‘The Goal is to Intimidate Us’

Filipina journalist Maria Ressa was wrapping up a day’s reporting early this year when she opened Facebook and saw the chilling post:

“I want Maria Ressa to be raped repeatedly to death, I would be so happy if that happens when martial law is declared, it would bring joy to my heart.”

For Ressa, a former CNN war correspondent who has been the target of a vicious campaign of online harassment since President Rodrigo Duterte began consolidating power in 2016, the threat was nothing new. After a series of stories the Manila-based journalist wrote about government corruption on Rappler, the online news site she heads, Nessa said she was getting as many as 90 hate messages an hour, most specifically targeting her as a woman.

What was new was what happened next. Marshalling her talents as an online journalist, Ressa was able to track down the threats. They were coming from a 22-year-old university student using a fake account to harass Ressa. The man was forced to call her and apologize, and he is facing disciplinary action by the university.

It was a rare victory for a woman reporter facing harassment. Across the world, powerful cultural stigmas and a lack of faith that authorities will act upon complaints keep women journalists from reporting sexual intimidation and assault. While numerous international groups have reported individual instances of sexual assault directed against women journalists over the years, the sort of methodological research that quantifies other types of attacks against the press, such as murders and imprisonments, is non-existent when it comes to violence against women.

“It’s atrocious,” Ressa said. “It’s something I wouldn’t have thought possible, but this sort of open hatred of women, these threats, are climbing. Sexism and misogyny have escalated in the past year, and women journalists asking hard questions are targeted. The goal is to intimidate us. The goal is to stop us from asking hard questions. And yet women are afraid of reporting assaults. They fear being perceived as vulnerable or denied future assignments. And they fear, quite reasonably, not being taken seriously.”

A journalist interviews two young women in an arcade.
A journalist, training with Internews in 2007, interviews players at a mall video arcade. Women reporters consistently report harassment is part of their jobs, but little women-specific training exists. Photo by Josh Josh Estey for Internews

While threats to women reporters in Southeast Asia are as difficult to quantify as anywhere else in the world, women working in the region say they seem to come from everywhere, grim and terrifying.

There is the groping at a press scrum, hands on your body so fast you cannot push away. There are the men spitting on you, calling you loose as you work to report a story on the streets. At a military base, you are singled out for harassment, jeers, sexual taunts while the male reporters around you do their work freely. Back in the newsroom, your own editor suggests you sleep with him – or face professional recrimination.

“It is an emerging problem, or awareness of it is emerging, and as more women get into the newsrooms the problem increases” said Eva Danayanti, Executive Director of the Alliance of Independent Journalists in Jakarta, Indonesia.

The reports like those above come into Danayanti from women journalists on a regular basis. But fearful of professional and personal reprisal, the women rarely use their names. In two instances within the past year, women journalists were physically harassed by military police, Danayanti said. In one instance, a woman reporter covering a governor’s race was threatened with rape by a politician’s supporters. And, Danayanti said, online threats against women journalists in Jakarta are common.

“Male journalists are harassed physically, but the whole thing takes on a terribly abusive, sexual aspect against women journalists,” Danayanti said. With local and gubernatorial elections slated for 2018, and the presidential election the next year, “we expect this to only increase.”

As sexual aggression against women in the region emerges as a persistent problem, and raises compelling press freedom and security concerns, Internews is seeking concrete means to ramp up awareness of the threats, empower women journalists in the field to combat them and minimize their incidence and impact.

Rowan Reid, project manager for Internews said women journalists face harassment in the countries he works in at every step in their reporting. They may be harassed by drivers, by security officials, by cameramen, sometimes by their own editors and colleagues, he said. They are sometimes groped by men around them while they are standing in a crowded press conference. Online harassment of the sort Ressa experienced is pervasive, Rowan says. And sexual harassment of women investigative journalists is accepted behavior by authorities seeking to stop their questions.

“Definitely I think it impedes women’s ability to work in their environments,” Reid said. “The point is, this shouldn’t be standard. Our standard should be, if it’s not an issue affecting men, why should it be an issue affecting women?”

The two-year project for mid-level investigative journalists led by Reid is not, in its current form, a sufficient answer. It focuses on training for journalists across the board. It has no specific component – or funding – to empower women journalists to protect themselves from harassment, but Reid says the issue is persistent and merits much more support.

“No one is focusing on the specific security issues women face,” Reid said. “We want to do it at Internews, but we need more funding to really get it in the pipeline.”

Reid envisions a program that would convene a regional network of trainers to teach women reporters how to protect their digital profiles from trolls, and that would give them tools to protect themselves from physical harassment on the job.

“If you’re going to cover security issues specific to women you have to cover that with women and women only,” Reid said. “I wouldn’t even bother considering incorporating it into mixed gender training. You also want to cover some issues that are really quite sensitive. It needs to be a different approach, an approach that is really tailored to the sensitivities of each culture and each environment.”

“But in the end, this is a really frightening, frustrating issue. You can train as much as you want. But if men are going to continue to harass women, I’m not getting to the men. So you feel powerless to really stop it.”

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Brian Hanley is Internews Regional Director for Asia Programs

(Banner photo: Women reporters face aggressive online harassment and physical assault in many countries. Photo by Josh Josh Estey for Internews)