25. sep 2019.

Politicians who view journalists as enemies or security threats encourage attacks

Populists emphasize domestic isolationism and security over all else, including and especially freedom of the media and expression. This framing puts our safety and our freedoms at odds, when actually, we can't have one without the other, and positions journalists and media workers as a threat to that safety, says Jennifer Adams, international expert focused on protection of female journalists on the Internet

Jennifer Adams (Photo: Theresa Pewal)

Jennifer Adams is an international media consultant  and the author of the documentary film A Dark Place  that highlights the experiences of female journalists who have been targeted by online harassment. She is the former Media Freedom Project Officer in the Office of the OSCE Representative on Freedom of the Media, where she led the OSCE’s Safety of Female Journalists Online (SOFJO) project.

Ms. Adams specialization is in the areas of program development, policy research for internet governance, digital participation and community-building.  For this interview we discussed the rise of populism and the ways it changes media perception, global media attacks, and why female journalists in Serbia  sometimes prefer not to discuss their gender.

Cenzolovka: From your experience, can we talk about the universal way of attacking journalists or there are regional and other specifics?

What I also found interesting in Serbia, and throughout the Balkans, is also that it seemed as though women journalists felt stigmatized by specifically talking about the gender-dimensions of attacks on media: almost as if they were more protected if they talked about being attacked as a journalist, rather than women journalists.

Adams: I think a broad discussion on safety is necessary, given the increasing attacks on journalists across the globe. However, regional (and therefore also cultural and economic) differences are a key component of that discussion. In my experience, physical attacks on journalists can happen anywhere and are largely consistent when it comes to the actual act of physically assaulting a member of the media. However, the regional differences – economic obstacles including low pay and competition for advertising revenue, independence of media, gender-balance and representation, and local political climate – play a huge role in public perception of the media and ultimately, the reasons why members of the media are subjected to physical or digital attacks, and must be examined in order to find or implement sustainable solutions to counter these attacks.

Let’s take Russia and Turkey as two examples where journalists and other members of the media face regular and sustained attacks. In both countries, journalists are at high risk, but the way in which they are targeted is very different. In Russia, physical attacks against outlets (government-sanctioned or led attacks – physical and economic) and journalists is the common means of silencing critical media. In Turkey, imprisonment of journalists and closure and/or selling of independent outlets has been the favored mechanism by those in power.

Cenzolovka: Have you noticed differences in attacks when it comes to gender?

Adams: Absolutely. Women journalists and members of the media face the ‘double burden’: being attacked as journalists and as women. The form these attacks take is extremely gendered with women facing threats (online and offline) of rape, sexually explicit threats of and actual violence, revenge-porn and attacks that threaten or expose members of their family, especially children.

In addition, women still face huge obstacles that aren’t inherently violent, but absolutely contribute to instability and vulnerability including lower pay, lack of representation and discriminatory hiring and employment practices.

THE GUARDIAN PROMOTES CONSTRUCTIVE COMMENTS

Cenzolovka: Are there any good practices that you can talk about?

Adams: A lot of the best responses are coming from journalists and media outlets directly, which, again, tells us about the efficiency and will on the part of governments. The Guardian has minimized negative responses and online harassment yet increased engagement in comment sections by promoting and engaging with constructive readers.

There is an organization called Hollaback! whose work is based off the idea that bystander intervention can also work online. Once vetted through the website, volunteers (any of us!) receive information about journalists and other women who are being harassed and silenced online and can send positive messages of support.

Cenzolovka:  Does it look as media attacks are on the rise?

Adams: We know that online attacks against women journalists are on the rise, especially for women of color and women from the LGBTQIA+ and religious communities. We also know that media freedom, as a whole, globally, has been deteriorating over the last 10 years. Public trust in the media is at an all-time low, especially in European countries with populist leadership.

Cenzolovka: Does this mean that we can talk about the connection between populist rhetoric and assaults on the media?

Adams: Yes, but not just the rhetoric, unfortunately. Financial pressure, policy changes, leadership skewing or intentionally devaluing responsible journalists and outlets while lending support to „friendly“ media, regulatory changes and increasing obstacles to accessing information are just some of the tactics populist leaders use to intentionally manipulate and suppress the media.

Populists emphasize domestic isolationism and security over all else, including and especially freedom of the media and expression. This framing puts our safety and our freedoms at odds, when actually, we can’t have one without the other, and positions journalists and media workers as a threat to that safety. Coupled with rhetoric like ‘enemy of the people’, these tactics undermine public trust in the media and embolden members of society to confront, attack or threaten those journalists who challenge (or simply just don’t provide unwavering support to) their leaders.

Plakat za film Tamno mesto

Cenzolovka: Could you please tell us more about your film A Dark Place?

Adams: A Dark Place presents the experiences of women journalists from the US, Finland, Russia, the UK, Serbia, Turkey and Spain and Azerbaijan, who have been subjected to online harassment. The film is the first of its kind to show the repercussions of gendered online violence, not just for the individual journalists who experience it, but for society as a whole that loses valuable and diverse perspectives and information.

As head of production, it was very important for me to create an intersectional feminist film that shows, as much as possible, the scale of online harassment, the link to populist politics, and that the burden of these types of attacks further marginalize those members of the media and parts of society that are already largely disenfranchised by existing power structures.

You can’t position journalists and media workers as a threat to that safety. Coupled with rhetoric like ‘enemy of the people’, these tactics undermine public trust in the media and embolden members of society to confront, attack or threaten those journalists who challenge (or simply just don’t provide unwavering support to) their leaders.

Most important, however, for me and the Director (the very talented Javier Luque from the International Press Institute), was to showcase the resilience and strength of these journalists in the face of overwhelming pressure and assault.

Cenzolovka: Why did you choose those particular countries? Also, is there anything interesting that you have learned about Serbia?

Adams: We wanted to show that online harassment is a global trend. That it is not happening only in countries with the most obvious violations of freedom of the media, such as Russia, Serbia or Turkey, but that it’s really globally pervasive and to show the links to political change, and the rise of hardline nationalism: Links to the anti-media language of the current administration in the U.S., Brexit in the U.K., contentious and far reaching immigration challenges in Finland, and nationalist identity causing division Spain, where an impressive  grassroots movement is pushing hard towards more cohesion and equality.

In Serbia, there have been a huge number of attacks on members of the media over the past 15 years. At the same time, there continues to be attempts by government and civil society to instill a structure to counter and provide justice following this violence. Unfortunately, like in many other places around the world, there just doesn’t seem to be adequate political will in Serbia to actually address the issue or deal with widespread impunity.

What I also found interesting in Serbia, and throughout the Balkans, is also that it seemed as though women journalists felt stigmatized by specifically talking about the gender-dimensions of attacks on media: almost as if they were more protected if they talked about being attacked as a journalist, rather than women journalists. At the same time, it is interesting to note that most media associations also chose not to address the gender dimension of these attacks. The experiences of Dragana Peco and Marija Vucic, who I worked with during the course of the SOFJO project, are just two examples.

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