Opinion
07 May 2018

Women journalists under fire

On May 3, World Press Freedom Day felt like a call to action. With rising obstacles to freedom and threats of harassment, not only female journalists but all women have much at stake: who will be left to tell our stories if we are silenced?

Elizabeth Walsh
Elizabeth Walsh International Producer, Europe
Women journalists under fire - NewsMavens
Silenced woman. Pixabay

Since 2012, at least 11 journalists have been murdered because they were covering women’s rights. At least 12 have been imprisoned and dozens have been subjected to physical violence.

Last year alone, two of Europe’s fiercest female journalists were silenced: Daphne Caruana Galizia was killed in a car bombing in Malta and Swedish freelancer Kim Wall was murdered while reporting on a submarine in Denmark.

This year, the world watches as press freedom continues to erode. We are still seeking justice for the women and men murdered for telling the truth and still mourning those killed in Afghanistan just days ago. As increasingly authoritarian leaders threaten press freedoms throughout the democratic West, many fear things will get worse before they get better.

Artists are responding as well. In New York City, a new Banksy mural protests the imprisonment of Zehra Doğan, a Kurdish painter and journalist from Turkey. She is one of 35 journalists who remain behind bars in Turkey, 5 of whom are women. Fifty-two women journalists were detained in Turkey last year alone.

But high-profile murders, terrorist attacks and imprisonment tell only part of the story. Throughout the world, women are subjected to online threats and harassment simply for doing their jobs.

It’s no wonder that on this year’s World Press Freedom Day, High Representative of the European Union, Federica Mogherini, called upon EU member states to improve the safety of women journalists.

According to the European Federation of Journalists, nearly half of all women working in the media in Europe have experienced gender-based harassment at work, including physical violence, sexual abuse, verbal harassment and cyber mobbing.

The 2018 World Press Freedom Index was released just last week with sobering news.

This year, four European countries were among the top five nations to see the biggest drop in press freedoms: Malta, Czech Republic, Serbia and Slovakia.

Yet, even Norway, Sweden and Finland, who top the list, were cited as part of the overall decline in press freedom that aligns with a rise in authoritarian leadership across Europe and the West.

As governments crack down on press freedom, online harassment of women working in journalism runs rampant, as documented by organisations like the Organisation for Security and Co-Operation in Europe and the Global Investigative Journalism Network. According to experts at Harvard University, gender-based harassment of women in the media is a threat to democracy — even in countries like Finland, where a female journalist was threatened with rape and death for covering the case of a 14-year-old rape victim.

Even movements like #MeToo are not always enough to confront sexism. Such was the case in Italy, where actress Asia Argento came under fire for speaking up about sexual assault. Months after the Harvey Weinstein scandal, Al Jazeera’s “The Listening Post” interviewed members of the Italian press to find the culture of victim-blaming and objectification of women alive and well.

To help combat the systemic sexism in the media, the European Centre for Press & Media Freedom provides free services for women journalists, including helplines and mentoring. Initiatives like EverydaySexism and Coalition for Women in Journalism also work to call attention to the abuses women in the media face.

World Press Freedom Day was founded shortly after the fall of the Soviet Union, when a rare global consensus emerged that press freedom was a crucial vehicle to ensure freedom, democracy and government accountability.

After it was first celebrated in 1993, the rights and freedoms of the media rapidly expanded. Today, it feels less like a cause for celebratory remembrance and more like a call to action.

Press freedom is crumbling before our eyes in Poland, where government intolerance of critical and independent reporting has grown alongside excessive political interference and restrictions on speech related to history and identity. In Hungary, outlets friendly to the government dominate the media landscape and those who are critical come under heavy government pressure.

Just months before she was killed, visionary journalist Daphne Caruana Galizia was named one of 28 people shaping Europe’s future by Politico. Though she is gone, her work continues, as dozens of journalists are working to piece together the remaining evidence to finish her groundbreaking investigations into government corruption.

Last week, the inventor Peter Madsen was handed a life sentence for the murder of Kim Wall, the brilliantly talented Swedish journalist whose courage led her to cover stories ranging from Idi Amin’s torture chambers to reporting in North Korea and Cuba.

As one of Wall’s friends pointed out, Wall was one of many women journalists to face violence and exploitation. Yet, Kim, she said, would not have wanted her memory to be “just another story of a woman killed by a man.”

“She would have wanted more women out in the world, engaging with whatever life threw at them, and becoming stronger from it.”

The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera's editorial stance.

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