A RANKING official of an international press freedom watchdog has warned that “online harassment is a phenomenon that is spreading throughout the world and now constitutes one of the gravest threats to press freedom” and women journalists have borne the brunt of the cyber abuse.
Reporters Without Borders (RSF) released Thursday, July 26, the report, “Online harassment of journalists: the troll attacks,” which raises concerns about the scale of what it calls “the mass harassment of journalists online.”
RSF said whether the online attacks were conducted by individual or groups of “haters” or by “troll armies” employed by authoritarian governments, “the goal is the same, to silence journalists whose reporting annoys, often using exceptionally abusive methods.”
In a statement accompanying the report’s release, Christophe Deloire, RSF secretary-general, said: “We have discovered that information wars are not just waged between countries at the international level. Journalism’s predators also deploy troll armies to hunt down and harass all those who investigate and report the facts honestly. These despots let their mercenaries train their guns on journalists on the virtual terrain as others do in actual war zones.”
In all, RSF said it had “investigated and documented cases of online harassment of journalists in 32 countries, shedding light on hate campaigns orchestrated by authoritarian or oppressive regimes in such countries as China, India, Turkey, Vietnam, Iran and Algeria.”
The Philippines was also mentioned prominently in the RSF report, which documented the troll attacks on Maria Ressa, CEO of online news outfit Rappler, which RSF said is the “target of judicial harassment,” an obvious reference to the Securities and Exchange Commission’s decision to revoke its license to operate, which is being appealed.
RSF said other Filipino journalists critical of the administration “have been constantly targeted since Rodrigo Duterte’s election as president in 2016.”
Duterte himself has openly displayed contempt for media and has threatened other news outfits, such as broadcast network ABS-CBN and the owners of the Philippine Daily Inquirer.
It said the online attacks on journalists often take place in three stages:
• Disinformation: journalistic content on social networks is drowned in a flood of fake news and pro-government content;
• Amplification: the impact of pro-government content is artificially enhanced by commentators who are paid by the government to post messages on social networks or by bots, computer programmes that automatically generate posts;
• Intimidation: journalists are personally targeted, insulted and threatened, in order to discredit them and reduce them to silence.
“The consequences are often dramatic,” RSF said, noting many victims “had ended up censoring themselves in response to the torrents of online abuse, the scale of which they had never imagined possible.”
The group also said, “women journalists are affected the most by cyberharassment.”
“Two-thirds of women journalists have been the victims of harassment and, in 25 percent of the cases, the harassment occurred online,” it said.
The RSF report includes 25 recommendations for governments, the international community, online platforms, media outlets and advertisers, as well as a tutorial on digital security for journalists.