‘States using online harassment as a weapon against critical journalists’

A new website launched by the International Press Institute (IPI) offers comprehensive resources for newsrooms to combat online harassment against journalists and its effects on press freedom, the organisation said.

While harassment and abuse of journalists online is on the increase across the globe, there are few concrete resources available for newsrooms to respond to the dangers this phenomenon harbours for journalists’ well being and the public’s right to the news. This is what the website aims to address.

Online harassment takes a range of forms – from threats of violence to smear campaigns to online trolling – that share a common goal: silencing journalists who cover certain politically or socially contested topics or who express diverse opinions.

“This aim is achieved by generating fear and self-censorship among journalists or by discrediting them in the public eye, leading to a loss of trust,” IPI said.

Part of IPI’s OnTheLine project, the website compiles measures and best practices collected through interviews with over 110 editors, journalists and media experts as well as visits to 45 leading newsrooms in Europe.

The measures focus on four key areas:  moderation of comments, newsroom structures and mechanisms to promote a culture of safety, protocols for assessing and responding to attacks, as well as the roles and responsibilities of newsroom actors.

They are shared in the form of descriptions, video interviews and links to relevant reports and outside resources. Additional resources on best practices for dealing with online abuse will be uploaded in the coming months, the IPI said.

It’s important that journalists who are the target of online harassment are not left alone to deal with it.

The platform contains specific resources related to women journalists, a reflection of the fact that they journalists face different types of attacks than their male colleagues, the organisation said.

“Harassment targeting women tends to be especially vicious, highly sexualised and focused less on professional output than on the journalist herself.”

A short video produced by the Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE) in collaboration with the IPI shows some examples:

“I am thinking of fucking you as a warning or deterrent to others. You would surely be satisfied and even regain consciousness.”

While it is common practice for newsrooms to soften such language before publication, the full text is reproduced to give a true picture of what women journalists commonly face by keyboard warriors, often under a fake profile, and Party loyalists who act with impunity.

IPI Executive Director Barbara Trionfi said the aim of the tools on the OnTheLine website was to help counter not only the negative impact of online abuse on journalists but also to help prevent self-censorship resulting from online attacks, which threatens the public’s access to the news.

“In order to achieve these aims, it is important that journalists who are (the) target of online harassment are not left alone to deal with it. This phenomenon must be acknowledged as a structural problem of the news ecosystem and addressed through dedicated newsroom policies and mechanisms that support both staff and freelancers,” she said.

Far from being an “industry” problem, online harassment threatens the public’s right to independent news and a pluralistic media environment, both of which are essential for democracy. IPI research has shown that States and other political actors employ online harassment as a weapon against critical journalism by orchestrating attacks and smear campaigns against individual journalists and media houses.

The involvement of a broad range of actors – especially States and tech companies – is needed to tackle a press freedom problem that is of great importance to open and democratic societies, the IPI said.


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