How women journalists can fend off online attacks

A 2016 Women Journalist’s Digital Security study by Amwik and Article 19 Eastern Africa, found at least seven out of 10 women journalists in Kenya have been harassed online in the course of their work.

Photo credit: File | Nation Media Group

What you need to know:

  • As women journalists increasingly use the internet and social media, so are they widening their vulnerability to technology assisted violence.
  • A 2016 Women Journalist’s Digital Security study by found at least seven out of 10 women journalists in Kenya have been harassed online in the course of their work.
  • Women journalists advised to protect their privacy and that of their friends.

On December 10, 2021, a Twitter account holder impersonating a prominent Citizen TV political reporter tweeted a photo of the journalist with her fellow political reporters at the Moi international Sports Complex, Kasarani.

They were covering the Azimio La Umoja Convention, which concluded with Orange Democratic Movement party leader announcing his fifth bid for the presidency in the August 9, General Election.

The tweet subjected the woman reporter to massive trolls. Her posture, look and dressing was reframed.

Some made sexually suggestive conclusions by the virtue of her being sandwiched by her colleagues. Yet none of the attacks were targeted at her male colleagues.

Fast forward, a week ago, a broadcast journalist resigned from a vernacular radio station. Her announcement was followed with an inflammatory poster of her shared on Facebook, Twitter and WhatsApp.

The two, count among the 73 per cent of the women journalists who have suffered online violence globally, based on the 2021 Global Survey on Online Violence against Women Journalists by United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation (Unesco).

A total of 901 journalists from 125 countries had participated in the study.

Election period

As the women journalists increasingly use the internet and social media to source, share and educate the people, so they are widening their vulnerability to technology assisted violence.

It manifests itself in cyber bullying, trolling, cyber stalking, defamation, online harassment, public shaming, identity theft and hacking during the election period.

A 2016 Women Journalist’s Digital Security study by Association of Media Women in Kenya (Amwik) and Article 19 Eastern Africa, found at least seven out of 10 women journalists in Kenya have been harassed online in the course of their work.

Based on Unesco’s study, gender reporting triggered the most attacks at 49 per cent, followed by politics and elections (44 per cent), and human rights and social policy (31 per cent).

“The responsibility of securing ourselves starts with us.”

That responsibility begins with protecting their digital footprint, which can be built through deliberately sharing personal information or collected without the individual’s knowledge.

Digital footprints

“The trail of information that you leave behind when using the internet including the websites you visit is the digital footprint,” Joy Chelagat, managing partner of Akole Africa, told the journalists.

She listed five ways a woman journalist can preserve her digital footprint.

That is to always think long-term before posting, using privacy settings on social networking pages, and keeping personal information private.

They should also protect their privacy and that of their friends. Similarly, they should always apply the golden rule online of treating others the way they would like to be treated.

Journalists have to be particularly careful of man in the middle attack, phishing and malware, the cyber-attacks that compromise their identities, data and work.

Phishing is a cyber-attack in which the hackers steal sensitive information or convince users to install malware by posing as a legitimate source or company.

“This (phishing) happens often during the election period. People create websites with links similar to those of mainstream media. For example, the hackers will change a very small part of the Nation.Africa URL. They even copy the look of the websites,” she explained.

Trusting parties

“So, people will send you emails and send you links saying they are conducting training. They then ask you to click on the link to register. You end up giving away personal information to the wrong people.”

For man in the middle attack, attackers intercept messages between two trusting parties, enabling them to steal important information.

“For instance, if they know you are following up on a particular story, the attackers will use certain software to intercept the information from the news source,” she explained.

In the case of malware, a journalist can accidentally install bad software when they click on bad links or download fraudulent files. Malicious software blocks network access, transmits data or renders your system inoperable.

“For instance, someone can give you a very nice flash disk and you say you will use it to move footage or content without knowing that the malware has been pre-installed,” she said.

There are, however, resources for empowering women journalists to protect themselves from online violence and cyber-attacks.

A consortium of media rights organisations including Twaweza Communications, has developed a protection guide for journalists in Kenya. The guide provides tips on how to secure oneself in the online and offline space.

Google too, has launched an anti-online violence application, Harassment Manager, a web application that allows users to document and manage online abuse. They can filter the attacks.

Identity theft

Reinforcing these efforts is the #HeshimuDada campaign launched by a group of rights organisations including Siasa Place.

Executive director Nerima Wako, said the campaign is pushing for safe spaces for not just women journalists, but also politicians to engage online.

So far, it has yielded fruits.

“The campaign has been impactful as the conversations on respecting women have become frequent online,” she said.

She says what concerns her the most about the online violence against women journalists “is them fearing to report on certain issues because it may attract attacks from the public.”

She noted that the political season is a “stressful” moment for the women journalists.

“People tend to take sides during the political period. So, women journalists have to be careful of what they wear and say, which is putting too much pressure on them,” she said.

Computer Misuse and Cybercrimes Act (2018) has criminalised cyber harassment, identity theft and impersonation and phishing. The offenders can serve a jail term of between three to 10 years. Or penalised Sh200,000 to Sh20 million.

Those who aid in committing the cybercrimes can spend not less than four years in prison or pay a fine of up to Sh7 million.

Ms Kaberia said: “We have to demand for accountability from the duty bearers who are responsible for enforcing the law.”