Journalists have been facing unprecedented levels of harassment from far-right extremists. The most common victims of this online violence are women and women of colour. As intimidation tactics intensify, some advocates are calling on newsrooms to adopt strong policies that will protect media workers and defend press freedom.
In August, journalists Rachel Gilmore from Global News, Erica Ifill from The Hill Times and Saba Eitizaz from the Toronto Star shared sexist and racist hate messages and threats they were sent. The journalists’ employers worked with the Canadian Association of Journalists (CAJ) to pen a letter to police chiefs in Ottawa and Toronto.
“There have always been hate comments but things have changed since February,” said Charelle Evelyn, managing editor at The Hill Times.
Evelyn said that the so-called “Freedom Convoy” has made some far-right extremists feel comfortable spreading threats and hate messages.
Online harassment a part of a bigger problem
CAJ, The Hill Times, Global News and the Toronto Star asked in their letter that media organizations be given a formal role in handling these instances of online violence, that police keep victims updated on the progress of investigations and that these cases be examined as part of a larger problem, instead of being seen as individual isolated cases.
These demands were reiterated in an open letter to Prime Minister Justin Trudeau that was published on the CAJ’s website on September 1.
Beyond calls to action directed at the police and the federal government, some people in the journalism world are also examining how to strengthen protections at newsrooms.
Journalists are workers too, and some union representatives are thinking about what could be included in collective bargaining.
Martin O’Hanlon, president of Communications Workers of America Canada (CWA Canada) said that newsrooms need to do more than just meet their legal obligations to protect workers.
“The main thing we encourage them to do is be more progressive and do more than the bare minimum,” said O’Hanlon. “Not just legal obligations but training for staff, security and counseling.”
Few protections for freelancers
Nora Loreto, the president of Unifor’s Canadian Freelance Union (CFU) said that for those who are not formally part of a newsroom, such as freelancers, the protections are significantly lower.
“The first time I was being harassed, people were trying to harass me out of journalism,” Loreto said. “They targeted my bylines in Maclean’s and The Globe and Mail, neither corporation had my back.”
Loreto said that newsrooms need to have all reporters’ backs and be prepared to provide support when they receive hate.
“Regardless of employment status, we need resources. That can be more time, it can be letting us take a break or giving us access to other email addresses so that our emails don’t become unusable because of harassment,” Loreto said.
Protecting journalists will require cooperation
Kiran Nazish, the founding director of the Coalition for Women in Journalism (CFWIJ), said that harassment of women and marginalized journalists is not a new issue. Nazish said that in September 2021, CFWIJ had hosted roundtable discussions with journalists facing harassment and laid out recommendations that newsrooms could follow.
“Every newsroom is different,” Nazish said, “and we understand that there are smaller newsrooms that can do different kinds of work in terms of policy changes and structural changes. Bigger newsrooms can do different kinds of work depending on their resources.”
Despite differences in capacity from newsroom to newsroom, Nazish said that the general recommendations are to create a committee to handle harassment, put aside money in the budget to protect journalists and to work collectively with other publications when journalists experience online violence.
Nazish said a committee would be able to come together regularly to brainstorm how to handle these incidents, how to protect the victims and how to best communicate with the public that one of their journalists experienced online violence. An anti-harassment budget can be put towards mentorship or mental health resources, she added. Lastly CFWIJ recommended working collectively with other newsrooms because often when these attacks happen, they happen to multiple journalists in multiple newsrooms.
“One thing that newsrooms do, which is very harmful and very archaic, is work independently in silos,” Nazish said. “If CBC is going through something they would not do any kind of support work, assistance or talk about it. I think there needs to be an ecosystem of support between newsrooms. When there’s a journalist in any community, whether they’re freelancers or working with opposition media or competitor media, there should be an ecosystem and a unified support system for all journalists.”
Nazish said she saw newsrooms beginning to discuss this issue last year but they did not follow through on actions CFWIJ recommended. Seeing the energy to mobilize dissipate was disappointing, according to Nazish and she said she is not surprised that the cycle of violence continues since action stopped at discussion.
“Journalism is getting affected and the way we tell stories is getting affected. Journalists are being mindful about whether they should tell a story or not depending on how much they will be targeted,” Nazish said. “We have journalists telling us that they have to do this calculation on whether they should pursue a story or not, because they will be targeted in the face of no support. That’s concerning.”
Beyond the newsroom, journalists are saying they need systemic change. For the CAJ, The Hill Times, Global News and Toronto Star, this systemic solution lies in policing. Their letter outlined ways they believe police can work more closely with newsrooms to prevent this type of violence.
Brent Jolly, national president of the CAJ, pointed to the example of the Council of Europe who examined the threat to democracy that is created by attacks on journalists.
“They created a really decent model for Canada to think about having a lot more collaboration, a lot more openness and dialogue between all of the different parties and different stakeholders,” Jolly said. “I think that that’s something really important because the future of our democracy here is at stake.”
However, for the CFWIJ and the CFU, police are not the solution. They point to attacks on journalists covering Indigenous issues as evidence of police contributing to the suppression of media.
“What’s happening internally in police institutions in different cities across Canada is that they’re disconnected from that reality,” Nazish said. “They treat journalists as outsiders. They think that they can tell a journalist to go away, or they can be violent towards a journalist. The reality is that in a democratic country, that cannot be legal.”
Nazish urged police to follow-through on the letter that were sent to them by the CAJ and affected newsrooms.
Loreto from the CFU said that the solution does not lie in policing at all.
“Police are not our friends and they are not friends with marginalized people, they are not friends with anybody who’s challenging power, and are certainly not friends to an industry that is supposed to be there to hold them to account,” Loreto said.
The non-policing solution to this issue is to understand where far-right extremism comes from, Loreto said. She explained that people turn to far-right communities due to their material conditions and as long as those conditions are not addressed, they will retreat further into these hateful spaces.
“When you have a society that absolutely throws out the most marginalized, that offers death rather than offering people a place to live, the impact is going to be people mobilizing on the far right,” Loreto said. “We have to look much broader at this issue and see how austerity, the affordability crisis, the fact that COVID has broken so many people’s brains and the governments of every province and the federal government are pretending nothing happened, is going to make people be on the brink of reality. While the vast majority of people will not go to violence, there will be some people that choose violence. We have to address the material conditions of society.”
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