Brazil: Disinformation and online attacks against women journalists pose serious challenges to the exercise of press freedom in the country
Gênero e Número (GN) and Reporters without Borders (RSF) launch unprecedented research that reveals the perception of women journalists and LGBT+ journalists about the effects of disinformation and online violence in their professional practice and personal life. The data, available in an online report, show that these phenomena contributed to the expansion of hostility and mistrust against the press, operating directly and indirectly as mechanisms of censorship and silencing.
For 93% of women journalists, disinformation is a very serious phenomenon, and 55% believe that disinformation has a daily impact on their professional routines. 86% of respondents also believe that online violence against the press is an effect directly related to disinformation. From these data, which are part of the research “The impact of disinformation and political violence on the internet against women journalists, communicators and LGBT+”, launched Tuesday April 26, it is obviously GN and RSF mission to focus on this issue. It was urgent to investigate how misinformation and violence against press professionals in Brazil have had an impact on daily work.
8 out of 10 journalists said they had changed their behavior on social networks in recent years to protect themselves from attacks, more than 50% said that the proliferation of attacks on the networks against the press had impacted their professional routine, and 15% reported having developed some type of mental health problem as a result of the attacks suffered. A quarter of journalists who have been targets by internet violence say they had to close their social media accounts, even temporarily, to protect themselves. It is more than a warning: it is a proof that journalists have been frequently attacked, threatened and disqualified. In person and in digital environments.
The survey, carried out through an online questionnaire between August 9 and September 6, 2021, gathers data on the population of journalists from all regions of Brazil, more specifically the group that has some digital equipment with internet access. The data collection had 237 participants and was structured around three axes : Disinformation, Online Violence, and Protection and Platforms.
“The impact of disinformation and online violence on the work of journalists in Brazil is brutal. We have seen this at Gênero e Número when following the political and communication context, especially what happens in an online environment”, evaluates Giulliana Bianconi, co-director of Gênero e Número.
“The data we have structured and analyzed show something important: women and LGBT+ journalists have changed habits and ways of doing their work in an attempt to reduce exposure. The perception of insecurity is high, and for most respondents, the Bolsonaro government has intensified the phenomenon of disinformation in Brazil, affecting the work routine, health and personal life of journalists”, analyzes the data director of GN and responsible for research methodology, Natalia Leão.
Half of the journalists who have responded to the survey said they had already suffered some type of violence due to the exercise of their profession, and 8 out of 10 said they had already witnessed a situation of this sort with some other colleague. For two-thirds of those who witnessed violence against colleagues or acquaintances, there is a perception that a first episode of violence results in further attacks.
Hostile words, attacks on work : institutionalization of violence
Among the most common types of violence, content with swearing or hostile words appears in first place (35%), followed by attacks on work (34%) and disqualification of the work performed (33%). The third most frequent group of violations are misogynistic attacks or attacks with a sexual connotation (19%), in which the aggression is directly at the female journalist, with the aim of intimidating, disqualifying and damaging her reputation. Threats to professional and personal reputation, physical integrity and misuse of images or photos also appear as recurring crimes against journalists, in smaller numbers. Other acts of aggression include doxxing, spoofing or attacks due to gender identity or sexual orientation, racism, and threats to family members.
Politicians, including the President of the Republic, ministers, governors, mayors, deputies, senators and councilors, represent 8% of cases of aggression reported by journalists who are victims of online violence in the survey. Although it seems small, this percentage reflects studies that point to a scenario of institutionalization of violence against journalists in Brazil, in which hostility against the press is perpetrated from the top of the federal executive power and is reproduced by society.
In general, the effects of online violence on professional routine materialize in other forms of violations, impacting the right to express themselves and develop their professional skills. 14% of journalists who reported having suffered some type of attack started to avoid producing content on certain subjects, and 7% reported that they had stopped covering a topic or editorial temporarily.
Another type of impact observed is the invisibility of the reporter’s identity itself. In order to protect themselves, 6% of journalists exposed to online violence admitted to avoidi giving credit or signing content with their own name. 8% of journalists began to be afraid or weary to turn to some sources of information, and 3% reported that sources refused to grant interviews. In these cases, there is a double restriction on the work of the press as a way to avoid consequences of the attacks suffered: on the one hand, journalists do not contact thier sources to protect themselves - which may also mean they stop asking relevant questions for society to avoid being attacked again - , on the other hand, in order not to be the target of attacks or retaliation against journalists, sources stop providing information to the press.
Among people who reported experiencing online violence, 45% recognized the impacts of it on their personal lives. Most reported two or more effects on their routine outside of work. Almost a quarter (24%) perceived being more insecure or anxious since the episode of violence experienced. This type of impact is directly linked to the individual's emotional well-being and also their right to freedom of expression.
“In general, it is understood that censorship is manifested only by the direct interference of State agents, with an explicit and direct restriction of the production and free circulation of journalistic activity. This research shows how the deterioration of the public debate, associated here with disinformation, stigmatizing speeches and harassment on the internet, also starts to function as a pressure mechanism in the exercise of journalistic activity, operating to some extent as an instrument of censorship and silencing”, declared Emmanuel Colombié, RSF Director for Latin America.
Online violence against women journalists is identified as a worldwide phenomenon. A 2020 survey by UNESCO and the International Center for Journalists (ICFJ), which included 900 respondents from 125 countries, stated that this trend “erodes the foundations of journalism, increases threats to journalistic security and undermines freedom of expression.” . In Brazil, recent surveys carried out by the Brazilian Association of Investigative Journalism (Abraji) and by RSF itself have been warning of the intensification of this phenomenon in the country.
Brazil occupies the 111th position, among 180 countries, in the 2021 World Press Freedom Ranking prepared annually by Reporters Without Borders.