While working as a journalist in Jordan, Rania Sarayreh would regularly receive online abuse in connection with her journalism.
“When I saw the comments, I saw that no one was talking about my work,” says Rania, who was a senior editor at national newspaper Al-Ghad.
“They were talking about my appearance. ‘You are fat, ugly’, ‘You need to lose weight’.”
Rania is recalling her experience of reporting on a range of topics in Jordan, including human rights and migrant and labour laws. The issues she covered were sometimes sensitive.
In one case, after she was interviewed on TV about a legal amendment, she received comments saying she did not need to talk about such issues, because there are men to do that.
“It was very devastating for me,” she says.
Across the world, Rania’s experiences are now common among female journalists. An International Center for Journalists (ICFJ) report, commissioned by UNESCO and published in 2022, found that 73 percent of women journalist respondents from 15 countries had experienced online violence. One in five said they had been attacked or abused offline in incidents connected to online abuse.
In this context, and in various countries, embassies of Media Freedom Coalition member countries have sought to provide support – both directly to women journalists, as well as by promoting high-quality coverage of issues that particularly affect women.
In Jordan, the embassies’ approach was to help raise the profile of online gender-based violence and provide a safe space to discuss the fast-evolving digital reality women journalists have to navigate, including the presence of mis- or disinformation, as well as the opportunities that artificial intelligence can provide.
On the occasion of World Press Freedom Day 2023, the Canadian and Dutch Embassies in Jordan convened a panel discussion on the risks facing women journalists and the importance of providing support, such as legal aid and digital security. Rania joined the panel, alongside other media experts from Arabi Facts Hub and Arab Reporters for Investigative Journalism , who also discussed the challenges of mis- and disinformation in this context, the critical role that fact checkers play and the need to promote media and digital literacy in the region.
Talking about the issues is important in itself. A study conducted in 2022 by the Jordanian Network to Combat Digital Violence Against Female Journalists as part of a MENA-wide research project implemented by the SecDev Foundation with support from IDRC revealed that nearly 65% of women journalists in Jordan were exposed to digital violence. Such violations forced 36% of those journalists to change their behaviour online and become more careful online.
Rania explained that events like these were helpful – but that it was also important for embassies to use their influence to effect change. “Because they have connection with the government, the decision makers listen to them,” she says.
Meanwhile in Ethiopia, the embassy of the United States partnered with a local university on a training project focused on “strengthening independent media through empowering female journalists”, with about 40 women journalists, and worked with the Ethiopian Media Women Association (EMWA) on a programme concerning press freedom and women journalists’ role in the media, involving more than 50 women from across the country.
In the Philippines, the Dutch embassy provided training for women journalists on working safely, while in Cameroon, the Canadian High Commission partnered with SisterSpeak237 on a project to enhance the capacity of journalists to report on sexual and reproductive health. Among other things, this resulted in a manual for journalists reporting on these issues – available in English and French.
In Mexico the Dutch embassy organised a panel discussion on the challenges faced by women journalists in the country, in the run up to the 2023 International Day to End Impunity for Crimes Against Journalists. Earlier in the year, the Canadian Ambassador in Mexico hosted a tour of a photo exhibition celebrating Indigenous women who advanced the rights of their communities, followed by a discussion on the role of women, including indigenous women, in culture and journalism in Mexico.
Using a national platform
In Bangladesh, the Swedish and Dutch embassies, with national organisation MRDI, helped initiate a national TV talk show with three prominent women journalists on International Women’s Day in March 2023, to talk about women in journalism and gender equity in the media.
Paola Castro Neiderstam is the Second Secretary, Democracy, Human Rights and Gender Equality at the Embassy of Sweden in Bangladesh’s capital Dhaka. Sweden is an MFC member and frequently takes part in joint actions of embassies in Bangladesh. She says, “It is important to flag issues of media freedom in Bangladesh and the level of women in journalism”, to show its consequences for society and democracy.
Featuring these issues on a national TV programme helped to put these issues in front of a large audience. A programme like this is “one of the tools in the toolbox,” says Paola. “As a coalition we need to look at what we need to do, what our inputs and impacts are – preferably collectively. We need to reach different audiences.”
From Sweden’s perspective, Paola adds that “gender equality is fundamental in our foreign policy. Our strategy is quite clear that it is mainstreamed in everything we do”. She added that Bangladesh has made some important advancements, for example the number of women in public life, and noted that there is space for public debate on such issues.
But she adds women face a range of challenges in newsrooms: “News journalism is a male dominated sphere, so from a work perspective it’s not very attractive for women. Women say that it’s very tough to get in. Sexual harassment is a big problem in the newsroom and in the field.”
Standing against bullying and disinformation
These are all challenges that Angur Nahar Monty knows well. Monty is a Special Correspondent at the Daily Kalbela, a leading daily newspaper in Bangladesh, and the founder of the Women Journalists Network, Bangladesh (WJNB).
Alongside a pressurised environment for all journalists, women face bullying and disinformation used against them, she said.
“Sometimes people attack and make fake news, with lots of video clips posted online,” Monty says. “That becomes hell for female journalists.
“There are lots of cases of this. One colleague had a naked video with her face put on it. They circulate it online and say, ‘See what she is doing’.”
The public, Monty says, often “still do not know about online harassment. They think what is shown there is true.”
Meanwhile, says Monty, women journalists “don’t know where to go with their trauma. We have lots of journalist platforms and unions in Bangladesh but not support for female harassment. Nobody puts their voice out and supports them.”
That’s why support from MFC embassies is so important, says Monty, who has ongoing discussions with the MFC’s embassy network there.
“It’s really important because otherwise there is no platform for women,” she says.
Through the embassies she feels “there is someone with me if I have any problems or challenges, someone who will talk on behalf of me. That is great for all journalists.”
Monty adds, “We have to speak about harassment and let people know. If you are afraid you will self-censor.”
The gender imbalance in media industries can act as a disincentive for women to try to progress in their careers.
In Jordan, Rania says women are regularly overlooked for more senior roles and more serious reporting issues, with male decision makers giving positions to male journalists.
“When you ask editors why they choose the man they say because he will always be available, you are female, married, you have kids,” she says.
“They don’t ask whether you think you can manage the work. They make the decision for you.”
Research by the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism found that of 240 media brands across 12 countries, only 22 percent of top editors were women, despite the fact that, on average, 40 percent of journalists were women. In Mexico, only five percent of top editorial positions were held by women.
Rania sees it as a problem for Jordan’s media industry: “It is problematic because you are foregoing a huge power by forbidding women from contributing.”