Journalism continues to top the list of “most dangerous” professions in the world. Whether actively covering conflicts or not, journalists face threats of death or bodily harm, intimidation, arrests and jailing. Even in non-conflict situations, they face travel restrictions, defamation suits, tax investigations, censorship as well as closures of news ventures and seizures of assets.

The latest report from Reporters Without Borders, on the safety of journalists shows that casualties are high, with 56 journalists killed “in the line of duty” in the first nine months of 2018, compared to 55 during 2017 as a whole. This excludes the most recent killing of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi at the country’s embassy in Turkey.

Twenty-nine of the journalists were killed in war zones.

Particularly dire is the situation for female journalists. Women who report on war and conflict are judged by different standards to their male colleagues.

Female journalists run a high risk of sexual violence and harassment and according to a study by the International Women’s Media Foundation more than half of the women surveyed have suffered work-related abuse, threats or physical attacks.

In later years, worrying trends of “cyber misogyny” and harassment of female journalists have emerged through social media with female journalists dis-proportionally experiencing attacks online, including sexual harassment and threats of physical violence. Cyber harassment exemplifies some of the ugliest forms of sexism being used to try and silence media women.

Gendered cyber bullying

A study by the Poynter Institute confirms the increasing targeting of female journalists online, what Director General of UNESCO, Irina Bokova, has labelled “double attacks” – being targeted for being both a journalist and a woman.

Cases such as former CNN war correspondent Maria Ressa, who has been harassed for years says she has lost count of the number of death threats she has received online.

Similarly, South African journalist Ferial Haffajee has experienced trolling and online stalking, including death threats, first hand. She has been subjected to digitally produced explicitly sexual and photoshopped images that made her “feel dirty and endangered”.

Despite increased awareness and debates around sexual harassment of women, through movements such as #MeToo, such threats have, according a report by the Organisation for Co-operation and Security on Europe led to female journalists censoring themselves or redrawing from journalism, hampering gender equity and depleting an already male dominated public sphere of female voices.

It is clear that we need to extend our understanding of the unique threats posed to women journalists in ways that talk to gender imbalances, sexist and patriarchal attitudes ingrained in our societies. In some contexts, women journalists report pressures from the audience to withdraw from stories that are either seen as the preserve of males or considered culturally sensitive, even in context where gender equality is entrenched.

Such pressures also come from their communities, including their own families, spouses or partners. Hence the issue of safety for female journalists is multi-fold and complex. Beyond education and awareness, networks of journalists and networks of female journalists, in particular, have a crucial role to fulfill.

Female networks

In the field there are often very practical concerns as regards safety that need to be met.

These range from access to other journalists, reliable fixers and telecommunications to clinics, hospitals, safe accommodation and even safe houses and physical protection. Here networks of female journalists can provide support beyond what established news organisations and individual media outlets can provide. This is particularly so given the increasing African media ventures also suffer financial constraints that make it difficult to provide support to journalists in the field.

Networks need to be built around the idea of “trust” and “safe spaces” as well as by using a multitude of technologies and platforms. These range from What’s App to simple text messaging and have the capacity to connect female journalists across the continent independently of levels of technology or data access.

Such networks can be linked to a wider set of groups and women’s organisations working to promote gender equality. In doing so, such networks will also be able to provide information on amenities, clinics and hospitals, police and legal assistance, and safe accommodation options, in various geographical locations. The idea here is that queries and alerts sent through the network can be picked up by another journalist, whether geographically close enough to provide immediate assistance or with access to information that can assist.

Experiences and examples

My own interactions with women journalists on the continent have shown me how women have benefited from having access to female colleagues and their contacts. This has included everything from help with medical assistance, such as being helped by another journalist’s sister, a nurse at a local clinic, safe accommodation including being accommodated in the homes of female colleagues to having someone come with you when reporting an assault at a local police station.

Further to this, as the technology advances and as more participants have access to the same technology, platforms and levels of data connectivity, networks such as these carry real potential organising journalists and female journalists in particular, and hopefully have an even greater and more instantaneous impact on the safety of female journalists. Of course, such networks and the technology utilised can be expanded beyond journalism to any professional sphere where women might be more at risk of threats to their safety.