How the harassment of journalists impacts the news

15Jun 2019
Correpondent
The Guardian
How the harassment of journalists impacts the news

Italian reporter Annalisa Camilli knew that journalists can experience harassment or abuse, but she didn’t think it would happen to her while she worked on the migrant beat.

By Cristiana Bedei

“You always think of journalists covering organised crime, wars or terrorism, but not a journalist covering immigration,” she says.

Yet as the tragedy of Mediterranean migrants became increasingly politicised, 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 that I had made the story up or that it wasn’t truthful, attacking my credibility – the most important thing for a journalist,” she added.

The phone calls – at any hour of the day and the night – were particularly distressing, and Camilli says she still doesn’t know how the harassers got a hold of her phone number. “I wouldn’t go home alone any more. I was constantly looking over my shoulders,” she says.

Someone flagged her case to the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ), the global independent, nonprofit organisation defending journalists under attack worldwide, which is when she realised that her situation was unfortunately common, especially among her women colleagues.

Last year, an Amnesty International report 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 owing to online attacks and threats.

Camilli was deeply disturbed and worried about her personal safety, first reaction being 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, adding: “I’m exposed to these kinds 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.

One 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 is that 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.

“It’s 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,” she adds.

Two: 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 organisation, Rappler, has been targeted with a string of legal prosecutions by President Rodrigo 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.

Three: 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, further noting: “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. As the Committee to Protect Journalists has highlighted, this can bring great risk of threats and retaliation.

Amnesty International’s 2018 report also found that women of colour are disproportionately targeted in online harassment campaigns, being 34 per cent more likely to be mentioned in abusive or problematic tweets than white women – and with black women, specifically, the percentage goes up to 84 per cent.

The rise in the incidence of 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.