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Art against racism, “communicational hegemony”, and what we must do to make it safer for women journalists (Demo)

A holistic approach to challenges faced by women journalists

On 7 July, Brazilian journalist Bianca Santana reported to the United Nations on attacks she received from President Jair Bolsonaro, and denounced the fact that, since he took office, women journalists have been attacked at least 54 times by the president or his ministers. Dozens of civil society organisations supported her statement, including IFEX member ARTIGO 19 Brazil. 

Santana’s testimony was part of an interactive dialogue with Dubravka Šimonović, the United Nations Special Rapporteur on violence against women, who presented a report on violence against women journalists to the Human Rights Council in Geneva this month. 

In her report, Šimonović seeks to build on the existing human rights standards to offer a more holistic approach to addressing the specific challenges faced by women journalists, as well as their causes. 

The report emphasizes that while men and women journalists are both exposed to violence and threats to their safety in the course of their work, women journalists are disproportionately targeted by gender-based violence and sexual harassment, both within the workplace and online. Since 1992, 96 women journalists have been killed while doing their jobs. More male journalists die every year, but women journalists face sexual assault and rape, and particularly the threat of rape, used as a tool to undermine their credibility and discourage them from working in the media. Women journalists are expected to fit into stereotyped roles, and sexualized images of women and to operate within unequal power relationships between men and women in the media world. 

Šimonović calls attention to the fact that many women journalists also face intersectional discrimination and gender-based violence because of other characteristics such as race, religion, ethnicity or minority affiliation.

She also points out that the failure to address online threats can be fatal, as is demonstrated by attacks on and murders of women journalists that were preceded by online hate campaigns and threats. 

Online and offline harassment and abuse of women journalists are reflective of broader issues of sexism in society. The Special Rapporteur’s work lays the foundation for states to establish an appropriate human rights framework, including through the development of policies or strategies to ensure the protection of women journalists.

States’ obligations in the area entail the adoption of a gender perspective in all initiatives aimed at creating and maintaining a safe and favourable environment for free and independent journalism. Here are some of the specific recommendations to states she then draws from these obligations:

  • Prohibit and criminalize sexual harassment and other forms of gender-based  violence against women journalists, including threats of rape and other forms of gender-based violence such as online or ICT-facilitated forms of violence; 
  • Remove any statute of limitation for prosecution and provide adequate reparations and compensation for victims;
  • Recognize “doxxing” against women journalists as a form of gender-based violence against women; 
  • Address factors that increase the likelihood of violence and harassment in the world of work for women journalists, including discrimination, abuse of power relations and cultural and social norms that support violence and harassment;
  • Create special investigative units or independent commissions, such as media councils and tribunals that are independent of government, to address issues related to women journalists, in particular gender-based violence;
  • Support the establishment by media organizations or civil society of early-warning and rapid-response mechanisms, such as hotlines, online platforms or 24-hour emergency contact points, to ensure that journalists and other media actors have immediate access to protective measures when threatened;
  • Develop protocols and training programmes for police, prosecutors and judges who are responsible for fulfilling state obligations concerning the protection of the freedom of expression and human rights of women journalists and other media actors; 
  • Establish information-gathering mechanisms, such as databases, to permit the gathering of verified information about attacks on and gender-based violence against women journalists;
  • Establish an effective response to online gender-based violence against women journalists and efficient cooperation with Internet intermediaries in that regard.

Art against racism, and defending the right to protest

“[A]gainst censorship and racist violence, we respond with 20 times more art.” 

During Black Awareness Week in July 2019, an art exhibition was held at the Brazilian Congress. It included the work of cartoonist Carlos Latuff that pictured a young Black man, dead, on the floor, handcuffed, and a policeman leaving the scene with a recently used gun in his hands. According to the artist, the work was a critique of a country where 75.4% of those killed by the police are Afro-Brazilians. An elected congressman who was also a colonel in the Military Police destroyed the exhibit. Latuff cartoons in other exhibitions had been censored before. 

One year later, in July 2020, IFEX member ARTIGO 19 Brasil and the Black Coalition for Rights launched a new art exhibition, affirming that: “against censorship and racist violence we respond with 20 times more art”. 

The exhibition seeks to reaffirm the importance of artistic freedom and the right to protest against racism in Brazil. Twenty works have been selected and can be seen on line. Check them out here:

The other pandemic affecting Latin America

“The ways in which women’s rights can be, and often are, attacked both online and offline are numerous. Harassment faced by Latin American women in public spaces is for instance replicated online, through bullying, doxxing (the practice of researching and publicly disseminating private or personally identifying information about someone) and impersonation. As daily social and economic activities go online with the advance of the COVID-19 pandemic in the region, such types of attack become more common. For women human rights defenders, the global health crisis has also meant facing an increasingly hostile and violent online environment for their work”. 

This is the conclusion of a new study carried out by IFEX member Derechos Digitales. The organisation put together a regional consultation with feminist and digital rights groups to understand the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on their methods of work and knowledge. Cases were collected from Bolivia, Brazil, Chile, Colombia, Ecuador, Guatemala and México. 

Derechos Digitales argues that the protection of digital rights and the development of a feminist internet are central to stem the rise in violence against women.

You can access the full document to learn more about the information collected and Derechos Digitales’ work on the intersections between gender and digital rights here. 

The downfall of the ‘Privacy Shield’

Austrian Max Schrems has been battling for years in the courts over the transfer of his data to the US, arguing that US national security laws do not protect EU citizens from government  surveillance. This July, the European Court of Justice (ECJ) agreed, and the EU/US Privacy Shield – the major agreement governing the transfer of EU citizens’ data to the United States – was struck down.

IFEX member EFF has stated that the “decision is yet another significant indicator that the U.S. government’s foreign intelligence surveillance practices need a massive overhaul” and that the Congress’s inaction in this regard is putting people’s privacy in danger, both within the US and abroad.

Check their full analysis of the ECJ decision here.

Communicational hegemony in Venezuela

This month, Michelle Bachelet, the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights (HCHR), released a report on the situation of human rights in Venezuela, looking at developments since 2018. In a section dedicated to freedom of opinion and expression, she states that “[o]ver the past years, the Government has attempted to impose a communicational hegemony by enforcing its own version of events and creating an environment that curtails independent media”. 

She mentions the numerous radio stations shut down and television channels banned, an increase in the detention of journalists, and the growing relevance of social media and the internet as key means of communication and information for the majority of the population. This situation is of particular concern given the lack of access to the internet in the country. Due to its high cost for a population greatly affected by the economic crisis and lack of investment in infrastructure, a considerable portion of the population have no access to independent news. Bachelet also mentioned the growing attacks on independent news websites. 

The report also looks into the arbitrary detention of people for expressing opinions on social media, and references the work of IFEX member Espacio Publico that reported on 55 persons arbitrarily detained or criminally charged for social media publications in the last 10 years.

Bachelet expresses concerns with the fact that human rights activists and journalists, among others, are frequently the targets of discourse labelling them as “traitors” and “destabilizing agents”. 

Criminalization of such voices has been facilitated by successive laws and reforms, through vague provisions, increased sanctions for acts that are guaranteed by the right of freedom of peaceful assembly, the use of military jurisdiction for civilians, and restrictions on NGOs to represent victims of human rights violations.

Excessive use of force and deaths in the context of anti-government demonstrations have also been documented by OHCHR reports, according to which 66 deaths took place between January and May 2019. Many demonstrators were arbitrarily detained and ill-treated or tortured. Security forces also conducted illegal house-raids targeting demonstrators.

The majority of victims of human rights violations highlighted in the report, according to the OHCHR, have had no effective access to justice and remedies.

At the end of the report, the High Commissioner calls on the government of Venezuela to immediately adopt effective measures to protect human rights defenders, and media professionals; cease and prevent excessive use of force during demonstrations; and allow access to information of public interest. 

Imprisoned journalist dies of COVID-19

In March 2019, Honduran journalist David Romero was arrested and began serving a 10-year sentence for slander and defamation. The Supreme Court convicted him for defaming former prosecutor Sonia Inez Gálvez Ferrari in his journalistic work. On 18 July Romero died of respiratory failure after contracting COVID-19 while imprisoned at the Támara National Penitentiary. Romero’s death is a sad reminder not only of the critical consequences that may result from the use of criminal provisions to tackle defamation allegations, but also of the authorities’ disregard and continued imprisonment of journalists in unsafe conditions in the midst of a global pandemic.

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