By Emma Derr & Michelle Ikelau Ngirbabul,
Max Kampelman Fellows
The OSCE’s first Supplementary Human Dimension Meeting of 2021, held virtually on March 8-9, focused on “Media Freedom and Gender Equality.” During the two-day meeting, OSCE participating States, OSCE institutions, international organizations, and members of civil society exchanged views and best practices on implementing commitments to media freedom and gender equality.
In her opening remarks, OSCE Representative of Freedom of the Media Teresa Ribeiro told participants, “Freedom cannot be a privilege of some, while excluding others. Freedom can only be inclusive. Democracy, security, and sustainable progress all build on human rights – universal human rights.”
Freedom of the media, freedom of expression, and gender equality are inextricably linked, and participants asserted that an inclusive, democratic, and accountable society cannot be achieved if women do not have equal opportunities, access, and safety.
Journalists are frequent targets of violence and harassment, and women journalists bear the brunt of such attacks, which have increased in the last decade with the increased use of social media and other digital platforms. Online harassment and violence against women journalists were issues raised frequently during the two-day event as security concerns for the OSCE.
In 2018, OSCE participating States committed to including a gendered perspective when considering the safety of journalists. The OSCE Representative on Freedom of the Media released a Safety of Female Journalists Online resource guide that outlines proposed actions for ten key stakeholder groups to address gender-based online attacks of journalists.
“In Milan 2018, we all reiterated that independent media is essential to a free and open society, and that accountable systems of government are of particular importance in safeguarding human rights and fundamental freedoms,” said OSCE Chairperson-in-Office Ann Linde. “This was also the first time when we explicitly expressed our concern about the distinct risks faced by women journalists in relation to their work. Our commitments are strong, and it is our duty to implement what we have jointly agreed on.”
During the first session, Committee to Protect Journalists Advocacy Director Courtney Radsch reported that more than 1,200 journalists have been killed since 1995—80 percent of them women and minorities.
A 2020 global survey by UNESCO found that 73 percent of women journalists reported experiencing online violence during their work, and 25 percent and 18 percent reported receiving threats of physical or sexual violence, respectively.
Guy Berger, the Director for Freedom of Expression and Media Development of UNESCO, discussed this research and various case studies, which revealed that these attacks are a combination of abuse aimed at damaging journalists’ professional credibility.
To demonstrate the rate at which the abuse can occur, Berger talked about the case of Maria Resa, a woman journalist in the Philippines, who at one point was receiving up to 90 harassing messages an hour on Facebook.
According to Berger, the analysis of data collection and research shows that some of these attacks are highly orchestrated through coordinated behaviors, which larger internet and tech companies have the ability to stop.
He commended the OSCE for its “SOFJO” (Safety of Female Journalists Online) report and encouraged representatives at the meeting “to make sure the report has legs and wings, because it is only as valuable as its distribution and discussion.”
A Firsthand Account
Jessikka Aro’s first-hand testimony was a centerpiece of the meeting, as it provided insight into the statistics. Aro, a journalist for Finland’s public service broadcaster Yle, specializes in Russian information warfare and extremism, as well as documenting how online trolls influence opinions.
After she investigated a troll factory in St. Petersburg, trolls began to aggressively target her online accounts. Her phone number and email address were published online, and she started to receive threatening messages—for example, voicemails of gunshots.
Pro-Russia trolls called her a foreign agent and accused her of helping the United States and NATO. Much of the news about her originated on Russian fake news sites, but it also spread to Finnish news, with some articles receiving over 3 million views. Aro eventually was forced to flee Finland because a threat assessment by police determined that she likely would be physically assaulted based on online discussions about her.
She said she has felt supported by Finnish government officials and the police; however, tech companies failed to respond to her complaints on their platforms. In her concluding remarks, Aro called for an end to impunity for these crimes and an increase in access to justice for journalists. She applauded conferences, such as the SHDM, that share awareness, encourage enforcement, and include voices of attacked journalists to increase understanding of what is at stake when the press goes unprotected.