Cyberbullying must stop

Governments, courts and social media companies have done little to address the problem of gender-based cyberbullying

Updated - August 03, 2020 11:20 am IST

Published - August 03, 2020 12:15 am IST

As I was trying to collate ideas on how journalism could survive during a pandemic, I received a draft petition from the Network of Women in Media (Tamil Nadu chapter) to the Tamil Nadu Chief Minister seeking effective action against a cyberbully engaging in character assassination of women journalists.

Gap between words and deeds

In Tamil Nadu, various groups have documented the multiple acts of harassment by such offenders. These include telling brazen lies, making sexual innuendos, cyberstalking and posting obscenities. But their attempts to get the government to act against these offenders have been consistently thwarted by vested interests. While government representatives and the police make the right noises, there is a huge gap between their words and deeds.

For instance, when the Tamil Nadu Women Journalists Forum filed a complaint against a habitual offender on July 29, the Chennai Police issued a statement that failed to give confidence and courage to women journalists that it would shield them from cyberbullying. The offender was booked and released within a couple of hours. The same thing happened when another compliant was filed last October against him. The police statement read: “During enquiry, the mobile phone used to access the social media, viz. Twitter and Facebook, was seized. The investigation is going on. The general public are advised to maintain decency while posting messages, comments in social media. They are advised not to post hate speech, fake news and defame others.” One member of the Tamil Nadu Women Journalists Forum said in her anguished response: “The City Police’s statement means that the action has been taken against the mobile phone and not its user.” She felt that unless the government makes it clear that it is committed to protecting the dignity and the safety of women journalists, we cannot expect its various arms to act firmly. Hence, the decision to reach out to the Chief Minister.

Among the various reasons to defend the rights of women journalists to have a good working environment that is free from toxic personal attacks, the most important one for me is newsroom diversity. The presence of women journalists in newsrooms was low even in the first decade after India liberalised its economy in 1991. Only in this millennium has the composition of newsrooms become more inclusive. And we cannot permit a few cyberbullies to pull us back to the early centuries.

Disturbing trend

The issue is not restricted to Tamil Nadu or even India; it is a global problem. In June 2019, UNESCO organised a symposium, “Standing Up against online harassment of women journalists — What works?” UNESCO recorded the fact that women journalists face ever-increasing amounts of gender-based threats and attacks, simply for being women. UNESCO’s input for the symposium read: “While the Internet is a valuable tool for journalists to acquire and disseminate information, it is also increasingly being utilized by sexist abusers to commit violence on an unprecedented scale. Insults, public shaming, intimidation, hacking and cyber-stalking are but a few of the types of behaviour that women journalists are systematically confronted with on the Internet. Faced with the growing ubiquity of online harassment, some women journalists are forced to restrict the scope of issues they report on in order to protect themselves.”

While studies since 2012 have been showing a disturbing trend of growing gender-based cyberbullying, unfortunately the governments and courts have done little to address this malady. Women journalist groups have been trying to reach out not only to governments but also to large platform conglomerates like Twitter and Facebook to come up with gender-sensitive algorithms.

On November 2, 2019, the International Day to End Impunity for Crimes against Journalists, a study from International Media Support looked at the status of women in journalism in nine countries across four continents. Titled “The safety of women journalists: Breaking the cycle of silence and violence”, it covered a range of issues that affect women in journalism and documented the growing cases of attacks on the Internet and their impact. All researchers who have been studying journalists’ safety agree that online stalking has profound emotional and physical consequences for women journalists — many women experience long-lasting fear, anxiety and trauma.

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