Italian reporter Annalisa Camilli knew that journalists can experience harassment or abuse, but she didn’t think it would happen to her while working on the migrant beat.
“You always think of journalists covering [organized crime], wars or terrorism, but not a journalist covering immigration,” she says. Yet as the tragedy of Mediterranean migrants became increasingly politicized, fuelling anti-refugee propaganda across the country, she became a target for far-right trolls, receiving misogynistic comments and disparaging accusations, as well as sexual and physical threats, online.
Last summer, the harassment escalated after, aboard an Open Arms ship, Camilli reported on the rescue of a migrant woman probably left behind by the so-called Libyan coast guard . “The attacks did not stop at social networks, but I started receiving phone calls and emails,” she says, remembering. the attempts to scare her into silence. “They were saying I had made the story up, or that it wasn’t truthful, attacking my credibility, the most important thing for a journalist.”
The phone calls — at any hour of the day and the night — were particularly distressing, and Camilli still doesn’t know how the harassers got a hold of her phone number. “I wouldn’t go home alone anymore, I was constantly looking over my shoulders,” she says.
Someone flagged her case to the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ), an independent, nonprofit organization defending journalists under attack worldwide, which is when she realized her situation was unfortunately common, especially among her women colleagues.
In 2018, a report from Amnesty International found that female journalists and politicians were subjected to some form of abuse on Twitter every 30 seconds. That same year, a global survey conducted jointly by the International Women’s Media Foundation and TrollBusters, found that nearly one-third of women journalists consider leaving the profession due to online attacks and threats.
Deeply disturbed and worried about her personal safety, Camilli’s first reaction was to temporarily pull away from social media and immigration stories. But after a few weeks, she returned to working on the subject, and has since published a book about it.
“My approach to work hasn’t changed, I’m just a lot more aware,” she says. “I’m exposed to these kind of attacks and when I see a wave of [hatred] against me or my colleagues, I know I shouldn’t downplay it.”
Maria Salazar Ferro, the emergencies director at the CPJ, points out that harassment has an impact on those affected by it, but it is also a direct attack on press freedom and independence — an attempt to silence specific voices and stories.
Below are some of the most common, direct, negative consequences that harassment of journalists, in all forms, has on the news we regularly consume all over the world.
Important stories may never be told
Being a target for harassment can be exhausting, which takes an incredible psychological toll on the reporter, the newsroom and on other colleagues in that same beat, Salazar Ferro says.
“A very tangible consequence is censorship — people not reporting a certain story because they're afraid of the onslaught of attacks,” she explains. “I have most definitely spoken to people who said they have not reported on something, or they have avoided a story, because they're afraid of the consequences.”
The powerful are not held to account
Journalists are watchdogs working to promote transparency and accountability. As such, they can be become victims of silencing strategies when they threaten powerful interests or expose governments or important figures in the name of public interest.
This is what is happening in the Philippines, for example, where award-winning journalist Maria Ressa’s news organization, Rappler, has been targeted with a string of legal prosecutions by Duterte’s authoritarian regime.
Not all silencing techniques are this overt, but even subtler attempts such as threatening to initiate a lawsuit – perhaps against a citizen journalist or a freelancer without a big news organization behind them – or intruding into a reporter’s personal life can impact the accountability work being done by journalists at all levels.
Media plurality is at risk
Harassment may contribute to women retreating from traditionally male-dominated fields, leaving even fewer female voices in. “We definitely know that women journalists are disproportionately the victims of online harassment,” says Salazar Ferro. “[And] it is definitely more common if women journalists were reporting on beats like sports. So, yes, I think [harassment] does lead to [greater gender] disparity in the newsroom.”
It is likely that a similar mechanism would affect other minorities working in newsrooms, like LGBTQ journalists, for example, and journalists of color. As the Committee to Protect Journalists has highlighted, covering LGBTQ issues brings greater risk of threats and retaliation. And the Amnesty International’s 2018 report also found that women of color are disproportionately targeted in online harassment campaigns, being 34 percent more likely to be mentioned in abusive or problematic tweets than white women – and with black women, specifically, the percentage goes up to 84 percent
These increasing threats for minority journalists will discourage their involvement, and could ultimately impact the diversity in newsrooms and the media, which will lead to greater industry-wide challenges and limitations.