These Women Journalists Were Doing Their Jobs. That Made Them Targets.
When Gharidah Farooqi interviews a male politician for television, she does research and plans out her questions, as any journalist would. She is professional, well-dressed and asks pertinent follow-up questions.
But every move she makes, every gesture and expression, is scrutinized by mobs of observers online. Everything — the clothing she wears, the questions she asks while interviewing someone — is fuel for an avalanche of mostly anonymous online abuse that for years has ridiculed her and her work.
“I see my male counterparts — they’re also abused, but not abused for their bodies, their genital parts,” she said. “If they’re attacked, they’re just targeted for their political views. When a woman is attacked, she’s attacked about her body parts.”
The ordeal of Farooqi, who covers politics and national news for News One in Pakistan, exemplifies a global epidemic of online harassment whose costs go well beyond the grief and humiliation suffered by its victims. The voices of thousands of women journalists worldwide have been muffled and, in some cases, stolen entirely as they struggle to conduct interviews, attend public events and keep their jobs in the face of relentless online smear campaigns.
Stories that might have been told — or perspectives that might have been shared — stay untold and unshared. The pattern of abuse is remarkably consistent, no matter the continent or country where the journalists operate.
Farooqi says she’s been harassed, stalked and threatened with rape and murder. Faked images of her have appeared repeatedly on pornographic websites and across social media. Some depict her holding a penis in the place of her microphone. Others purport to show her naked or having sex. Similar accounts of abuse are heard from women journalists throughout the world.
A survey of 714 women journalists in 215 countries for a 2021 report by the nonprofit, Washington-based International Center for Journalists (ICFJ) and the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) found that nearly 3 of 4 said they had suffered online abuse in their work. And nearly 4 of 10 said they became less visible as a result — losing airtime, bylines or professional opportunities. (The ICFJ-UNESCO survey noted that it was not a random sampling, so results may not be representative of all female journalists.)
“Online violence against women journalists is one of the most serious contemporary threats to press freedom internationally,” the report declared. “It aids and abets impunity for crimes against journalists, including physical assault and murder. It is designed to silence, humiliate, and discredit. It inflicts very real psychological injury, chills public interest journalism, kills women’s careers and deprives society of important voices and perspectives.”
In many countries, women who are targeted in these campaigns are doing some of the most crucial journalistic work in their regions: investigating powerful cultural leaders, exposing government wrongdoing and revealing corruption. Many who are targeted report on the internet itself and how it is being used to bolster extremists.
Social media platforms that optimize for engagement and a media landscape that rewards outrage and hyperbole fuel digital attacks. Online abusers manufacture controversy about specific women, stalking and harassing them and their families. Time and again, research shows, the news organizations that employ women journalists who are under assault turn against them, depriving them of career opportunities and driving them from the profession.