What you need to know:
- A recent UNFPA report on technology-facilitated violence noted that women journalists, human rights defenders, activists and leaders are disproportionately attacked.
- A 2013 study by the International Women's Media Foundation found that nearly two-thirds of women journalists have experienced some form of work-related harassment or abuse.
Ann Mwikali (Not her real name) recalls vividly when one day in 2015 she received a call from an MP that made her tremble to the core.
Mwikali, who was then working as a print journalist in one of the towns in Rift Valley, had written a story on how the MP had allegedly grabbed a widow's land.
She had interviewed the widow, who accused the lawmaker of taking away her land. The widow told her the MP wanted to relocate her to a rocky dry place far away from her parcel. She said despite protesting, he could hear none of it and had vowed to evict her.
“When I called the MP for comment following the accusations by the widow, I was shocked by the unprintable words he hurled at me. I could not expect a person holding such a public office to utter such words,” says Mwikali.
But the worst had yet to come. In an interview with Nation.Africa,Mwikali says hell broke loose after the story was published. “The MP called me and said to me: ‘Young girl, what kind of story is that you have written in the paper? I will send goons to rape you and your mother.’ I was so terrified and did not know what to do.”
Her world almost came crashing down when the MP went to look for her at her workplace. Luckily, she was not at her desk but in the boardroom doing an interview. She thanks her then-bureau chief, who called and warned her not to come out of the boardroom as the furious legislator was baying for her blood. It took the intervention of the bureau chief to calm down the MP and make him understand the basis of the story.
Following the episode, Mwikali lived in constant fear. “I keenly watched my steps and was always very careful of where I went. I, initially, would leave the office at either 6 or 7 pm but now started leaving at 4 pm. I also stopped attending the MP’s events and press conferences.”
Unrest in Egypt
In February 2011, Lara Logan was covering the Egyptian uprising that had rocked the country when she was sexually attacked by protestors. Ms Logan, who was then a correspondent for CBS News, told the channel that the attack lasted for about half-an-hour before she was rescued by a group of women and about 20 Egyptian soldiers.
The violence against her unfolded amid jubilation at the news that longtime Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak had agreed to step down.The mob "tried to tear my limbs off my body." assaulted her.
An estimated 200 to 300 men separated her from her news crew and bodyguard, surrounded her, ripped her clothing and beat her. Logan spent four days in hospital. "For an extended period of time, they raped me with their hands. There was no doubt in my mind that I was in the process of dying. I thought, 'Not only am I going to die, but it's going to be just a torturous death that's going to go on forever,’” Logan told CBS News' Scott Pelley in an interview that aired on CBS's "60 Minutes” on May 11, 2011.
The two cases are just but a tip of the iceberg of the ordeals that female journalists face while discharging their duties. Attacks on female journalists have reached unprecedented levels globally, with reported cases increasing sharply.
A recent UNFPA report on technology-facilitated violence noted that women journalists, human rights defenders, activists and leaders are disproportionately attacked, with public forums being used to threaten, harass and stalk them and promote hate speech.
Reem Abdellatif, an Egyptian-American journalist who has endured abuse, said the situation is chilling and sets a dangerous precedent for human rights violations.
“The online space reflects where our society could be headed if we don’t take serious action to protect women’s rights. I've been repeatedly harassed, and at one point my life was threatened after I wrote about the status of women in the Gulf,” she said.
Besides violence, hate speech is another thing that female journalists grapple with.
Another recent report by the International Centre for Journalists and Unesco found that nearly three quarters of the women journalists surveyed had experienced online violence, and one third had suffered a physical attack. Hate speech, which is rising around the world, has been cited by the UN as a major threat to peace and human rights.
The UN noted that gendered and sexualised hate speech is especially dangerous, undermining journalism and driving women journalists out of the spaces where their voices are urgently needed.
“I was called a ‘whore’ and trolled for writing about my own lived experience as a woman working as a journalist while living in between Dubai, the United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia. I also faced similar attacks while writing about bodily autonomy and reproductive rights in the United States and faced vicious attacks advocating safe spaces for females,” said Ms Abdellatif.
Vijaita Singh, a reporter at The Hindu, in an interview with UNFPA, noted the attacks are many a time coordinated. “There have been organised attempts to shut down the voices of women who are vocal on social media. I once faced a flood of hate messages after highlighting an allegation about a police officer. The abuse dehumanised me, and it included a rape threat. No arrests against the culprits were ever made,” she recounted.
To help deal with the emerging menace, UNFPA is working with women journalists to sound an alarm bell for the international community, urging actions to end the scourge of gender-based violence no matter where it takes place, whether on the street, at home or online.
A 2013 study by the International Women's Media Foundation (IWMF) found that nearly two-thirds of women journalists have experienced some form of work-related harassment or abuse. It surveyed behaviours ranging from verbal sexual harassment to more severe ones such as intimidation and sexual and physical violence. The majority of the 822 women polled did not report what happened.