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May 3, 2022updated 30 Sep 2022 11:17am

New online tool launched to protect journalists from harassment

By Antonio Zappulla

As the Press Freedom Index reveals growing online intimidation of journalists, Antonio Zappulla of the Thomson Reuters Foundation launches a new tool called TRFilter designed to give journalists online protection.

The need for strong, free and independent media has never been more acute. In an era defined by converging global crises and deepening polarisation, public interest, high-quality journalism is vital. It is our best weapon against disinformation and propaganda, it holds truth to power, it is the bedrock on which democracies stand or fall.

Yet the slow erosion of free media – from the exploitation of financially vulnerable news outlets to the explosion of disinformation and falling trust in news – has left the profession under siege. And new battle lines are being drawn up.

Journalists have long been targeted for truth-telling, but the methods deployed to silence independent reporting have broadened. Two sinister and distinct trends in harassment have emerged: the onslaught of online abuse targeting – in particular – women journalists, and the weaponisation of laws against media practitioners.

Both are driven by malign influencers desperate to control an ever more valuable currency: the free flow of information. But increasingly it’s the person rather than the profession that’s under attack.

The figures are grim. Unesco’s recent global survey of more than 900 women journalists in 125 countries found that 73% had experienced online violence. This abuse ranged from misogynistic harassment and digital security attacks to coordinated disinformation campaigns leveraging hate speech. A quarter of those journalists had received threats of physical violence, including rape and death threats.

Online abuse is not ‘virtual’ abuse. The impact of sustained and orchestrated digital hate campaigns on an individual’s mental health, physical well-being, indeed their civil liberties, can be catastrophic, with discreditation, self-censorship and the permanent shutdown of independent reporting the latest casualties in the war on press freedom.

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This is powerfully illustrated by the experiences of Indian journalist and Washington Post opinions writer Rana Ayyub. Her investigative reporting of Prime Minister Modi’s administration has ignited the ire of his supporters and led to years of persecution and a tidal wave of online violence, including death threats, racism, ‘doxing’ (the publishing of private or identifying information online with malicious intent) and misogyny, with nearly 8.5 million tweets since 2019. Meanwhile, the BBC’s specialist disinformation and social media reporter Marianna Spring has publicly documented the misogynistic hate she receives online, triggered by her coverage of online conspiracies and fake news.

The ability to mobilise large-scale online attacks is amplified by the rise in news consumption on social media; around two-thirds of those consuming news globally now use social networks or messaging apps, according to the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism. The International Center for Journalists says online violence has led to 30% of those targeted self-censoring on social media, with some leaving the profession for good.

Perpetrators of this harassment are acting in near total impunity. Left unchecked, critical reporting, a diverse representation of voices and the ability to interrogate authority is eradicated.

But these very outcomes are also fuelling the rise in the weaponisation of laws against journalists. ‘Fake news’ and disinformation laws continue to be used as a smokescreen to crack down on press freedoms, as illustrated by the ’11 journalism rules’ imposed by the Taliban in Afghanistan in September last year, which prohibits reporting that is not ‘coordinated’ with the Government Media and Information Centre, alongside anything that is not ‘truth’.

Most recently, Russia’s newly strengthened fake news laws criminalises those who disseminate “false information” about the Russian army with a penalty of up to 15 years in prison. The latest victim is Siberian journalist Mikhail Afanasyev, arrested two weeks ago over a story alleging that 11 riot police had refused deployment to Ukraine. He is one of 28 arrested under the new law – a further nail in the coffin for independent media in Russia, which has all but disappeared since the beginning of March.

In tandem, there has been a rise in the use of a wider range of laws to silence a free press. Dubbed ‘lawfare’ by human rights barrister Caoilfhionn Gallagher, who acts for Nobel Peace Prize winner Maria Ressa, as well as for the family of assassinated journalist Daphne Caruana Galizia (who faced 48 lawsuits when she died), this form of harassment sees journalists accused of legal threats ranging from fraud to corruption to breaches of copyright. Gallagher says a new tactic is to hit journalists with a slew of lawsuits simultaneously, forcing them to fight on multiple fronts. This leaves them unable to carry out their work, scrambling to source specialist legal support and more vulnerable to the effects of smear campaigns.

As CEO of Philippine news website Rappler and an investigative journalist, Ressa is the highest-profile victim of this harassment. A prominent critic of President Duterte, Ressa has faced charges on everything from cyber-libel prosecutions – a law that came into effect after Rappler’s publication of a story linking corruption to the justice system – to tax evasion and foreign ownership violations.

Meanwhile, Brazilian journalist Patrícia Campos Mello is currently facing three separate lawsuits, two by businessmen linked to President Bolsonaro following her investigative reporting. One of these cases involves 35 other journalists, many of them freelancers who cannot rely on their employers for legal support. Campos Mello ­– who also endured years of online smear campaigns – has bucked the trend by winning her own case against Bolsonaro after successfully suing him and his son Eduardo Bolsonaro for repeatedly suggesting that she offered sex in exchange for scoops. They are appealing the verdict.

When journalists become the enemy of the powerful, their protections are destroyed. For as long as this coincides with a climate of impunity, they will continue to be attacked on the streets, in the courts and online.

There have been small steps in the right direction, such as the EU’s proposal for a new law that would counter the rise of ‘gagging procedures’ on journalists and human rights activists, including SLAPPS (Strategic Lawsuits Against Public Participation). Meanwhile, the UK’s Online Safety Bill, introduced in March this year, would place increased responsibility on social media platforms to limit harmful content, although critics say it doesn’t go far enough, and are calling for a far greater proactive approach from the tech companies themselves.

What is needed, though, is a coordinated and collaborative response – from governments and law enforcement to tech companies and media outlets – to protect the right to report freely and fairly.

At the Thomson Reuters Foundation we use the combined power of journalism and the law to defend and promote media freedom. Today, the foundation is launching a tool developed in partnership with Google’s Jigsaw that allows journalists to document and manage online harassment and abuse on their social media channels while limiting their exposure to it. TRFilter empowers the user to continue their critical reporting mission without suffering the psychological trauma associated with online abuse. Journalists can register their interest in the tool from 3 May.

[TRFilter is a free web application that syncs with the user’s social media accounts, automatically recognising and flagging harmful comments. It limits journalists’ exposure to abusive content, allowing them to block, mute or save comments at scale. It also allows users to create reports to store or share with third parties as needed. It is currently available for use on Twitter, with plans to expand to other social media platforms in the future.]

And in partnership with both the Committee to Protect Journalists and Media Defence, we have set up the Legal Network for Journalists at Risk that strategically coordinates the different types of legal support currently offered to journalists and independent media outlets at risk. Specialist assistance offered through the network can range from urgent legal representation to ongoing support for the duration of a case.

Failure to protect our journalists is failure to protect the future of independent media. Countering the harassment they face is a moral imperative and must be a shared goal.

Antonio Zappulla is CEO of the Thomson Reuters Foundation

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