Journalists and bloggers are increasingly the victims of online harassment including death threats, verbal abuse and smear campaigns, in addition to technical attacks. The aggressors in these cases share a common goal: to intimidate journalists into silence and put a stop to critical commentary or investigative reporting that is intended to expose misdeeds and serve the public interest.
It is clear that in developing an efficient approach to dealing with online harassment against journalists and bloggers – and the resulting fear and self-censorship such harassment can create – a diverse array of challenges must be faced.
One of the main obstacles in addressing online harassment against journalists is to find the correct balance between safeguarding the human right to free expression and protecting those who engage in journalism from being subjected to a torrent of abuse and threats online.
Therefore, any approach to developing best practices and guidelines to counter digital attacks against journalist needs to have a multidisciplinary perspective.
Beginning the process to develop such an approach was the main objective of the session “Shields up! Protection against online harassment of journalists, bloggers, citizen reporters”, which IPI organised at RightsCon from March 30 to April 1, 2016 in San Francisco.
The session was part of IPI’s project “Ontheline”, which aims to strengthen the opportunities that online platforms and digital tools offer independent journalism by analysing and addressing the challenges that such technological developments carry with them. A very important area in this respect is the cyber-harassment – i.e., threats, attacks and technical interference – by which journalists, bloggers and citizen reporters (in particular critical ones) are so often victimised.
It is worth mentioning that anecdotal evidence leads to the conclusion that cyber-harassment results in psychological distress and self-censorship, and in some cases may even be followed by physical attacks. Moreover, anecdotal evidence has shown that cyber-harassment often has a strong gendered component, and strategies are necessary to address attacks specifically targeting women journalists, bloggers and citizen reporters.
Laws and regulatory restrictions targeting independent journalism contribute to a hostile climate against the journalistic community, which, in turn, enhances an atmosphere in which cyber harassment is falsely legitimised and allowed to flourish.
It should be noted that the term “journalist” in this context should be interpreted as including anyone who engages in journalism, regardless of the medium or platform used.
The following recommendations were put forward by panellists
Intermediaries and social media platforms
- Empower users to freely control the feed of posts and comments they view, including giving them possibility of utilising a more flexible process for using bulk lists to block or mute content included in their feeds. This measure would serve two purposes: it would be consistent with the principles of freedom of expression, insofar as it allows users to opt out of receiving content but does not silence the person who generated that content, while also minimising the psychological impact of being targeted.
- Facilitate a process to make these platforms safer, not least by incorporating tools that make the reporting process more user-friendly.
Adapt transparent policies to minimize the impact of cyber-harassment and systematically revise those policies to adapt to ever-changing context.
- Increase transparency into to the decision-making process with respect to account blocking, as the consequences can extend beyond the platform. For example, in recent years, many websites and services online have moved toward a system whereby users log in using social media accounts. The suspension of a social media account for spurious or unknown reasons could lead to a loss of access to other online services.
- Ensure that laws and norms regulating online communications meet existing international standards on human rights and that the interest of free speech is given due weight when balanced against the need to protect privacy and security online. This is particularly necessary in regions where media ownership is concentrated or where access to the Internet is controlled by a limited number of actors.
- Take all necessary steps to ensure that law enforcement officers and the judiciary are properly trained and funded to address cyber-harassment and its impact on journalists, bloggers and citizen reporters.
- Support community managers to moderate comments and to engage with users to educate on best commenting practices. Moderating all comments across a media house’s full spectrum of articles and blogs can be difficult and can consume a large amount of resources, but when comments are not moderated efficiently, abusive commenters tend to engage in similar behaviour on social media platforms. Adopting “think-twice policies”, where readers are reminded of the rules of commenting before posting, and reducing the number of articles on which users can post a comment, in addition to limiting the period of time in which they can do so, might be effective strategies.
- Put in place mechanisms to address low-level harassment, such of verbal abuse addressed not only at journalists’ specific reporting but at their personal characteristics, such as gender or race, as this type of harassment may also affect journalists’ ability to carry on their job.
- Provide counselling and legal support to journalists targeted by online harassment in order to minimized potential psychosocial consequences.
Civil society and media freedom advocates
- Work with communities to cultivate a network of users that would organically respond to hate speech on social media with counter-speech, as a means to provide psychosocial support to victims of cyber-harassment.
- Raise awareness among journalists, bloggers and citizen reporters on the importance of digital security, both in terms of tools and practices. Observers have identified a lack of awareness among these communities of the risks associated with unprotected electronic communications.
- Support a scientific approach to the study of online harassment utilizing a systematic collection of data to measure its impact and explore the causes behind the phenomenon.
Journalists, bloggers and citizen reporters
- Be aware of the risks inherent in the online environment, such as digital attacks targeting journalists and citizen reporters that seek to gain access to electronic communications and personal data in order to compromise journalists’ work.
- Take advantages of opportunities to obtain proper training on how to address attacks and mitigate their potential harm.
UN and international organisations
- Strengthen U.N. inter-agency collaboration and UNESCO’s leading role in implementing the U.N. Plan of Action on the Safety of Journalists and the Issue of Impunity.
- Observe and promote World Press Freedom Day (May 3) and the International Day to End Impunity for Crimes against Journalists (Nov. 2) in more countries.
- Cover the safety of journalists by reporting on the existence of – and progress on – government commitments to the Sustainable Development Goals.
- Promote journalists’ safety online and offline via meetings related to the World Summit on the Information Society and via upcoming meetings of the Internet Governance Forum.
In the interest of establishing best practices, guidelines and principles in this area, IPI intends to continue the conversation begun during the session at RightsCon with a group of core experts, including the speakers who took part at the session as well as other parties interested in contributing to the process.
– Farieha Aziz, Director, Bolo Bhi, Pakistan – @FariehaAziz
– Eva Galperin, Global Policy Analyst, Electronic Frontier Foundation – @evacide
– Yasmin Green, Head of Research and Development for Jigsaw (Google) – @yasmind
– Xianhong Hu, Assistant Programme Specialist, UNESCO – @HuXianhong
– David Kaye, UN Special Rapporteur on the promotion and protection of the right to freedom of opinion and expression – @davidakaye
– Geoffrey King, Technology Program Coordinator, Committee to Protect Journalists – @geoffwking
– Dunja Mijatovic, OSCE Representative on Freedom of the Media – @OSCE_RFoM
– Merope Mills, West Coast Editor, The Guardian US – @meropemills
– Laura Tresca, Article 19, Brazil – @lauratresca
– Barbara Trionfi, Executive Director, International Press Institute – @barbara_trionfi (moderator)
Listen again to the panel session