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Cyberattacks on female journalists threaten everyone

The Economic Freedom Fighters’ vicious social media attacks on journalist Karima Brown are not only painful for her, they are an attack on the news media and our democracy. These attacks are also a chilling example of the threats that female journalists face.

That a political party and its leadership sees fit to use sexist and derogatory language in their attacks is yet another example of the ingrained patriarchal and sexist attitudes that women in South Africa face.

Allowing journalists to do their work without fear or intimidation stands at the core of the contract the news media has with society and constitutes one of the central tenets of a democratic society. In the lead-up to the elections in May, the relationship between the media and individual journalists and our democracy will be tested, as will the maturity of political leaders to stand up to scrutiny by the media — and their understanding of, and willingness to protect, freedom of speech.

In recent years we have seen increased attacks on the media from various public and private individuals and the entities they represent. Instead of engaging in public debates about their grievances or taking cases to the press ombud, political parties and public officials are increasingly attacking journalists and editors on social media. In addition, we have seen journalists stalked and attacked outside their homes and their property destroyed.

Particularly precarious is the situation of female journalists. According to a 2018 worldwide study by the International Women’s Media Foundation, more than half the women journalists surveyed have suffered work-related abuse, threats or physical attacks. Most worrying are the increasing number of attacks on journalists on social media, on which female journalist are disproportionally targeted.

Internationally, cases such as the harassment of former CNN journalist Maria Ressa, who over several years received death threats online, have been highlighted. At home, journalist Ferial Haffajee has been trolled, stalked and received death threats. In some cases abusers remain anonymous; in others — such as the attacks on Brown — they are known. And even in cases in which attackers have hidden behind the opportunities that social media open up for anonymity, a political agenda can often be perceived, and is often coupled with patriarchal and sexist ideas that condone the abuse of women. These also reflect views of what professions women should have and the role they should play in society. Women thus face what has been labelled “double attacks” — being targeted for being female as well as for being journalists. Cyberbullying and cybermisogyny, including threats of physical violence often of a sexual nature, are the ugliest forms of sexism used to try to intimidate and silence female journalists.

It is of utmost importance that we ensure that journalists can do their jobs without any impediments to their safety and that they can deliver on their mandate to provide accurate information and coverage of all political parties and act as a platform for deliberation about crucial issues facing our society.

Given the prevalence of gendered abuse in our society, not only do we have to make sure female journalists are protected from abuse, we must also put all forms of gendered abuse on the media agenda — particularly when such abuse is condoned by a political party.

Despite increased awareness of sexual harassment raised by movements such as #MeToo, a report by the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Security on Europe shows that female journalists are increasingly censoring themselves and even leaving the profession as a result of this abuse. If female journalists are being coerced into silence, whether online or offline, it will have serious implications for gender equity not only in news media but also in the public sphere, where female voices and perspectives are sorely needed. And given the growing importance of social media as a space for information sharing and deliberation, protecting free speech and people’s right to safety and dignity are of equal importance for our democracy and the information we need to share and discuss, particularly in the run-up to the 2019 general elections.

Ylva Rodny-Gumede is professor in the journalism, film and television department at the University of Johannesburg

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Ylva Rodny-Gumede
Ylva Rodny-Gumede is a professor of communication studies and the senior director of the division for internationalisation at the University of Johannesburg

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