Journalism can be a dangerous profession, but it is often doubly dangerous for women because of the risk of sexist and sexual violence to which they are exposed. Of the 112 countries where journalists were polled for this report, 40 were identified as dangerous or very dangerous for women journalists.
The dangers are not just to be found doing traditional reporting in the field. Women journalists also encounter danger in the new virtual reporting domains, on the Internet and social media, and even in places where they should be protected, including their own newsrooms.
Three years after RSF produced a report on the difficulties for journalists – male and female – covering women’s rights, its new investigation is based on an analysis of responses to a questionnaire that was sent to all of its correspondents throughout the world, and to journalists specialising in gender issues.
The results confirm the trends already detected by RSF’s staff, including the fact that the Internet has now become the most dangerous place for women journalists (reported by 73% of the respondents). Rana Ayyub, a well-known Indian columnist and investigative reporter is an authority on this problem as she receives constant rape threats and death threats on social media.
Following the Internet, it is the workplace that the most respondents (58%) identified as the location “where sexist violence has been perpetrated.” This perception has been reinforced by the #MeToo movement’s spread throughout the world and the fact that women journalists are now daring to denounce sexual attacks or sexual harassment in such countries as the United States, Japan and India.
Last August’s revelation by Sofie Linde, the host of a very popular TV show in Denmark, that she had been the victim of sexual harassment by a senior public broadcasting official sent a shockwave through a country usually regarded as a model of attention to gender issues and parity.
“We have a pressing obligation to defend journalism with all our strength against the many dangers that threaten it, of which gender-based and sexual bullying and attacks are a part,” RSF secretary-general Christophe Deloire says in the report’s foreword. “It is unthinkable that women journalists should endure twice the danger and have to defend themselves on another front, a many-sided struggle since it exists outside the newsroom as well as inside.”
Among women journalists, those who specialise in covering women’s rights, sport or politics are particularly exposed to violence. They include Nouf Abdulaziz al-Jerawi, a Saudi journalist who was tortured, subjected to electric shocks and sexually molested during detention after being arrested for denouncing the system of male guardianship that women must endure in her country.
In Brazil, the journalist Patricia Campos Mello paid dearly for investigating the use of illegal funding for social media disinformation during Jair Bolsonaro’s presidential election campaign in 2018. She was subjected to an extremely violent cyber-harassment campaign after the president and his sons accused her of having “extracted” this information in exchange for sexual favours.
Also in Brazil, 50 women journalists specialising in covering sport launched the #DeixaElaTrabalhar (‘Let Her Work’) movement to denounce the frequency with which they are forcibly kissed by team supporters while providing live coverage of sports events. In France, nearly 40 women journalists working for the French sports daily L’Equipe issued a joint statement condemning the harassment to which female journalists are subjected within news media sports departments.
RSF’s report also examines the impact of this violence on journalism and how trauma often ends up reducing its victims to silence and reducing pluralism within the media. As well as causing stress, anxiety and fear, this kind of violence may induce the targeted women journalists to close their social media accounts temporarily or for good (according to 43% of the respondents to RSF’s questionnaire), to censor themselves (48%), to switch to another speciality (21%) or even to resign (21%).
To combat sexist and sexual violence, RSF concludes its report with a series of detailed recommendations for journalists, news organisations and governments.
*By sexism, RSF means all forms of sexist and sexual violence, including discrimination, insults, sexual harassment, unwanted touching, verbal and physical sexual assaults, threats of rape and even rape itself.