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They’ve been beaten, trolled, threatened with sexual violence but refuse to be silenced

Abuja, Nigeria — On September 22, 2020 while out filming, Indigenous Guatemalan journalist Andrea Ixchíu Hernández was attacked shortly after she had reported illegal loggers operating in the Totonicapán forest.

“One of them hit me on the head, the other one on my chest and on my knee,” she tells CNN, recounting the incident from her home in Totonicapán in Guatemala’s western highlands.

“Luckily, as one of these attackers was trying to hit me with her machete, one of the rangers managed to push her away and that was how I escaped. Basically, he saved my life.”

Ixchíu Hernández’s ribs were broken and she was bed bound for two months. She also sustained injuries to her spine. “I am still recovering from that. It was really awful and really violent,” she says, her voice strained as she recounts the incident. “As I am speaking about it, I am realising again how dangerous it was.”

The physical attack she suffered that day may have not been premeditated but it was also not unimaginable. Ixchíu Hernández had already been the victim of years of online threats — attempts to humiliate and silence her.

“I have been facing this since 2012. I have a long record of different ways and different times in Guatemala where I have faced digital threats,” she says before explaining further: “I faced situations where people were attacking me on Twitter and Facebook, [and sharing] misinformation [about me] on Whatsapp. Once, in my hometown, one of these men printed a meme with rumours against me and my family and propagated it in the public square and in the local market.”

Ixchíu Hernández is one of the lucky ones, shaken by the violence but still alive. Daphne Caruana Galizia wasn’t so lucky.

The Maltese investigative journalist had risen to international prominence for her reporting that revealed her island’s elites were benefiting from offshore tax havens as part of the Panama Papers leaks.

On October 17, 2017 just half an hour after she’d published a blogpost about alleging corruption at the core of the Maltese government, the 53-year-old was killed by a car bomb in a small town called Bidnija.

The year after she died, Caruana Galizia’s son, Andrew Caruana Galizia, addressed the UN Human Rights Council saying: “Because of her work exposing corruption at the highest levels, my mother was dehumanized in the media and by politicians and branded a witch.”

“In the early years, she received threats by phone; later this became a concerted campaign of offline and online harassment. My father and my brothers and I were targeted in an attempt to silence her. Our pet dogs were killed, our home was set alight … Unprotected by Malta’s institutions, including the police force and the courts, killing her was not only desirable but it became conceivable.”

Unfortunately, both women’s stories — of online harassment that culminates in offline violence — are not exceptional.

In fact, as a new report published in April by the International Center for Journalists (ICFJ) and the United Nations’ agency UNESCO reveals: “Online attacks on women journalists appear to be increasing significantly, as this study demonstrates, particularly in the context of the ‘shadow pandemic’ of violence against women during COVID-19. The pandemic has changed journalists’ working conditions, making them yet more dependent on digital communications services and social media channels.”

The report which is based on a global survey of 901 journalists in 125 countries, a further 173 interviews and two big data case studies that analyse 2.5 million Facebook and Twitter posts, concludes that “women journalists are both the primary targets of online violence and the first responders to it.” In addition, a journalist’s race, sexual orientation and religion, exposes her to “even more frequent and vitriolic attacks”.

Referring to its respondents, compared to 64% of white women journalists, 81% of women journalists identifying as Black, 86% identifying as Indigenous, and 88% of Jewish- identifying women journalists reported experiencing online violence, which the report defines as “misogynistic harassment, abuse and threats; digital privacy and security breaches that increase physical risks associated with online violence; and coordinated disinformation campaigns leveraging misogyny and other forms of hate speech”.

The authors add: “A similar pattern can be seen when analysing the survey data through a sexual orientation lens: while 72% of heterosexual women indicated they had been targeted in online attacks, the rates of exposure for those identifying as lesbian and bisexual women were much higher – standing at 88% and 85% respectively.”

On the individual level, the violence takes not just a physical toll but also a psychological and emotional one. Beyond questions of individual safety, the ICFJ and UNESCO study finds that attacks on women journalists reveal an enduring misogyny that trickles down from the most powerful in society — political leaders — and which threatens democracy itself.

Again from the report: “Another major issue in evidence is the role of political actors – including presidents and elected representatives, party officials and members – in instigating and fuelling online violence campaigns against women journalists.”

“Online violence against women journalists is designed to: belittle, humiliate, and shame; induce fear, silence, and retreat; discredit them professionally, undermining accountability journalism and trust in facts; and chill their active participation…in public debate. This amounts to an attack on democratic deliberation and media freedom… It cannot afford to be normalised or tolerated as an inevitable aspect of online discourse.”

So, what does recourse look like? At the individual level, Sherry Ricchiardi-Folwell, who is the director of the DART Center for Journalism and Trauma Affiliate Program at Indiana University, and has worked as a media trainer from Pakistan to Ethiopia, talks about the need to create spaces for women journalists to talk about their experiences.

Ricchiardi-Folwell explains that because of the often-sexualised nature of the attacks, women remain silent about their harassment, which leads them to believe they are alone. Talking helps counter the sense of isolation.

Then there is a role for media employers in making sure their journalists are safe on their platforms and recognising how exposure to online or offline attacks may affect a woman’s confidence.

Folajaiye Kareem, a clinical psychologist in Abuja, Nigeria, points out that feeling ostracised and fearful of further attacks, women journalists may avoid reporting on the very stories they deem important and be apprehensive about taking up leadership positions.

“If you look at this, it is synonymous with traumatic responses, such that they are anxious and anticipate that they will be harassed over a story. This may cause them to let go in defence of themselves,” he says.

The ICFJ/UNESCO report presents 28 recommendations in total, including, “make social media companies more clearly accountable for combating online violence against women journalists,” and “recognise and work to counter the role of officials active in facilitating and orchestrating large-scale and continuous online attacks on women journalists.”

For Ixchíu Hernández, support networks have been invaluable to her recovery and resilience as she continues to report on the destruction of biodiversity in Guatemala. “The care of my family, the support of my neighbours and the indigenous authorities of my community gives me the strength to continue,” she says.

“But editors should understand that women make great explorers, researchers and interviewers precisely because most of those who have lots of power still tend to be male — who better than women to understand and find out what these men are really up to?” she asks.

“We are less likely to excuse them precisely because we are not in the traditional old boys’ clubs.”

If you’ve been affected by any of the issues mentioned in this story or the audio testimonies, seek help – you are not alone. A directory of resources and international hotlines is provided by the International Association for Suicide Prevention. You can also turn to Befrienders Worldwide.

Edited by Eliza Anyangwe. Audio files edited by Corinne Chin. Design and development by Peter Robertson and Byron Manley.

Header image credits, from top left: Aida Alami/Ferial Haffajee/Jessikka Aro by Laura Pohjavirta, Finnish Broadcasting Company/Maria Ressa by Franz Lopez, Rappler. From bottom left: Andrea Ixchíu/Natalia Żaba/Nana Ama Agyemang Asante/Zaina Erhaim.

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