Online violence against female journalists threatens free expression

A survey conducted by The Girls Table (TGT) has found that online violence against female journalists is a major threat to the rights to free expression and a safe and secure working environment.

The survey titled, “Effects of gendered disinformation on young women participation in public spaces” looked at the concept of gendered disinformation as part of a broader concept of online violence against women in public spaces.  

TGT said gendered disinformation, which is the intentional and coordinated creation and sharing of false and misleading narratives about people based on their gender with the specific intention to cause harm is increasingly becoming an issue of concern in online spaces as it discourages women from participating in public spaces.  

“In a survey of female journalists in Zimbabwe, 50 percent of respondents indicated that they had faced online violence. One in five also indicated that they had been attacked offline in connection with violence experienced online.  Statistics globally are even higher, with a study, conducted on the incidence of online violence, noting that three-quarters of female journalists experienced online violence in the course of their work,” they said. 

“One in five also indicated that they had been attacked offline in connection with violence experienced online. The biggest consequence of gender-based violence is self-censorship by female journalists who may not be able to do some stories because of victimisation,” they said. 

TGT said when female journalists write stories that seek to hold those in power to account, they are sometimes harassed, and threatened and sometimes have false stories shared about them. 

“Partinella Chingozho, programs officer at Community Voices in Kwekwe has been a target of gendered disinformation when she has written stories about prominent people. In one instance, she highlights a story she wrote about a councillor.” 

They said Journalists working in different communities usually belong to various community WhatsApp groups where they experience high levels of gendered disinformation. 

“According to one female journalist Nelly* (not her real name), ‘most of these fake stories are shared on WhatsApp. You then start to notice that most women in the Midlands do not comment on these WhatsApp groups because they do not want to be labelled as misfits,” said TGT. 

They said the biggest consequence of gender-based violence is self-censorship by female journalists who shy away from some stories because of victimization.  

The organization also noted that when it comes to women in politics, gendered disinformation is used extensively by online actors to discredit and de-legitimize women.  

“In Zimbabwe’s political context, the war is almost between ZANU PF, the current ruling party and CCC, the largest opposition party although intra-party as well as splits within the ruling party and opposition ranks also trigger disinformation. Two coordinated groups in the political spaces, ZANU PF’s Vakarashi and CCC’s Nerrorist/Mazizi (these are some names that they have been described over time) are groups that have been studied and are distinguishable by the way they troll social media users’ posts to discredit the other side,” said TGT.  

TGT said the online actors disrupt conversations with interjections and sometimes drive conversations off-topic.  

“Gendered disinformation becomes a weapon in these Twitter wars which are ‘ no holds barred’ malicious attacks that include fake narratives, insults and mudslinging that paint women in politics on either side as prostitutes who get into positions through sleeping with party leaders and whose role within political parties is sexual or based on their sexual connections with these leaders.”  

TGT said women are attacked based on their age, their looks, the way they dress, their children and spouses and few of these attacks engage with women’s roles in politics.  

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