Abuja, Nigeria – On September 22, 2020, while filming, indigenous Guatemalan journalist Andrea Ixchíu Hernández was attacked shortly after exposing illegal loggers operating in the Totonicapán forest.
“One of them hit me in the head, the other in the chest and the knee,” she tells CNN, recounting the incident from her home in Totonicapán, in the highlands of the western Guatemala.
“Fortunately, while one of these attackers was trying to hit me with his machete, one of the rangers managed to push it back and that’s how I escaped. Basically he saved my life.
Ixchíu Hernández’s ribs were broken and she was bedridden for two months. She also suffered spinal injuries. “I’m still getting over it. It was really horrible and really violent, ”she says, her voice strained as she recounts the incident. “Talking about it, I realize again how dangerous it was.”
The physical assault she suffered that day might not have been premeditated, but it wasn’t unimaginable either. Ixchíu Hernández had already been the victim of years of online threats – attempts to humiliate her and silence her.
“I have been dealing with this since 2012. I have a long history of different ways and times in Guatemala where I have been confronted with digital threats,” she says before explaining further: “I have been confronted with to situations where people attacked me on Twitter and Facebook, [and sharing] disinformation [about me] on Whatsapp. Once in my hometown, one of these men printed a meme with rumors against me and my family and spread it in the public square and local market. “
The Maltese investigative journalist had become an international prominence for her reports which revealed that her island’s elites were benefiting from offshore tax havens as part of the Panama Papers leaks.
On October 17, 2017, just half an hour after posting a blog post about allegations of corruption at the heart of the Maltese government, the 53-year-old woman was killed by a car bomb in a small town called Bidnija.
“During the first few years, she received threats over the phone; later it turned into a concerted campaign of offline and online harassment. My father, my brothers and I were targeted in an attempt to silence her. Our companion dogs were killed, our house was set alight … Not protected by Maltese institutions, including the police force and the courts, killing her was not only desirable, but also possible. ”
Sadly, the two women’s stories – from online harassment that culminates in offline violence – are not exceptional.
The report, which is based on a global survey of 901 journalists in 125 countries, 173 other interviews and two big data case studies analyzing 2.5 million posts on Facebook and Twitter, concludes that “women journalists are both the main targets of online violence and online violence. first responders. Moreover, a journalist’s race, sexual orientation and religion expose her to “even more frequent attacks and vitriol.”
Referring to its respondents, compared to 64% of white female journalists, 81% of female journalists identifying as black, 86% of identifying as indigenous, and 88% of female journalists identifying Jewish said they had been victims of online violence, that the report defines as “misogynistic the harassment, abuse and threats, breaches of digital privacy and security that increase the physical risks associated with online violence and the coordinated disinformation campaigns that leverage misogyny and ‘other forms of hate speech “.
The authors add: “A similar trend can be observed when analyzing the survey data from the perspective of sexual orientation: while 72% of heterosexual women indicated that they had been targeted in attacks. Online, the exposure rates of those who identified as lesbian and bisexual were much higher – at 88% and 85% respectively. “
On an individual level, violence has not only a physical but also a psychological and emotional impact. Beyond issues of individual security, the ICFJ and UNESCO study reveals that attacks on women journalists reveal a lasting misogyny that spills over to the most powerful in society – political leaders – and which threatens democracy itself.
Also in the report: “Another major issue highlighted is the role of political actors – including presidents and elected representatives, party officials and members – in the establishment and development of online violence campaigns against women journalists. “
“Online violence against women journalists is designed to: demean, humiliate and shame; arouse fear, silence and withdraw; discredit them professionally, undermining accountability journalism and confidence in the facts; and cool their active participation … in public debate. amounts to an attack on democratic deliberation and media freedom … It cannot afford to be normalized or tolerated as an inevitable aspect of online discourse. ”
So what does the remedy look like? At the individual level, Sherry Ricchiardi-Folwell, director of the DART Center for Journalism and Trauma Affiliate Program at Indiana University, and worked as a media trainer from Pakistan to Ethiopia, discusses the need to create spaces for women journalists. to talk about their experiences.
Ricchiardi-Folwell explains that due to the often sexualized nature of assaults, women remain silent about their harassment, leading them to believe that they are alone. Talking helps to counter feelings of isolation.
Next, media employers have a role to play in making sure their journalists are safe on their platforms and in recognizing how exposure to online or offline attacks can affect a woman’s confidence.
Folajaiye Kareem, a clinical psychologist in Abuja, Nigeria, points out that feeling ostracized and fearful of further attacks, women journalists may avoid reporting the very stories they deem important and fear taking on leadership positions.
“If you look at this, it means traumatic responses, so they’re anxious and anticipating that they’ll be harassed because of a story. This can lead them to let go to defend themselves, ”he says.
The ICFJ / UNESCO report outlines 28 recommendations in total, including “making social media companies more clearly accountable in addressing online violence against women journalists” and “recognizing and addressing the role of officials active in the facilitation and large-scale orchestration and ongoing online attacks against women journalists. “
For Ixchíu Hernández, the support networks have been invaluable to her recovery and resilience as she continues to report on the destruction of biodiversity in Guatemala. “Caring for my family, the support of my neighbors and the indigenous authorities in my community give me the strength to continue,” she says.
“But editors need to understand that women make great explorers, researchers and interviewers precisely because most of those with a lot of power still tend to be men – who better than women to understand and find out what do these men really do? ” she asks.
“We’re less likely to excuse them precisely because we’re not at the traditional old boys clubs.”
If you have been affected by any of the issues mentioned in this story or the audio testimonials, seek help – you are not alone. A directory of resources and international hotlines is provided by the International Association for Suicide Prevention. You can also turn to Befrienders Worldwide.
Edited by Eliza Anyangwe. Audio files edited by Corinne Chin. Design and development by Peter Robertson and Byron Manley.
Header image credits, top left: Aida Alami / Ferial Haffajee / Jessikka Aro by Laura Pohjavirta, Finnish broadcasting company / Maria Ressa by Franz Lopez, Rappler. Bottom left: Andrea Ixchíu / Natalia Żaba / Nana Ama Agyemang Asante / Zaina Erhaim.