In June, BIRN published a report into the instances of online harassment against female journalists in the Balkans. The report found what we all knew- that female journalists are three times more likely to experience online harassment than their male colleagues and that the type of attacks are inherently more personal and vicious.
Reflecting a global trend, female journalists based in the Balkans are not only attacked more often, but they are left alone to deal with the aftermath which includes intimidation and psychological impacts. Attacks levied against women usually include “sexist insults, smear campaigns, rape threats, humiliation, and other gender-based attacks”, all of which can have a devastating effect on recipients.
The prevalence of these attacks and the fact that they are increasing at an alarming rate threatens not only the fundamental right of access to information, but also the right of women to exercise their professional activities in a safe environment.
Without the voices of female journalists, there are less people investigating what matters, meaning bad actors are less likely to be held to account.
Safejournalist.net documented some 100 attacks against women journalists in Bosnia, Serbia, Kosovo, North Macedonia, and Montenegro- an alarming figure for countries with relatively small populations. Whilst figures were not available for Albania, one can include the attack on Klodiana Lala in 2018 where her family home was sprayed with machine gun fire, and targeted online harassment and threats against Desada Metaj.
Here, media freedom is deteriorating at an alarming speed under the Socialst Party government headed by Edi Rama. This results in a climate of fear and self-censorship where journalists fear for themselves and their families as well as losing their jobs, or being subjected to judicial harassment in the courts.
As a female journalist, I have received my fair share of online attacks over the years both in Albania and abroad. I have had unkind memes made using my photos, countless libellous comments made against myself and my family, I have recieved rape threats and death threats, and have been targeted by organised groups of trolls.
In addition to this, I was the victim of a coordinated smear campaign spearheaded by pro-government news portals that branded me a ‘Russian spy’ resulting in the unlawful revocation of my residence permit. This far-reaching campaign also targeted my family and resulted in me being harassed on the street and online when I was six months pregnant.
Mehmen Halilovic, media expert says ““female journalists in the Balkans face a perfect storm of widespread misogyny and disdain for journalists in general”. As a result, an already difficult environment for women is exacerbated and reinforced and the attacks against us become more frequent and more vicious.
But this is not just a Balkan problem.
Maltese investigative journalist Daphne Caruana Galizia was assassinated by a car bomb on 16 October 2017 and prior to her death she had been subjected to online harassment campaigns coordinated via secret Facebook hate groups. These groups included the Prime Minister Joseph Muscat, the incumbent President Marie Louise Coliero Preca and a number of government ministers and employees.
Hatred for the journalists was whipped up into a frenzy through the sharing of abusive memes, comments, and articles, until one day, she was silenced forever.
Since then, those groups have been used to target other female journalists as well as democracy activists calling for justice for her assassination. They published their photos, home addresses and made comments asking for “more bombs”- a reference to the way in which Caruana Galizia was murdered almost two years ago.
Research has also shown that when public figures and politicians launch attacks on journalists, the instances of online harassment increase.
Language used by Rama for example- calling journalists “trash cans” and “enemies” is highly inflammatory and fuels an increasingly anti-media rhetoric which directly results in the normalising of abuse towards media workers. When members of the public see figures of authority acting a certain way, they see it as a sign that it is ok for them to mimic and even escalate that behavior to levels that can include murder.
But how can we combat this epidemic? One recommendation is that links need to be created between journalists and women’s civil society organisations to provide both networks and supports for them. Secondly, whilst laws against harassment, hate speech, and defamation are already in place, more needs to be done to enforce and implement them, particularly when it comes to court.
Lastly, journalists need to realise that they are not alone- there is an entire network of international human rights and media freedom organisations that are there to help and assist them in a number of ways- all they need to do is reach out. They need to report attacks to unions, associations, and online platforms, and they need to give accounts of their problems to international bodies that can monitor and even advocate on their behalf.
This is what I did. I reached out to those organisations that are there to provide support and I also resolved not to give in to intimidation.
Today, my situation is not resolved and the administrative harassment by police and the Interior Ministry continues but instead of silencing me, these attacks motivated me further. I write more, I don’t shy away from sensitive topics, and more than ever I feel it is my duty to report the truth and go after those who I know are behind the attacks on my rights.
You see, I believe that the only way to handle such situations is to continue in the same vein. Journalists do not get attacked for reporting on things that are not true, nor do they get silenced for getting the wrong end of the stick- if you are harassed for your work, it means you are doing something right and that someone wants you to be quiet.
The only way to handle such situations is to not bow down to pressure and to remember the saying; “speak the truth, even if your voice shakes.”