Iraq is one of the world’s most dangerous countries for journalists according to Reporters without Borders, ranking 160 out of 180 countries in the World Press Freedom Index.
Women journalists and activists in Iraq have a particularly difficult time due to online threats and attacks that adversely affect their ability to express themselves freely and advocate effectively. Women have witnessed an escalation in online abuse over the past few years, not just in numbers, but also in methods and sophistication. The risk of harassment and gender-based attacks online is not limited to the digital space as research has shown that online abuse and stalking often escalate into real world physical violence if left unaddressed.
In an interview with The New Arab, Hala ‘Asif, a 24-year-old journalist working as a correspondent for the channel NRT in Baghdad, noted that, “Foreign journalists often investigate political affairs in Iraq, which sometimes is impossible for us to cover as it would be too dangerous and would prevent us from working safely in our country. I would like to go to other provinces in Iraq and carry out investigations about relevant issues, but as a young woman it would cost too much to take care of my safety.”
To address the issue of women’s safety in Iraq, Internews is using a multi-pronged approach – building local networks, coordinating advocacy, and conducting targeted journalism trainings on gender-sensitive issues. Internews’ program, Women Voices (Aswat Al-Maraa), aims to challenge societal attitudes that stigmatize survivors of sexual and gender-based violence (SGBV) by supporting journalists and women human rights defenders to shed light on sensitive issues through coordinated reporting and advocacy. The program works with female Iraqi journalists and media outlets to create a nationwide coalition of women journalists and human rights defenders to strengthen their resilience against gender-based attacks and build the capacity of journalists to report on sensitive human rights and SGBV.
Within the Women’s Voices project, Internews has conducted so far two training-of-trainers (TOT) workshops that focus on the digital and physical security of the project participants. Through a peer-to-peer program, TOT trainees have trained eighty women from Erbil, Najaf, and Halabja how to protect themselves from threats online and in their everyday lives.
Best practices for password security proved to be one of the most beneficial portions of the workshops, with one of the Halabja participants noting, “It has been 10 years and I haven’t changed my password on my email or Facebook accounts. This workshop was in particularly important to remind people in our field of work how important it is to protect ourselves online as we do offline.”
Another participant, from the Erbil workshop, said, “Females often have to face extreme scrutiny of their presence online, and are threatened with death in some instances for photos posted online without family consent or that are considered inappropriate; these kinds of workshops are incredibly important for every female in this country.”
To support the voices and participation of women in some of the world’s most challenging places, Internews’ MENA team ensures the implementation of digital as well as a physical security trainings in all of its projects across the region.