CPJ panel explores intersections of gender and media freedom

bySam Berkhead
May 4, 2016 in Journalist Safety

It’s no secret that journalists face more hindrances to their work than they have in decades. In the last year alone, press freedom has fallen nearly four percent worldwide.

The problem becomes even more acute when viewed through a gendered lens. Women journalists, in particular, are harassed, abused and attacked — both online and physically — as a means of silencing them and discouraging others from covering certain topics.

That was what happened to Khadija Ismayilova, an investigative reporter from Azerbaijan who reported on corruption within her country’s ruling establishment. After years of harassment, gender-related attacks and arrests, Ismayilova was sentenced to prison for alleged crimes widely viewed to be trumped up.

Ismayilova is one of the more high-profile examples of a journalist facing gender-related attacks in an attempt to silence her. Human rights attorney Amal Clooney counts her among her clients. But her case is indicative of a wider trend in which gender is increasingly wielded as a weapon against journalists everywhere. It’s a trend that goes far beyond internet comment boards.

A panel hosted by the Newseum Institute and the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) discussed this trend and examined possible means of combatting it.

Molly McCluskey, a freelance foreign correspondent, explained that being aware of one’s surroundings and safety is a must, even while working in countries and locations that are often perceived to be safe for journalists.

“I think anywhere we go, there is always a potential for everything, even in places in the world that I thought I would be the most safe,” she said. “I have been surprised, when I've let my guard down a little bit, at some of the attention, reactions and threats that I've unexpectedly had to deal with.”

Step two? Understand that ending gender-based violence against journalists is a complex, intersectional issue that encompasses many cultures — and as such demands an equally varied solution, Courtney C. Radsch, CPJ's advocacy director, pointed out in the CPJ’s new book, “Attacks on the Press: Gender and Media Freedom Worldwide.”

"Efforts to combat and address online abuse and gender-based violence often emanate from the developed world and also tend to reflect conditions, cultural perceptions and expectations in developed countries," a study by the Best Practices Forum on Online Abuse and Gender-Based Violence Against Women and Girls at the 2015 Internet Governance Forum concluded.

And in an era when it's unrealistic to expect journalists to stay off social media, both law enforcement and the social platforms themselves have a responsibility to shut down online harassment, said Michelle Ferrier, a former journalist and founder of Trollbusters, an organization that provides women journalists with support when they're targeted by cyberharassment.

"This is really a much more insidious kind of activity than what we've seen in the past," said Ferrier. "So we need better laws that actually deal with the complexity of the kind of online activity that we're seeing with these smart mobs."

Nor is gender-based violence and abuse strictly a problem for women journalists, with LGBT journalists facing similar attacks. The CPJ book outlines the unique challenges faced by Katherine O’Donnell, a transgender journalist in Scotland, as well as transgender journalists in less-tolerant Uganda. Even men aren’t immune to gender-based harassment. As a result, efforts to combat gender-based attacks against journalists must keep all genders in mind.

Ultimately, the CPJ’s panel discussion and book bring a mere fraction of voices and experiences into the discussion surrounding harassment and violence toward women journalists. It’s something Joel Simon, CPJ executive director, highlighted in his introduction.

“Clearly, vital voices are being suppressed and, as a result, some of the information we need to make sense of a complex world is missing,” he wrote.

As more journalists — of all genders and cultures — come forward with their stories, the stigmas surrounding gender-based violence will continue to fade, Simon wrote, bringing more representation to the table.

And while talking openly about the problem won’t necessarily solve it, doing so is a vital first step in breaking the so-called “code of silence,” said Lara Logan, a 60 Minutes correspondent, at the panel.

“It wasn't hard for me to speak out about [my assault],” she said. “I think what is harder for victims of sexual violence, rape and sexual assault is that people like to bury it very quickly and they want you to show it. ... I've had young journalists from Egypt and other places come and see me for things that happened to them, and you realize that the first step is not having to carry that burden on your own.”

Watch the full panel discussion below:

Main image taken by Sam Berkhead. Pictured [left to right]: Molly McCluskey, Michelle Ferrier, Martha Raddatz, Arzu Geybulla and Lara Logan.