Platforms urged to prevent harassment of journalists covering Covid-19

At a time when the media are playing a crucial role in publishing reliable information about the Covid-19 epidemic, Reporters Without Borders (RSF) is alarmed by the increase in online harassment of journalists in all parts of the world, often at the behest of politicians and political parties, and calls on digital platforms to step up their efforts to protect journalists.

In many countries, journalists are being subjected to cyber-harassment campaigns designed to silence them because they question the information that the authorities provide about the Covid-19 epidemic. The cases examined by RSF show that these online hate campaigns, whether waged by troll armies, isolated individuals or political party supporters, are often encouraged by politicians and are not eliciting adequate responses from platforms.


There are many such campaigns in the Indian subcontinent. In India, the journalist Vidya Krishnan has constantly been subjected to sexist insults and threatened with assault, rape and murder on social media ever since she wrote an article describing the “callousness” of the Indian government’s response to Covid-19. In neighbouring Bangladesh, pro-government media have been accusing Pinaki Bhattacharya, a Bangladeshi blogger exiled in France, of spreading fake news about the government ever since he accused it of mishandling its response to the epidemic. In late March, he twice lost access to his Facebook profile for several days because Facebook was told that he was dead.


After the Afghan journalist Mortaza Behboudi covered the situation in the refugee camps on the Greek island of Lesbos for the Franco-German TV channel Arte, he was accused by Thanos Tzimeros, the head of the Recreate Greece party, of spreading “monstrous lies” and has been threatened with physical violence on Twitter ever since.


Europe has not been spared. In some cases politicians have encouraged the online attacks. Blaž Zgaga, a journalist who is RSF’s correspondent in Slovenia, has been subjected to threats fueled by the Slovenian prime minister ever since he filed a freedom of information request with the authorities in Ljubljana for information about their Covid-19 measures. Ana Lalić, a journalist with the Serbian news website, has been the target of a similar hate campaign. It began when a local hospital sued her for reporting that it lacked medical equipment. She has been threatened and hounded on social networks ever since, the Serbian prime minister has accused her of spreading fake news, and the harassment went one stage further on 15 April when paid ads with her name, photo and a description of her as “Public enemy No. 1” were found on apps download from Google Play Store.


In Spain, in the heart of the European Union, the far-right party VOX has stepped up its online harassment of critical journalists, especially La Sexta TV channel anchor Ana Pastor. Spanish fact-checkers have also been targeted since the start of the coronavirus crisis. Criticizing private-sector groups that profit from the pandemic is also proving dangerous. Ever since Salvo Palazzolo, a journalist with the Italian newspaper La Repubblica, reported that the brother of a jailed mafia boss was using the pandemic to increase his influence in low-income districts of Palermo, Palazzolo has been subjected to a wave of hate messages on social media, in which he has been called a “disgusting journalist” and a ”bastard,” and all journalists have been described as “worse than the coronavirus.”


“It is very alarming to see politicians fomenting online hatred against journalists just because they are not covering the Covid-19 crisis as the politicians would like,” RSF secretary-general Christophe Deloire said. “The resulting online hate campaigns pose a serious threat to the safety of journalists and to democracies themselves. This unprecedented pandemic is a unique opportunity to resolve a systemic problem on online platforms. Aside from the Covid-19 crisis, the platforms must commit to greater transparency in the way they moderate content and what they do to combat harassment of journalists.”


Several platforms, including Twitter, Facebook and YouTube, announced in late March that, as a safety measure for their staff, they were stepping up their use of automated systems to detect and delete content of this kind, which infringes their moderation rules, and to disactivate the accounts involved.


However, these decisions could have a negative effect on journalists and on access to reliable news and information. Artificial intelligence’s limited ability to identify clearly illicit content underscores the important of human moderators. Furthermore, as a result of reducing the number of their moderators, some platforms have said they will only be able to examine the most potentially harmful content.


In the context of the pandemic, RSF calls on platforms to:


  • Publicly commit to halt exclusively AI driven content moderation after the sanitary crisis. Algorithms can be an aid in content moderation, but must not make any decisions on the removal of content as they are not able to assess compliance with standards on freedom of expression and the context of content, and are therefore prone to misidentify legal content. 
  • Establish mechanisms to notify illegal contents, and increase the visibility of such mechanisms. Notification mechanisms must be transparent, user friendly and easily understandable.
  • Strengthen mechanisms for appeal against content removal decisions. These mechanisms must as well be transparent, user friendly and easily understandable.
  • Reporting mechanisms and appeal mechanisms should not be lengthened to discourage users from using them. 
  • Publish a post-covid-19 transparency report. This report should include data on moderation operations carried out at the request of governments, users or on their own initiative.   

RSF has also formulated general recommendations for platforms.

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Updated on 11.05.2020