freedom of the Media to get the OSCE participating states involved. We need to realize that different stakeholders face different challenges, but that each stakeholder’s involvement is a crucial piece of the puzzle in identifying solutions.

To further the discussion on protection of female journalists in the OSCE region, on 17 September my office will host a conference, New Challenges to Freedom of Expression: Countering Online Abuse of Female Journalists, to provide a platform for discussions on best practices and recommendations on combating this dangerous trend. The event will be streamed live on osce.org and will feature presentations by high-level experts from all over the world.

This column was posted on 27 August 2015 at indexoncensorship.org

Azerbaijan: Journalist Rasim Aliyev murdered as human rights crackdown continues

Photo: IRFS

Photo: IRFS

The Sport for Rights coalition resolutely condemns the brutal murder of Azerbaijani journalist Rasim Aliyev, who died on 9 August in a Baku hospital, after he was severely beaten on 8 August by a group of people. Rasim Aliyev had reported receiving continuous threats and intimidation via social media networks for three weeks leading up to his death.

Azerbaijani authorities have launched an investigation into the attack and detained at least one individual so far. Officials are connecting the attack to a Facebook post from 3 August in which Rasim Aliyev had criticised a football player. The relatives of the football players are alleged to have been responsible for the beating.

However, prior to the Facebook post in question, Rasim Aliyev had already been receiving threatening messages connected to a series of photos he had posted online showing police brutality and social discontent, such as protesters carrying a banner reading “Resign”. Rasim Aliyev reported receiving a threat stating “You will be punished for these photos”. He publicised the threat on 25 July, and filed a complaint with the police, who failed to take action to protect Rasim Aliyev.

Rasim Aliyev was a board member and employee of Azerbaijan’s leading media freedom organisation, the Institute for Reporters’ Freedom and Safety (IRFS), and was elected as the organisation’s chairman in October 2014. Rasim Aliyev had faced many forms of pressure in his work with IRFS, including being beaten by police in a 2013 incident that was captured in a widely circulated photograph.

Notably, the attack against Rasim Aliyev took place exactly one year from the date IRFS was forcibly closed by the Azerbaijani authorities and IRFS founder and chairman Emin Huseynov was forced into hiding to ensure his own safety, on 8 August 2014.

“We are deeply shocked and saddened by the murder of Rasim Aliyev”, said Index on Censorship’s senior advocacy officer Melody Patry. “The attack on Rasim takes place in a deteriorating environment for media professionals and civil society in Azerbaijan. Rasim was an independent journalist who kept working after his employer, IRFS, was sealed shut by the authorities. IRFS existed to provide support to journalists like Rasim, especially at a time when threats, intimidation and violence against journalists are commonplace in the country. We call on the authorities to conduct a full and transparent investigation into the attack and bring the perpetrators to justice”.

Rasim Aliyev’s murder is the latest incident in a vicious cycle of violence against journalists in Azerbaijan. Over the past decade, there have been hundreds of attacks against journalists in the country, including the murder of Monitor magazine editor-in-chief Elmar Huseynov in 2005, and writer and journalist Rafig Tagi in 2011. Both murders remain unsolved, as do nearly all other cases of attacks against journalists. Another journalist, Tolishi Sedo newspaper editor-in-chief Novruzali Mammadov, died in 2009 while serving a 10-year prison sentence on politically motivated charges.

This attack takes place amidst a brutal human rights crackdown in the aftermath of the European Games and in the run-up to November’s parliamentary elections in Azerbaijan. In recent weeks, another Azerbaijani journalist, Berlin-based Meydan TV Director Emin Milli, reported receiving a high-level threat, which was shortly followed by pressure against many of his relatives. Four Meydan TV employees were later prevented from leaving Azerbaijan.

“Further evidence of the on-going efforts of the Azerbaijani authorities to silence all forms of criticism and dissent can be found in the many violations taking place in the cases of human rights defenders Leyla and Arif Yunus and journalist Khadija Ismayilova, who are currently standing trial on politically motivated charges”, said FIDH Honorary President Souhayr Belhassen and OMCT Secretary General Gerald Staberock, whose organisations work together within the framework of the Observatory for the Protection of Human Rights Defenders. The prosecutor has requested staggeringly long prison sentences for the Yunus couple, despite the fact that both have serious and worsening health problems and should be immediately released on humanitarian, if not political grounds.

Sport for Rights calls on the Azerbaijani authorities to conduct a full and transparent investigation into Rasim Aliyev’s murder, and to bring the perpetrators as well as the masterminds behind the crime to justice. The cycle of violence against journalists in Azerbaijan must stop, and those responsible must be prosecuted. Threats against journalists must be taken seriously, and the threatened journalists and their families must be afforded adequate protection. The coalition also calls for the authorities to take concrete steps to improve the broader human rights situation in the country, including the immediate and unconditional release of all jailed journalists and human rights defenders.

Sport for Rights further calls for the international community to maintain its attention on Azerbaijan now that media attention has shifted away from the country following the European Games. As Rasim Aliyev’s murder shows, critical voices are at greater risk now than ever before. The international community must act now to hold Azerbaijan accountable for its human rights obligations and promote much-needed reforms in the country.

Supporting organisations:
Article 19
FIDH (International Federation for Human Rights), within the framework of the Observatory for the Protection of Human Rights Defenders
Front Line Defenders
Helsinki Foundation for Human Rights
Human Rights House Foundation
Index on Censorship
International Media Support
Netherlands Helsinki Committee
PEN American Center
Polish Green Network
World Organisation Against Torture (OMCT), within the framework of the Observatory for the Protection of Human Rights Defenders

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