Trolling of Women Journalists Threatens Free Press

Female journalists, bloggers and other media actors disproportionally experience gender-related threats on the internet, which impacts their safety and future online activities.

Shammi Haque, a Dhaka blogger known as a courageous advocate for free expression and secularism, received death and rape threats. Credit: Center for Inquiry/ IPS

Shammi Haque, a Dhaka blogger known as a courageous advocate for free expression and secularism, received death and rape threats. Credit: Center for Inquiry/ IPS

New Delhi: “It’s not what you say that prompts it – it’s the fact that you are saying it,” says Mary Beard, a Cambridge University classics professor about online trolling. “If you venture into traditional male territory, the abuse comes anyway. It is the many ways that men have silenced outspoken women since the days of the ancients.”

Women professionals in many countries across Asia and the Pacific have increased their number in the newsrooms, according to a study, but they still represent only three out of ten news staff. Even with this low representation, they have now breezed into the male bastion of hard stories, among them politics, corruption, conflict, governance, environment with confidence and impact.

They speak their mind, put forth their opinion and debate knowledgeably and vigorously with readers on matters of import on social media platforms.

Societal images of women have remained largely conservative.

Shammi Haque, a Dhaka blogger, received death and rape threats and an email from an Islamic extremist group that claimed the killing of  six Bangladeshi bloggers which said, “Since the Islamic  Sharia [law] views working of women outside their homes without purdah [head cover] as (a) punishable offence, their employers are guilty to the same degree. We are urging the media to release their women from their jobs.”

“Shaming and harming women is an age-old practice, except that real time information sharing through technology makes the outreach far greater and the damage huge.” – Dilrukshi Handunnetti

In India, as part of an anti-trolling campaign by national daily Hindustan Times, Harry Stevens and Piyush Aggarwal set out in April to demonstrate how hard it is to be an outspoken woman on Twitter. They gathered a week’s worth of tweets sent to four prominent Indian women journalists. Out of these Barkha Dutt, a television veteran received 3,020 abusive tweets, and Rana Ayyub, a Muslim, received 2,580 hateful tweets, often coloured by Islamophobia.

Internet trolls have had a free run in the region for at least six years now. Women journalists who tackled trolling and abusive comments on social media by ignoring or blocking the persistent trolls, now find that stalking and direct threats of attack have increased, forcing them to seek legal recourse or police protection.

“Journalists’ safety is a precondition for free speech and free media,” says the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE).

“Online media today allows for the fast flow of information and the public’s active par­ticipation in sharing ideas, news and insight. An open, free and safe Internet is essential for public debate and the free flow of information and therefore should be duly protected.”

Female journalists, bloggers and other media actors are disproportionally experi­encing gender-related threats, harassment and intimidation on the internet, which has a direct impact on their safety and future online activities.

Twitter threats like “I’m going to cut off your head and rape it” have been directed even at the sexagenarian Mary Beard.

About the vitriolic abuse she faces, Dutt asks, “Why isn’t anyone discussing the marriages, divorces, and affairs of my male colleagues? Why the fixation with my private life? Because of the public scrutiny of women – and especially those of us who are proudly ambitious and fiercely independent – is very different from the standards used to measure men. And the subtext is always sexual.”

“Cyber bullies are the same as goons who threaten in real life,” psychiatrist Samir Parikh says.

The personalised online abuse women journalists get for doing only what is expected by their professional job “can make them feel traumatised, helpless, angry and very frustrated,” says Parikh. “In some, it can even cause self-esteem issues, affect social life and lead to symptoms of depression, anxiety and panic attacks. For women, the abuse and threats of violence are often openly sexist and sexual, which makes them tougher to deal with.”

“[Online] it is possible to cloak one’s identity and attack individuals in the most unethical and harmful manner,” says Dilrukshi Handunnetti, an editor in Colombo. “Shaming and harming women is an age-old practice, except that real time information sharing through technology makes the outreach far greater and the damage huge.”

It does little to ease the trauma for journalists to know that trolling correlates with psychopathy, sadism, and Machiavellianism, according to a 2014 empirical personality study. Other studies found boredom, attention-seeking, revenge, pleasure, and a desire to cause damage to the community among motivations for trolling.

But some interviewed trolls viewed their online comments not as harassment, but as a needed counterweight to opinions and news items they believe are flawed, according to the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ).

As threats get too dangerous to ignore, women journalists are being forced to seek recourse from the law, despite their misgivings about how the law is framed and doubts about whether law-enforcing agencies can ensure speedy and sensitive investigation.

An Online Harassment Social Media policy drafted March 2016 by the International Federation of Journalists (IFJ) lays out a road map for media houses to protect journalistic voices, create safe online spaces for open and respectful debate, and deal with abuse and harassment faced in particular by female staff.

Among the mechanisms to ensure digital safety and freedom from harassment, the road map calls for a special cyber cell in media organisations that equip women journalists particularly, with legal awareness and resources. When the harassment is extreme, measures must also include physical security, legal hand-holding, and support to pursue police complaints and psychological support and trauma counselling.

Meanwhile, a Byte Back handbook for women journalists being cyber-bullied gives out handy advice – ignore, filter, block, report and if it gets worse, name-and-shame, shout it out and don’t forget to save and document abuse.


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  • Rohini

    First, it’s very disappointing that these women who claim to speak for all Indians and many times, specifically for Indian women and gender equality, are now only worried about protecting themselves from abusive trolls in the internet. This class of ‘upper caste’ women need protection from such abuse. We ‘lower caste’ women can deal with our abusive trolls, not not, as we please.
    Since that is the case, these women then can never ever claim to speak for someone like me because here they are, leaving women like me hanging out in the cold to dry.

    Second, . By claiming that being on twitter is ‘Press Freedom’ , it sounds to me like these women are trying to equate social media presence in a personal capacity with ith Press Freedom. That’s a ridiculous stand to take. They are saying that ALL comments including their off-hand, reactionary, or opinion-based comments on twitter for e.g., represent the view of their respective news organisations. Is that indeed the case? It’s NOT. Hence, under their own handles, they are NOT press. If they want to talk about press freedom on social media, they must tweet from officially recognised handles, not personal ones.

    Third, All Indian citizens enjoy the same freedom of expression under the constitution. No one, male or female, must be abused or bullied on social media OR in real life. No one, male or female must bully or abuse on social media or in real life. Since that is the case, why are these women highlighting only themselves and not others who are abused and bullied? What makes them special? AS I said above, on twitter, under their own handles, they are just like me – an ordinary citizen. To say they are different from me is to create a false ‘caste system’ with themselves as the ‘upper caste, privileged’ brahmins and people like me as the ‘lower caste without rights’..a caste system that should have no place in any society is being created in another space by those very folks who claim to be fighting against it. irony died!

    And finally, it’s not that journalists are victims of abuse -they are also perpetrators of very bad abuse. For e.g., I do know that the lady called Swati Chaturvdevi, who apparently wrote a book on trolls, calls people ‘f**k-wit, and gay (used in a pejorative sense!!!). Interestingly, I have also seen certain women who call themselves feminists abuse men…and the killer is that they do so by sexually abusing the men’s mothers/sisters!!!! The most recent example is that of a lady called Radhika vaz who abused a man online y saying something completely objectionable…not about HIM…but about his MOM! Phew….I fail to see how any of these people can justify this and try to be holier-than thou. The one person who has been graceful throughout, I must say inspite of my many differences with her viewpoint, is Barkha Dutt. She NEVER abuses, not even worlds like Sanghi etc…so that is to her credit. Not many have those principles.

    • Anjan Basu

      You are ‘not convinced by their victim hood’, you say. So, all this primeval viciousness, this visceral hatred incessantly spewed by the social networking soldiers of hyper- nationalism — all this is just wishful thinking by some helper-sensitive individuals, you suggest? Well, I can only wish you good luck.

      • Rohini

        Are you trolling me for the sake of it or do you really have issues understanding my clear, crystal clear position on the issue? Where in my lengthy rebuttal do you get the factoid that the abuse is wishful thinking? I guess it’s wishful thinking on my part that people who are literate in the English language also actually comprehend it. All the best to you.