Prominent Al Jazeera news anchor Ghada Oueiss and her colleague Ola Fares have been targeted in what researchers say is a “systemic” online harassment campaign by Saudi Arabian social media accounts.
While Oueiss had been viciously harassed online in the past, the two women were most recently subject to an avalanche of online attacks in early June, with Twitter users spreading private pictures of Oueiss in a swimsuit, which were stolen from her phone after hacking it, with denigrating accusations, messages and innuendos on how the journalists had achieved their successful careers.
An analysis by Marc Owen Jones, a researcher and professor at Hamad bin Khalifa University in Qatar, found that the campaign – which resulted in over 25,000 tweets and retweets in just 24 hours – was driven by numerous prominent Saudi Twitter accounts.
[Thread]1/ I see a lot of disgusting things online, but tonight the level of high level misogyny on ‘Gulf Twitter’ is astounding. There is a systemic campaign to smear two women journalists @OlaAlfares and @ghadaoueiss, who work for Al Jazeera. The campaign involves thousands pic.twitter.com/F1goEDtrsT
— Marc Owen Jones (@marcowenjones) June 9, 2020
Oueiss have recently covered several issues that are a thorn in Saudi Arabia’s side, including the assassination of journalist Jamal Khashoggi, leading to concerns that the attacks were retaliation for the journalist’s coverage.
IPI Executive Director Barbara Trionfi condemned the harassment campaign.
“We are appalled at the vicious online attacks on Ghaida Oueiss and Ola Fares, which not only aim to discredit their work and reputation but also silence them through a campaign of intimidation”, Trionfi said.
History of being targeted online
Oueiss told IPI that she reported the tweets that originally shared the content with Twitter but received a slow response, which she said allowed the massive dissemination of the content to continue.
Originally from Lebanon, Oueiss is not a stranger to being the target of online smear campaigns. “The first attacks began back in 2011 during the Arab Spring and intensified in 2013, while covering the war in Syria, where I was labelled as a ‘terrorist’s sexual slave’ by al-Assad internet brigades”, she said in a phone conversation with IPI.
Since then, the number of mysoginistic online attacks has only grown, ranging from doctored pin-up pictures with her face cropped in to cartoons implying that she engaged in sexual favours to advance her career to Twitter accounts impersonating her. In the offline world, there have been missed calls from unknown phone numbers that she believes were meant to intimidate her.
“I didn’t want these attacks to curb my journalism. I did not give in to the threats. So, I repeated to myself ‘Ghada, you have to be even stronger now’”, Oueiss said, reflecting on the hours right after her private pictures where exposed on June 2. “It took a lot of energy, but this is the price I pay for being a good arab female professional journalist.”
State actors and smear campaigns
Previous IPI research has shed light on how powerful state actors have increasingly resorted to online harassment and smear campaigns as a strategy to control the narrative and intimidate critical voices into silence.
Owen Jones noted that Saudi Arabia has carried out disinformation campaigns against its critics on social media in the past. It has used other electronic means, too. Earlier this year, IPI joined calls for an investigation into the Kingdom’s alleged hacking of Washington Post owner Jeff Bezos’s phone. Khashoggi, whose murder trial began last week in Istanbul, worked as a columnist at The Post. Other journalists have reported being targeted by similar Saudi hacking efforts.
The smear campaign against Oueiss and Fales was also condemned by Agnes Callemard, the U.N. special rapporteur on extrajudicial killings who led an investigation into Khashoggi’s 2018 murder and was herself targeted online.
“These types of attacks threaten press freedom through the toll they can take on victims, leaving them wondering whether it is worth covering the news and present the facts”, Trionfi noted. “Unfortunately, this is very likely what the organizers of coordinated campaigns aim at, which is why it is important to stand in solidarity with journalists subject to such abuse.”Since 2014, the International Press Institute (IPI) has been systematically researching online harassment as a new form of silencing critical, independent media. Our work has unveiled patterns of online attacks, analysed the emotional and professional impact on journalists, and collected best practices for newsrooms to address the phenomenon.