Violence and censorship: online spaces still aren’t safe for women journalists


Yesterday, in Human Rights Square in Vienna, activists gathered holding a vigil in memory and to call for justice for journalists killed around the world with impunity. This week, global leaders, international institutions and civil society organisations are gathering in Vienna around the 10th Anniversary of the UN Plan of Action for the Safety of Journalists. The urgency should not be understated: if journalists are under threat, freedom of speech, democracies and our human rights are under threat.

The threats journalists face online and offline are increasingly entangled. Online spaces are crucial for journalists to be able to freely and safely access, to hold power to account, and to highlight the threats that they are facing on the global stage. But those same online spaces are sites of online violence and harassment, where those who seek to silence journalists can distort and discredit independent reporting, or even encourage and defend physical violence.

Women journalists in particular around the world write in the face of extraordinary levels of online and offline threats. This summer at Demos, we convened a workshop with women journalists from around the world who were under threat from digital abuse, who argued that platforms need to do more, not less, to counter the abuse journalists are receiving. Journalists who expose corruption told us they face mass pile-ons of gendered abuse, encouraged by politicians or others whose power is threatened by journalism. Journalists report being hacked, having money stolen from their bank accounts, having private information shared, including information that threatens their physical safety. Women journalists in particular have found sexualised deep fakes of themselves shared online or fake accounts set up in an attempt to undermine their credibility by impersonating and defaming them.

It seems bizarre and tragic to discuss these attacks against journalists in the same sentence as the circus which has engulfed the acquisition of Twitter this week. But this disconnect exposes the fundamental flaws in how our public spaces online are controlled and run. While journalists, and women journalists in particular, face daily threats to their safety and work online, the future of a major site used by journalists is in disarray.

Musk’s promises to make Twitter a beacon of free speech, alongside suggestions he is looking to reduce content moderation protections for marginalised groups, along with changing established Twitter systems like the ‘blue tick’ verification system, on which journalists frequently rely to maintain their credibility on platforms where they face numerous threats to their integrity, do not bode well. Ironically, many of the journalists who most need these tools will be the ones who can least afford them, and in countries where journalism is most under threat – such as Iraq, Syria and India – the proposed $8/month fee for verification is not an insubstantial chunk of a median salary. Online systems are weaponised and leveraged against journalists: without engaging in this reality, ambitions to make platforms more protecting of free speech will fail.

Platforms – and those who make decisions about them – need to be engaging with the experiences of women journalists, the tools they need and the challenges they face, to have a chance of successfully protecting democratic discourse, access to information and digital rights. Simply being ‘free’ to choose to use a platform or not, is not free enough – free from threats, from censorship, from persecution. Those of us who recognise the value of journalism and how a healthy, democratic and free society depends upon it will demand a different version of freedom.

To coincide with the 10th Anniversary of the UN Plan of Action on the Safety of Journalists, Demos have been working in collaboration with International Media Support and the Coalition Against Online Violence to produce two short videos detailing fictionalised accounts of women journalists facing online abuse in Moldova and Pakistan. Click here to watch the videos.