Investigating attacks is how journalists should fight back

The Shift News investigation into the network of secret Facebook hate groups set up by members of the Labour Party in Malta, was on the agenda at the OSCE South East Europe Media Conference this week in Tirana, Albania.

Alice Taylor, a journalist at the Shift News and partnerships associate at the Coalition For Women In Journalism took part in a panel discussion on challenges facing women in journalism.

The conference brought together journalists, lawyers, and other media stakeholders from across the Balkan region to discuss “Journalism in a time of crisis”. It was well attended by representatives from international media freedom organisations, including the European Centre for Press and Media Freedom, ARTICLE 19, and the European Federation of Journalists, diplomats, and policymakers.

“Women in the media are not just underpaid, overworked, and discriminated against. We are also more likely to be targeted with online, and in-person harassment. All around the world, women journalists are being systematically intimidated by politicians, powerful businessmen, and hordes of online trolls,” she told the in-person and online audience.

On the topic of hate groups, she spoke of The Shift’s six-month investigation as an example of how to fight back against online harassment.

“The way to fight back is to make it public. Your best weapon against attacks is your skill as a journalist. Investigate them, continue writing, speak the truth and don’t give up,” she said.

Taylor explained how The Shift’s investigation had found a number of Facebook groups with tens of thousands of members, including former prime minister Joseph Muscat and members of his cabinet.

“These ruling party militants coordinated attacks and doxing on female journalists and activists,” she added, referring to The Shift’s founder and managing editor, Caroline Muscat, “she exposed them, and that was her way to fight back”.

Taylor also focused on the assassinated Maltese journalist Daphne Caruana Galizia who was murdered on 16 October 2017.

Talking about how impunity for harassment and hate towards journalists, results in creating a dangerous situation for them, she said, “I saw the way she was called ‘witch’ and ‘bitch’. The government hounded her with frivolous lawsuits while people attacked her in public, online, and in every way. She was then assassinated just metres from her home.”

Taylor also demonstrated how she too had fought back against those who had attacked her. After being subjected to a smear campaign while six months pregnant and following her criticism of the Albanian government, she decided to not take it lying down.

“I sued the people that defamed me and won. I took the government to court for taking away my residence permit and I won. I then investigated the way the ruling party uses hundreds of fake Facebook pages using stolen photos and false names to attack critics and manipulate the public discourse.

Her two-year investigation revealed that pages, all set up at similar times, were deployed to comment in favour of the government, attend propaganda live streams, and harass those who criticised the party or state.

In 2021, Facebook whistleblower Sophie Zhang revealed to the world that Facebook knew autocratic leaders were using fake Facebook pages to sway public opinion. 

In an exclusive interview with Taylor, she confirmed her findings in Albania, adding, “I felt like I had blood on my hands,” because she wasn’t able to stop it.

She finished her talk by saying women journalists are all fighting the same battles, regardless of where their beat is. “We are fighting censorship, state control and capture, corruption, authoritarian leaders, online harassment and hate speech. While fighting back doesn’t make it any easier, it does provide a form of justice and it demonstrates we are professional and that the pen is mightier than the sword.”

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