William Bird and Avani Singh | Protecting women journalists essential for democracy, media freedom

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There is an urgent need for action and accountability to protect women journalists, write the authors.
There is an urgent need for action and accountability to protect women journalists, write the authors.

Women journalists face the double burden of being attacked as journalists and women. William Bird and Avani Singh break down incidences where this has happened and look at potential solutions to prevent it.

Freedom of expression is central to any democratic society. Indeed, the freedom to speak one's mind is an inherent quality of the type of society contemplated by the Constitution.

Journalists play a fundamental role in realising the right to freedom of expression and other constitutional rights and values. But the reality for many women journalists is that gender-based violence and harassment, both on- and offline, is used to intimidate and silence them, posing threats to media freedom and media plurality.

The Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE) noted that women journalists face a "double burden": being attacked as journalists and as women. According to the OSCE, "In extreme cases, these attacks lead to self-censorship or worse: women retreating from the public sphere, leaving the male-dominated field of journalism with even fewer female voices."

A recent report by the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation (UNESCO) has highlighted that the attacks on women journalists can range from harassment, stigmatisation, sexist hate speech, trolling, physical assault, rape, to even murder.

Moreover, studies have shown that female journalists are targeted online significantly more than their male colleagues and that the threats they face are highly sexualised, focusing on their physical features, ethnicity or cultural background rather than on the content of their work.

In honour of Women's Day, which was marked on Monday, we must take time to reflect on the society we want to be part of based on the constitutional values of human dignity, equality, non-racialism and non-sexism, we cannot ignore the lived realities of many female journalists in the course and scope of their duties in delivering the news to the public.


According to reflections by journalist Pontsho Piliane, "dealing with harassment is part of the job" for women journalists. Pilane explains that she often has to be accompanied by a male counterpart to perform her duties:

"In mid-2013, I accompanied our (male) editor to Alexandra township to cover a story about allegations that ballot papers had been tampered with during the national election. The township had erupted in violence as a result. Every time we separated even just for a minute I would get unsolicited advances from the men that I was interviewing.

"Their advances ranged from asking me out on a date or for my phone number while scanning me from head to toe.  Some said they would only talk to them if I accepted their advances. One man threatened to stone my editor; among his many sexist remarks, he said 'Ufeba nalabelungu, ubaletha ekasi lethu' (You are whoring around with these white people and bring them to our neighbourhood). His contempt and anger were directed at me.

 "Nothing was different in Marikana or has been in any other place I have reported. Men continuously feel the need to objectify me no matter how professional I try to be. While covering Marikana, a man pulled down his pants and exposed himself to me; it was this incident that motivated us even more strongly to start #sexistSA."

Pilane notes, "I felt I was unable to do my job efficiently because of such harassment".  According to Pilane, all the other women journalists she spoke to had the same concerns and their own stories about being harassed on the job, with the situation being worse for black journalists than for others. In Pilane's words: 

"Our experiences are not made special because we are journalists and because this is just an occupational hazard. The issue here is gender-specific violence and the fact that women of colour, especially black women, bear the brunt of the violence."

Harassment does not only take place reporting from the field.

New research from Women in News on sexual harassment in African media organisations has revealed that one in two women has suffered sexual harassment in the workplace. Of this, only 30% of these cases are reported because of fear of retaliation and a lack of faith that their organisations will do anything about their reports.

As noted by Women in News, the numbers support this thinking: the research found that of the cases reported, organisations took action only 42% of the time. The research notes further that stamping out the vice is further complicated by the fact that two out of five times, the person is a person in authority. To make matters worse, the issues highlighted are echoed in research Media Monitoring Africa (MMA) carried out in 2014, indicating that little has changed in the intervening seven years.

Physical violence and condonation

In September 2020, eNCA reporter Nobesuthu Hejana was reportedly pushed and shoved by members of the Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF). In response to this, a senior member of the EFF, Mbuyiseni Ndlozi, condoned the violence in a tweet, stating that: "I really do not see harassment here. 

Merely touching her is not harassment. 

The touch has to be violent, invasive, or harmful to become harassment".

READ | Gender Commission to investigate EFF's Ndlozi over tweet about harassment of journalist

The South African National Editors' Forum (SANEF) responded with a statement demanding an apology to Hejana and the women of South Africa. Describing the tweet as "misogynistic", SANEF expressed concern that: "While it is unacceptable for anyone to be touching another person without their consent, in a country like ours, with alarming cases of gender-based violence, it is horrifying that a member of Parliament finds it okay for a group of men, to be harassing a woman. It is equally horrific that Ndlozi thinks it is okay to tell women what constitutes harassment." 

SANEF noted that women journalists have reported being groped, sexually harassed and reported lude comments being made of them. SANEF consequently called on all political leaders – both male and female – to urge their supporters to respect women journalists and allow them to do their work in safety, free from intimidation and harassment.

Online defamation

Earlier this year, SANEF noted "the harrowing online attack on another female journalist by a senior politician."

In this instance, the President of the African National Congress (ANC) Women's League, Bathabile Dlamini, singled out journalist Qaanitah Hunter on Twitter following a story authored by Hunter titled "Bathabile Dlamini faces resistance over calls for ANCWL to support Magashule". In her tweets, Dlamini accused Hunter of deliberately "spreading lies" and being "bankrolled" by a "Master" to "destroy the ANC". Her tweets further referred to Hunter as "misogynistic" and "an insult to the struggle for women's emancipation", and labelled her as an "information peddler".

As explained by SANEF, there is ample evidence to show that the naming and targeting of journalists online lead to further harassment and intimidation by political party supporters, sometimes physical or in the form of death threats. 

In response to the tweets, News24's lawyers called for an unconditional retraction of the accusations and for an apology to be published on Twitter and other platforms, noting the defamatory nature of the statements.

Trolling and disinformation

Ferial Haffajee has also highlighted how she and other journalists who had written at length about state capture had been victims of trolling on social media.  For instance, Haffajee was linked to a tweet purporting to be from the Huffington Post, which said: "Ferial Haffajee: #Gordhan is clearly WMC stooge, going out of his way to clip wings of #Guptas #Oakbay". The rest of the account comprised retweets of other posts that accused Pravin Gordhan of being a stooge for white monopoly capital and controlling certain journalists, including Haffajee. Another post, on a fake City Press website, has a picture of a woman sitting on a man's lap with Haffajee and businessman Johann Rupert's faces photo-shopped onto the bodies.

According to Haffajee, this has been an ongoing campaign. Haffajee noted that: 

"It's all coming from what's called an automated Twitterbot, so it's a very orchestrated propaganda campaign."

Despite having reported this to Twitter, Haffajee noted that there are so many thousands that it becomes a very difficult thing to do. Haffajee also received a response from Twitter stating that: "Twitter allows parody, commentary, and fan accounts … in full compliance with our parody, commentary, fan account policy".  

In Haffajee's words:

"Technology has made it really simple to create fake sites, and they're not parodies ... These are actual fake news sites meant to deceive the public. All you need is a free design tool on a computer and not even very great skills if you look at some of the work. So technology has made it cheap to do. I think we're just in an era of fake news now, where people either want to sow confusion and propaganda or they have a specific purpose."

Haffajee urged all journalists and media houses to start analysing the accounts and noted that it would be worth engaging Twitter in a more coherent form to assess and show them the extent of the problem.


Doxing refers to revealing personal or private information online, usually with malicious intent. In March 2019, journalist Karima Brown erroneously sent a WhatsApp message to a group created by the EFF, referring to an EFF event and stating: "Keep an eye out for this. Who are these elders. Are they all male and how are they chosen. Keep watching brief."

The same day, Julius Malema published a screenshot of the erroneously-sent message on Twitter, which included Brown's name and personal mobile telephone number, which Malema circled in black. In his tweet, Malema claimed that Brown was "sending moles" to the EFF event; and the following day, a statement was issued on behalf of the EFF claiming that Brown was an operative for the ANC and not a legitimate journalist. The EFF also published a statement on its Facebook page, repeating the claims that Brown was an ANC operative and a state agent.

READ | Journalist Karima Brown wins case against EFF

Following the tweet and the statement, Brown received a barrage of anonymous threatening telephone calls and written threats on Twitter and WhatsApp from self-professed EFF supporters, including deplorable insults and threats of rape, violence and death. Although Malema held a press conference thereafter stating that no person should be threatened with rape and violent crime, he maintained that Brown was not a legitimate journalist and was working as a state intelligence operative. Malema refused to delete the post and condemn the threats, despite requests from journalists, and only removed the post when Twitter threatened him with the termination of his account.

In its judgment on the case instituted by Brown, the Electoral Court held that the failure by the EFF to admonish their supporters "falls short of what a reasonable person would consider reasonable in all circumstances [because] when requested to intervene and instruct their followers on Twitter to stop their harassment of Ms Brown, the EFF ignored the requests and Mr Malema refused to do so. The Electoral Court also stressed that the EFF's conduct "exhibited scant regard for the fact that Ms Brown, as a woman, was especially vulnerable to threats of rape and violence in a society in which gender-based violence is prevalent."

Need for action and accountability

Democracy can only thrive when a plurality of voices of heard, but with increasing attacks on women journalists, plurality is at risk. 

As noted by UNESCO, attacks on female journalists have the possibility of silencing their voices and depleting freedom of expression by interrupting the vital work being done, distorting the media landscape by threatening diversity, and perpetuating inequalities both in newsrooms and societies. The examples set out above are not exhaustive, and the focus on female journalists should not be seen to detract from the experiences of other groups within the journalistic community, such as non-binary journalists. Violence against any member of the media, be it on- or offline, cannot and should not be tolerated.

There is an urgent need for action and accountability. This is one of the reasons that MMA established the Real411 platform in order to ensure that online attacks against journalists could be reported and investigated.  While South Africa does have legal frameworks in place to deal with many of the harms being perpetrated, there remains a shortfall when it comes.

It is important to emphasise that the state has both positive and negative obligations when it comes to press freedom. While it is well-established in our law that the state cannot unjustifiably infringe on the work of the media, less attention has been paid to the positive steps that the state is obliged to take to create an enabling environment for the media to thrive. For example, the European Court of Human Rights (ECtHR) has held that the right to freedom of expression requires states "to create, while establishing an effective system of protection of journalists, a favourable environment for participation in public debate by all persons concerned, enabling them to express their opinions and ideas without fear, even if they run counter to those defenced by political authorities or by a significant part of public opinion, or even irritating or shocking to the latter". 

According to the ECtHR, "interference with freedom of expression may have a 'chilling effect' on the exercise of that freedom … and this is more so in cases of serious crimes committed against journalists, making it of utmost importance for the authorities to check a possible connection between the crime and the journalist's professional activity."

In our view, this positive obligation would similarly be applicable to the South African government given our constitutional framework and guarantee of the right to freedom of expression. Further to this, we need to see the police and prosecuting authority being appropriately capacitated with the necessary training and resources to be able to effectively (and sensitively) respond to attacks on female journalists, whether such attacks take place on- or offline.

Social media platforms

Constitutionally-mandated bodies, such as the South African Human Rights Commission and the Commission for Gender Equality, also have a crucial role to play in assisting journalists who have been subjected to such attacks. Parliament, political parties and independent candidates should also come to the fore in condemning attacks against journalists. As we head to elections, we ask that you make it a point to ask your candidate and party where they stand on attacks on women journalists and what they have done to act against them.

Another crucial role-player in securing an effective response is the social media platforms themselves, who should be called upon to act swiftly and responsibly in investigating relevant complaints, including by establishing a dedicated reporting line for journalists to log complaints that will be treated in an expedited manner.

Social media platforms need to urgently allocate meaningful resources to combat trolling behaviour, both through the use of open and accountable artificial intelligence as well as through ongoing campaigns across their platforms. There should also be ongoing campaigns to promote freedom of expression and gender justice. 

Media organisations can also do more to support their women journalists. This includes assisting with appropriate legal action when needed, providing psycho-social support, and supporting women journalists in circumstances where they do not feel safe or comfortable. Media organisations should also be allies to each other and use their platforms to highlight the plight of female journalists when threats and harassment occur.


While the challenge is significant, it is not insurmountable. There is a role for each of us to play by showing solidarity with the female journalists when such attacks occur and countering the harmful narratives that persist. 

Members of the public can also report the harassment of journalists to Real411. If we are to remain committed to democracy, press freedom and media plurality, then we must take a stand in support of female journalists without delay.


- Avani Singh is the Director of ALT Advisory and Power Singh Incorporated.

William Bird is the Director of Media Monitoring Africa

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