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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.
As so often at the sessions of the United Nations Human Rights Council, some interventions by states go unnoticed.
Under the famous ceiling of room XX created by Miquel Barcel in the Palais des Nations in Geneva, the on-going session of the Council is no different. Some of those unnoticed statements deserve our attention.
One in particular.
On Thursday, 5 March, one of the United Nations’ chief human rights voices, Zeid Ra’ad Al Hussein, presented his first annual report to the council. It is his first since he took up the position of high commissioner for human rights in September 2014. From terrorism, torture and harassment of human rights defenders to the reorganisation of his office, the high commissioner’s report aims at presenting the state of human rights, the major threats against them and how he aims at building up his office to face those realities.
Al Hussein’s mandate, which Norway at the council called “an authoritative voice on human rights, built on […] repeated confirmation of its independence,” is what the Russian Federation in fact wants to silence.
Russia, which is today one of the 47 members of the council, was infuriated at the high commissioner’s statement presenting his report. It is traditional for states mentioned by international human rights mechanisms to accuse such instruments for being politicised and obeying “double standards.”
Russia went a step further by “condemning the high commissioner’s attempts to stigmatise any states for their acts or omissions in the field of human rights, even if they indeed took place.” Russia does not refer to politicisation or to attention the high commissioner would be giving to situations in certain countries only, but instead calls upon the United Nations voice for human rights to stop mentioning any country all together, whatever human rights violation took place in the country. In fact, Russia calls for the high commissioner to be silent.
Such a statement should not remain unnoticed because it sheds light on how Russia sees the international system; not one of standards and principles challenging states but rather one of obedience and muteness serving the states. The challenge Russia is facing with the high commissioner’s report is in fact a reflection of its disrespect for international law, be it in the way it has led suppression of civil society at home or its military activities in Ukraine, including the annexation of Crimea.
Because we must applaud those who stand firm for rights, we must also make sure that declarations by states who aim at silencing them do not go unnoticed. This one in particular.
Vietnam has so far this year locked up more internet bloggers than in 2012. Vietnamese bloggers were therefore quick to react when, along with China, Russia, Saudi Arabia, Algeria and Cuba, the communist country was elected to the United Nations Human Rights Council (UNHRC) for 2014-2016 term by creating and launching a new instrument for free expression: the Network of Vietnamese Bloggers (NVB).
The network aims to ensure that the Vietnamese government implements its obligations and commitments to the UNHRC through actions rather than mere political statements. Stating that, as Vietnam’s membership to the UNHRC means that all of its 90 million citizens are now members of the Council, the NVB will strive to uphold core values in the promoting and protection of human rights.
In order to do this it believes that Vietnam should:
Chi Dang, Director of Overseas Support for the Free Journalist Network in Vietnam, stated that it was crucial that the launch of the network had international support as this has “proven to provide effective protection for our bloggers on the ground”.
The launch of the network will coincide with the International Human Rights Day on December 10.
A resolution that was adopted today in Geneva extends the mandate of Miklos Haraszti, a Special Rapporteur on human rights situation in Belarus, for one more year. Andrei Aliaksandrau reports
The UN Human Rights Council expressed its “deep concern at continuing violations of human rights in Belarus, which are of a structural and endemic nature, and also at the systemic and systematic restrictions on human rights, especially in the case of the freedoms of association, of assembly, and of opinion and expression, as well as the guarantees of due process and fair trial.”
The Council strongly urged the Belarusian government to “immediately and unconditionally release and rehabilitate all political prisoners, and to rehabilitate those who have already been released, to address, through comprehensive, transparent and credible investigations, reports of torture and ill-treatment by law-enforcement officials, and to put an immediate end to the arbitrary detention of human rights defenders and political opponents, arbitrary travel bans and other policies aimed at intimidating representatives of the political opposition and the media, as well as human rights defenders and civil society.”
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The resolution extends the mandate of a Special Rapporteur on human rights situation in Belarus and urges the government of the country to cooperate fully with the Miklos Haraszti, including by providing him access to visit Belarus. Previously, he was denied a visa to enter the country, and it is likely still to be the case in future. Mikhail Khvostov, the Permanent Representative of Belarus to the UN Office in Geneva, reiterated just before the voting that Belarus does not recognize the mandate of the Special Rapporteur. He also described the resolution proposed by the European Union as an “act of aggression against the United Nations,” BelaPAN News Agency reported.
Twenty-six countries voted in favour of the resolution, while three countries voted against it and 18 more abstained. The attempts of delegations of several “like-minded” states to prevent a critical resolution on Belarus, failed.
“This is a significant resolution that allows keeping the alarming human rights situation in Belarus in focus of international community. I hope the authorities of the country change their aggressive attitude towards the Special Rapporteur and start cooperating with him to bring positive changes to the situation,” Tatsiana Raviaka, a representative of the Human Rights Centre “Viasna”, told Index.