Women Journalists on the Frontline


Women Journalists on the Frontline

A silenced journalist mutes the voices of the people and curbs their right to know.

In many parts of the world, an investigative journalist’s work— uncovering corruption or battling misinformation—is fraught with risk. But that risk is often chillingly compounded by the simple fact of being a woman. Not only are women journalists vulnerable to the standard tools of intimidation, harassment, imprisonment, and murder, they are also disproportionately at risk of sexual assault, silencing and shaming - with many of these crimes not reported due to powerful cultural and professional stigmas. Today, this harassment is not only in person, it is online as well.

Perhaps it’s no coincidence that the UNESCO/Guillermo Cano World Press Freedom Prize – for the advance or defence of press freedom in the face of danger – has gone to women journalists for the last two years. Both recipients embody the threats facing women journalists all over the globe.

In 2021, the prize went to Maria Ressa the investigative reporter and co-founder and CEO of Rappler. Ressa won the Nobel peace prize that year too, the first journalist to be awarded the prize since 1935. In her fearless reporting, Maria Ressa sustained a campaign of gendered online abuse, threats, and harassment. At one point she was receiving over 90 abusive messages an hour on Facebook.

Jineth Bedoya, the Colombian investigative journalist, won the accolade in 2020. Bedoya was abducted and raped unearthing a story on arms trafficking in 2000. She endured a horrifying kidnap ordeal just three years later, at the hands of militants from the former Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia. For more than twenty years, Bedoya has campaigned to end sexual violence against women.

Both women have joined forces with UNESCO to protect women journalists – Ressa’s case was featured in UNESCO’s groundbreaking 2021 survey the Chilling: global trends in online violence against women; and the preliminary findings of this survey were mentioned in the historic ruling of the Inter-American Court of Human Rights on Jineth Bedoya’s case. In its judgment, the Court found that there was evidence of involvement of the Colombian State in the acts of physical, sexual and psychological torture against the journalist. Bedoya has also worked with UNESCO to raise awareness about violence against women journalists and its impact on freedom of the press in Latin America and the Caribbean.

Thanks to its Multi-Donor Programme on Freedom of Expression and Safety of Journalists (MDP), from 2018 to 2021, UNESCO has been able to massively step up its long-standing commitment to raising awareness of gender- specific risks, providing on-the-ground support to mitigate them.

UNESCO’s MDP has strengthened existing training activities and national mechanisms which monitor and report on journalists’ safety in order to ensure they include tools that are specifically tailored to the threats facing women, and that governments are responding appropriately. There is now a powerful network of these crucial monitoring, protection and training programmes across the five regions where the MDP is active, as well as globally.

extra judges, trained in crimes against journalists

have been appointed in response to the higher number of cases

In Iraq, user-testing of such services has been particularly beneficial. It transpired that a flagship national phone-line - set up in 2020 for women journalists to report the high levels of harassment they faced – was not fully living up to its purpose. With MDP funding, UNESCO’s Baghdad Office surveyed 2,200 women journalists and discovered that an overwhelming majority (95%) found the service’s advice, to go to the police to obtain a case number, was problematic. Not only did these women risk their reputation and the reputation of their family by visiting a police station, but they were anxious about potential threats at the police station itself.

The conclusion was that for the service to be of benefit, complaints needed to be seen by a judge in court rather than in a police station. The Field Office negotiated and launched a revised service – a Digital Reporting Platform – alongside the Minister of the Interior, the High Judiciary Council, the Ministry of Justice, the Human Rights Committee, the Iraqi National Committee of Safety of Journalists and the Issue of Impunity, and the Iraqi Journalists Syndicate. As a result of this pivot, demand has surged for the revised Digital Reporting Platform. In response to the higher number of cases, 20 extra judges, trained in crimes against journalists – both men and women - have been appointed.

In Palestine, during the Gaza Emergency Response in May 2021, a two-month assessment by UNESCO’s Ramallah Office revealed that the stresses of the conflict, combined with the pandemic and home-schooling children, had exacerbated existing mental and physical pressures on women journalists. With support through the MDP, UNESCO was able to deliver crucial psycho-social support services to meet these needs: running workshops for 80 journalists - 34 women, and 46 men - throughout October and November 2021.

The psychological support session was wonderful. We as journalists needed something like this for a long time…. We had the chance to listen to the problems of others; we benefited from their experiences and their perspectives; we learnt how to deal with some of our problems. We emptied the pressures and question marks inside us and found solutions through these sessions.
Sujoud Shakhsa Journalist attending the UNESCO workshop

Crucially, it was through observation during the group sessions that expert counsellors were able to identify women who were unable to vocalise their need for help and offer them desperately needed one-to-one support. “We saw cases of stress that don’t show” says Hala Tannous from UNESCO’s Ramallah Office. “These women smiled, they were really active, but deep inside they were really hurt and burnt.” Men were trained, too– “to understand women better, to understand their feelings, their challenges, and how to support each other, as colleagues” said Tannous.

The sessions had a positive impact on us as journalists who work in the field and have covered many wars. It was an opportunity to release what was inside us to qualified trainers who listened to our cases, and our internal problems. We hope that such training will continue to be supported and held in our area. We have moved on, time has passed, but we still hear the sounds of planes flying in the sky of the Gaza Strip, the cries and the distant bombing. Those sessions helped us to cope with those feelings.
Nidal Al-Wheidi Photojournalist

The work was deemed so successful and important that UNESCO is creating a Handbook for Journalists – with guidance on symptoms of stress or trauma, coping strategies and where to find support. The handbook will be available across the Middle East published in both Arabic and English. In 2022, UNESCO published a further report on the impact of trauma reporting, both on journalists and on those people whose stories they tell at times of emotional distress.

Over the last four years, the challenges facing women journalists have intensified, both online and offline. UNESCO has worked to identify and counter these threats, developing programmes and toolkits to support them. There is still a lot of work to be done.

The Chilling: global trends in online violence against women journalists; research discussion paper
The result of two years’ work, this landmark research paper examined global trends in the new frontier of violence against women journalists: online.

Multi-Donor Programme for Freedom of Expression and Safety of Journalists (MDP)

The MDP serves to further strengthen UNESCO work at a global, regional, and national levels, by channeling funds towards emerging priorities and the most pressing needs to achieve its mandate on freedom of expression. It enables UNESCO Communication and Information Sector to address complex issues through the design and implementation of holistic medium and long-term interventions at national, regional and global levels. The clear advantage of this mechanism is that it allows UNESCO and its partners to achieve greater impact and sustainability, whilst reducing fragmentation of activities in the same field.