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A year of solidarity against threats and pandemic

By Jane Whyatt

Nothing could be more frightening than a threat of sexual violence against a newborn baby. Yet this unspeakable horror is only one of the many acts of intimidation by paramilitaries and far-right groups aimed at journalist Patricia Devlin and dozens of her colleagues in Northern Ireland. She gave testimony at the Media Freedom Rapid Response Summit as part of a panel looking at the growing insidious threat of online gendered harassment aimed at women in journalism. In her work as a crime correspondent at the Sunday World newspaper, Patricia Devlin covers the legacy of the troubles and how that has morphed into runaway organised crime. The threats come in personal messages, public social media posts and recently via the spray can: Graffiti featuring her name and the crosshair of a gun have recently been discovered in Belfast.

Sexual and misogynist trolls have also targeted journalists Tanja Milevska who comes from North Macedonia and works in Brussels and Anja Kožul, a journalist living and working in Croatia. For Anja, the online attacks were tailored to her life and family background: her family history as war refugees, her height, build and looks were all included in a facebook post targeting her on a page that has thousands of followers from a militant, right-wing nationalistic online community. The personalisation of the threats to Anja had a direct impact on her as she had few options available to her, instead choosing to remove personal writing she had published looking at her family’s background and her status as a refugee.

 

When there are few support options, self-censorship may be one of the few options available to many.

 

Nationalistic insults against Tanja Milevska did not end when the government changed and the nationalist party became the opposition party. Instead the journalist who works for MIA, the national news agency journalist had to face a new threat – this time from gamers, who reviled her because of a tweet in which she suggested that they were sexist. Throughout her journalistic career, while the source of the harassment may have changed, the methods were similar, gendered insults, threats of sexual violence, attempts to doxx her and leak personal information and rewards offered to hack her accounts. Soon social media platforms, such as Twitter, so important for her work, became little more than a bed of toxicity threatening Tanja and encouraging her to step away from her important work, something that nearly happened – “Every year I think about leaving”.

 

Read more details here at the Mapping Media Freedom platform.

 

While Anja, Tanja and Patricia work in three different countries, each with their own complex political and social context, many of the threats, aimed at discrediting, isolating and intimidating the journalists, were similar. Whether it was paramilitaries, far-right political communities, gamers or elements of organised crime, each group represents an endemic source of risks for all journalists, but especially pronounced for women, journalists of colour and the LGBTQI community.

 

The aim of these smear campaigns was to isolate the journalists until they have nothing left but to leave the profession. However, while all three journalists confided that this had crossed their mind – “who wouldn’t think about leaving the profession?” Patricia asked after she outlined the heinous threats against her infant child – the three journalists said it was important for them to speak out. Patricia Devlin called to the general public: “Support journalists and realise they are working for you”.

Screenshot of the MFRR 2021 online summit final panel debate.

One year of Media Freedom Rapid Response – the balance sheet

 

Summing up the activities of the Media Freedom Rapid Response (MFRR) in its first year, representatives of the MFRR consortium came together to take stock of the first year and look to what they and the broader community can do to ensure journalists are supported.

 

From Brussels, Deputy Head of Unit at DG-CONNECT at the European Commission Audrius Perkausas noted that the Commission is now taking threats to press and media freedom far more seriously than ever before – and even hosting its own online News Media Forum on 23-25 March to engage with more journalists and human rights defenders on this issue.

Benjamin Bock of InfAI explained how more than four million online posts and news items have been analysed to strengthen the work to automatically capture and categorise violations of press and media freedom shared via Twitter and online news outlets.

Earlier in the Summit with ECPMF’s Antje Schlaf he hosted a workshop to explain how to use the Mapping Media Freedom online reporting system:

As well as listing all the achievements, the panel representing all seven partner organisations of the Media Freedom Rapid Response discussed what is still to be done. The results of a detailed Needs and Gaps Analysis in the European media freedom community were presented by Sofia Verza of the Osservatorio Balcani e Caucasi Transeuropa (OBCT). It shows clearly that there are three group of media workers who are most vulnerable to threats and in need of support: freelancers, local reporters and women* facing misogynist and sexist online abuse.

On behalf of the International Press Institute (IPI), Jamie Wiseman described successes of the MFRR action:

“We’ve helped some journalists to get police protection and even to get charges dropped that had been laid against them”.

Looking forward, panel member Camille Petit of the European Federation of Journalists (EFJ) hoped that in future it might be possibility to translate MFRR work into more languages used across Europe, to reach more potential beneficiaries of legal and practical support. From Free Press Unlimited (FPU), Jantine van Herwijnen observed that psychological damage is “a really big problem for journalists” and just as important as items such as helmets, vests and surgical masks which MFRR’s practical support provides.

 

And OBCT’s Sofia Verza spoke for the whole panel in hoping for a return to face-to-face meetings after the pandemic is over. Her wish for the coming year: more visibility for the project in legacy media and in the social networks. “Why shouldn’t the media speak about media freedom?” she asked. So at the end of the balance sheet is a new to-do list, as well as a new spirit of solidarity.

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