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Women journalists as human rights defenders

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Image: Global Media Monitoring Project/WACC Global

With the #MeToo movement igniting global dialogue about the violence that women and girls face, some have noticed an uptick in news stories about women -- at least when it comes to issues around sexual harassment, especially involving the famous.

It hasn't always been this way. It also remains to be seen whether this will continue, and whether this has changed the way media reports not just about violence against women, but women in general, particularly those who are marginalized.

In the last two decades, there has been a decline in attention to gender-based violence in the news media, according to the Global Media Monitoring Project (GMMP). Fewer news stories have focused on gender violence, including issues such as rape, sexual assault, family violence, violence based on culture, female genital mutilation and trafficking.

At the same time, however, we are seeing progressively higher proportions of women as sources in stories about gender-based violence. In 2005, women were 38 per cent of the people seen, heard or spoken about in the stories, compared to 46 per cent in 2015, a rise of almost 10 points in 10 years, according to the GMMP.

And yet, fewer stories in the news are being reported by women journalists. In 2010, they reported 41 per cent of the stories, compared to 30 per cent in 2015, a fall of more than 10 points in five years. The figure is only slightly higher in Canada at 43 per cent. "Very few" stories in Canadian news media challenged gender stereotypes with 18 per cent in celebrity, arts, media and sport; 11 per cent in science and technology and 10 per cent in crime and violence," according to the 2015 GMMP report.

While the gender dimensions in the quality of reporting are more or less similar between women and men journalists, there is one exception: the stories by women journalists are more likely to be anchored in a human rights or gender equality policy framework, than those by men journalists.

As the East and Horn of Africa Human Rights Defenders Project notes, "By acting as witnesses, fighting for the right of free expression, and alerting the world to human rights abuses, journalists become human rights defenders in their own right."

Journalism that falls within the purview of "human rights defence practice" is ethical -- it challenges stereotypes and provides a more balanced and just worldview. When reporting on gender-based violence, it breaks through the silence that often surrounds these criminal acts of rape, assault and murder -- a silence that supports a status quo, which minimizes and excuses the impact of violence, and endangers women everywhere.

Women journalists who cover gender-based violence stories ethically are human rights defenders who more likely than not are burdened by their own experiences of it.

Reporting on gender violence compounds the challenges that women journalists face. Women journalists face disproportionate risk of violence and intimidation, at times targeted for daring to speak, and exposed to gender-based harassment and violence on the field and in the newsroom.

As human rights defenders of women and girls who have survived gender violence, they face the challenge of fighting for the freedom of expression of their sources, even as they themselves are being silenced through misogynistic attacks in online and offline spaces. Two-thirds of women journalists polled in 2014 said they had experienced "some kind of intimidation, threats or abuse in relation to their work."  Most never reported these incidents, even though a majority of said it had psychologically affected them, for fear of repercussions on their professional and personal lives.

On the other hand, being women journalists offers opportunities to reach more women and girls affected by gender-based violence. While women represent at least three-quarters of those who experience gender-based violence, only less than half of those interviewed or the subject of stories are women.

Enabling women journalists to do their jobs requires support from states, media institutions, and civil society organizations.

Sarah Macharia is WACC Global's manager for gender and communication. She also coordinates the Global Media Monitoring Project of WACC. WACC Global is an international NGO that promotes communication as a basic human right, essential to people's dignity and community.

Image: Global Media Monitoring Project/WACC Global

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